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USC senior dives deep to pursue her passion for undersea studies

Environmental studies major caps her scientific career at USC Dornsife with a National Science Foundation-funded research project on a unique fish

Madison Guest diving
Senior Madison Guest is participating this summer in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center. (Photo/Courtesy of Madison Guest)

As her father tells it, Madison Guest had a hard time during swimming lessons as a child because she always wanted to dive under the water rather than swim on the surface. It would prove to be an auspicious affinity.

Guest, a Long Beach native and lifelong ocean and nature lover, transferred from a community college to USC — her “dream school” — in 2013. She soon declared an environmental studies (ENST) major and promptly signed up for the Catalina Semester program taught by David Ginsburg, associate professor (teaching) of environmental studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. The course introduces students to scientific ocean diving and coastal ecology through laboratory and field studies on Catalina Island.

“On Catalina we did about a month’s worth of diving training,” she said. “It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, but it felt so natural to me. Ever since then I’ve been pursuing diving and related research.”

Mentored research closer to home

This summer Guest is participating in the “Coastal Ocean Systems and Sustainability” Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center. The REU program, which has received renewed funding from the National Science Foundation, brings a group of undergraduate students to Catalina Island for 10 weeks to conduct individual research projects. Designed to encourage STEM career paths and to help students get into competitive graduate research programs, students work with the guidance of faculty mentors and “near-peer” graduate student mentors doing related research.

Students on boat next to cages

Guest stands with the cages used to analyze sex ratios of Goby fish populations in 49 different reef areas around Catalina Island. (Photo/Diane Kim)

The extremely competitive program — eight students were selected from 200 national applicants — provides undergraduates like Guest with hands-on research experience, the opportunity to present their research to the local scientific community, academic and career advising, professional development workshops and field trips to explore the island’s unique ecosystems.

“The REU is such a productive program in training the next generation of scientists,” said Diane Kim, undergraduate programs administrator at the USC Wrigley Institute and REU collaborator. “Along with the independent research projects, we provide research seminars and professional development workshops how to apply to graduate school and CV development.”

Putting it all together

An experienced diver, Guest is now working on her Divemaster certification. Her interest in marine conservation and fisheries, sparked during her Catalina semester, informed her REU research project. She is working with faculty mentor Mark Steele, associate professor of biology at California State University, Northridge to study the Bluebanded Goby, a fish capable of changing its sex. Guest is investigating the effects of size-selective mortality on these fishes as well as focusing on an ongoing eelgrass study and general marine fish ecology.

“Not only do I get to dive and get all that additional experience, but also I get lab experience,” she said. “I’m conducting my own lab experiment now, and I’m pretty excited about it.”

The REU program has inspired Guest to attend graduate school to further pursue diving and marine research.

“USC has encouraged me to pursue what I love and what I’m passionate about,” Guest said. “I was always passionate about the environment and the ocean, but USC also taught me to expand and go beyond my comfort zone. ENST is a really tight-knit group and offers so many avenues to explore and opportunities to experience. It’s really shaped me into the person I wanted to be.”

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USC senior dives deep to pursue her passion for undersea studies

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