Alex Himstead

Alex Himstead (Bachelor of Science Biology/Biological Science, ‘17) is an emerging scientist intrigued by the human mind and fascinated by its complexity. The mind, he says, “is responsible for our consciousness, which in my opinion is the most remarkable thing in the world.”

As a SURF Fellow, Alex teamed up with Dr. Bill Wright, a marine biology professor at Chapman University, to study the brain and behavior of the California sea hare, or Aplysia californica. The SURF program offers undergraduate students the amazing opportunity to pursue research and creative activity with the guidance of a full-time faculty mentor, with up to $3,000 in fellowship funding. While Alex is working in science, the program is open to all disciplines.

The faculty-student team of Wright and Himstead hypothesized that there was an adaptive advantage to suppressing the ability to learn later in the species’ life.

Dr. Wright with a lobster carcass.

“Learning is an investment in the future that has a significant energy cost, and sea hares can reproduce until they die.” Therefore, Wright and Himstead hypothesized that “at the end of [a sea hare’s] life, it would be pointless to learn and invest in the future, when you could save that energy and redirect it into reproduction.” During the course of their experiment, they eventually proved their hypothesis to be wrong. That’s right, they succeeded by being wrong.

Participating in this research project was so interesting to Alex that he chose to continue his research beyond the SURF program. In fact, Alex traveled with professor Wright to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama to continue studying underwater species. In a recent blog post, Alex wrote that he had “an incredible experience in Panama, and I got a taste of what it means to be a professional ecologist. Dr. Wright and I spent over 6 hours clambering over slippery rocks, counting Dolabrifera, setting traps or fishing in the rocky intertidal each day. We lived according to the schedule of the tides, often venturing out at 2, 3, 5 or 6 am to check traps, or count the animals in each tide pool. Weather did not prevent us from collecting data, and I have never felt so alive as I did scampering over slimy rocks while rain smacked my skin and lightening cracked over the water. In Panama, I got a better sense of what it means to be a behavioral ecologist in the field, and I loved every minute.” Not every student’s curiosity leads him to slimy rocks, and that’s why OURCA programs encourage students to find their individual intellectual and creative passions.

In addition to participating in the SURF program, Alex also served as an OURCA Ambassador during the 2015-2016 academic year, the program’s pilot year. OURCA Ambassadors are an outstanding group of undergraduate researchers from a variety of disciplines. As part of the program, the ambassadors share their experiences and OURCA opportunities through class visits and other activities.

Want to apply for Chapman University’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program or find out more about the OURCA  Ambassador Program? Visit OURCA’s website for more information about all sorts of creative and scholarly activities on campus.