For promising young scientist, a year of discovery leads to Research Experiences for Undergraduates internship at Arizona’s Biosphere 2

A view of the Landscape Evolution Observatory, courtesy of the University of Arizona Biosphere 2.
A view of the Landscape Evolution Observatory, courtesy of the University of Arizona Biosphere 2.

Madeline Widjaja, a first-year student from Los Angeles, arrived at Sweet Briar “dead set” on majoring in biology, specifically microbial behavior in the human body and surrounding environment. Then she discovered chemistry.

You might say that triggered a chain reaction — and a cool thing happened as a result: In early June, Widjaja will begin a 10-week research internship at Biosphere 2 through the University of Arizona’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. She is one of 10 undergraduates selected from across the country for the summer REU program, which includes a $5,000 stipend, partial travel costs, a food allowance and housing on the Biosphere 2 campus in the southern Arizona desert.

Widjaja will be working in the isotope stability facility under the guidance of researchers Till Volkmann and Peter Troch. The team studies water and carbon “fluxes” in the Landscape Evolution Observatory — a large-scale structure within Biosphere 2 consisting of three artificial landscapes. The LEO website describes it as the “world’s largest laboratory experiment in the interdisciplinary Earth sciences.”

Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Ecology Linda Fink and Madeline Widjaja ’19
Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Ecology Linda Fink and Madeline Widjaja ’19

Biosphere 2 is a 3.14-acre enclosed research facility designed to replicate the natural systems of Biosphere 1 — also known as Earth. Built in the late 1980s, one of its original missions was to explore how human life could be supported in space.

Widjaja — a self-starting homeschooler who finished her high school degree at age 16 — was fascinated by it long before Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Ecology Linda Fink forwarded her a list of summer opportunities that included the REU.

“Biosphere 2 is a system I have been interested in since I was twelve. Before realizing I really liked chemistry, I was interested in aerophysics and space,” Widjaja says. “I didn’t actually think we could have a civilization on Mars, but the thought of a self-sustained area was incredible to me.”

Today, its mission is varied and far-reaching, but the goal “to catalyze interdisciplinary thinking and understanding about Earth and its future” is central to its purpose. Widjaja believes her interests in science and math fields outside of biology helped her chances of landing the internship.

Her application essay expanded on her discovery of chemistry.

“I realized that what attracted me to microbiology was the idea of ecological succession,” she wrote. “My interest in interspecies interaction easily translated into excitement towards elemental behavior. My advisor later referred to chemistry as the bridge between biology and physics.”

But it was her first-semester independent research that she thinks made the real difference.

“The most important part of the application was detailing my previous project with Dr. Fink,” she says. “During fall semester, I had experimented with the salt preference of monarch butterflies and worked on designing a more efficient butterfly feeder. The feeder was not perfect, but I was able to gain a lot of data and experience from the project.”

At Biosphere 2, Widjaja will design, conduct and present her own research with guidance from her mentors. She also will interact with other students and scientists at B2 and the University of Arizona — and possibly visitors to the facility, which is open to the public. Training in outreach related to REU students’ research topics is a distinctive aspect of the program. In addition to the lab experience, students register for a summer course for credit, attend professional workshops and go on field trips.

Widjaja is “ecstatic,” “a bit nervous” and “slightly disappointed” about the REU. Disappointed because she won’t be working with Fink this summer. Nervous because National Science Foundation REUs are competitive and thus demanding — and she likely will be at least two years younger than everyone else there. Most do them as rising juniors or seniors.

“To have this opportunity as a first-year student is a great testament to Madeline’s potential as a scientist,” said Fink, who noticed Widjaja’s aptitude and enthusiasm almost from day one.

“She combines exceptional curiosity with a great work ethic. In a lab experiment with butterflies — in her first biology class — it was clear that Madeline was thinking about experimental design and logistics with as much sophistication as our senior majors,” Fink recalled.

Madeline Widjaja and Pam Simpson in the chemistry stockroom.
Madeline Widjaja and Pam Simpson in the chemistry stockroom.

She is keenly curious about the components of everyday things, Widjaja admits, and since the age of 7 has longed to take apart TVs, pretty gift-shop minerals and whatever else to see what’s inside and how they work together.

“I get bored easily,” she says, “[and] if I’m not doing or observing something amazing I feel restless.”

Ask a question of Widjaja, and the thoughts and emotions of a fast-moving brain tumble out. While Sweet Briar didn’t ignite the fire in Widjaja, it has fanned the flames of her zeal for science.

“I want to see more things, do more things. In a weird sense I’ve gotten a lot more impatient,” she says. “I think a major change is that Sweet Briar caused me to care a lot more. To say, ‘Yeah, this is scary. Yes, this is hard and I might fail, but it won’t hurt me.’ ”

Widjaja credits some of this growth to her professors, especially Fink. She also worked with chemistry instructor Pam Simpson, who supervises her work-study job as a chemistry stockroom assistant and wrote a recommendation for the REU. Others have influenced her, too.

While away at a boarding school for her first year of high school, Widjaja says she sometimes withdrew from personal interactions. She overcompensated by becoming too involved in activities such as sports and theater — and swore she’d never do that again.

But Sweet Briar seems to have changed her mind. It started with asking to join the field hockey team and, this spring, lacrosse. She has auditioned for several theater productions and landed one role.

“Sweet Briar people, mostly athletes, are some of the craziest, most irritating, incredible, lovely individuals I have ever met,” she says. “I fully blame them for every right thing that has happened in my life.”

What Widjaja means is that her coaches and teammates — whom she wanted to resist calling friends but just can’t — helped her open up to people. She’s been unwillingly, resentfully “drawn into their insanity,” and she is grateful, she says.

“To clarify, I grudgingly admit my [Sweet Briar] ‘family’ is very important to me and I love them more than I ever thought I could. This is what it means to be a Sweet Briar woman.”

Widjaja is clearly a driven person, but her professors, coaches and friends have reminded her in the past year of what’s possible: that she can be a whole person.

“I can be a scientist, an athlete, an actor, an author; I can be all of those things on the same day and even at the same time. I can be whatever I decide I am within that specific moment. Can I turn into an octopus the size of Jupiter? Nope. Those are the impossible things I mean. Being a great person though? That’s a given.”