By Kathleen Waterfall
More than 400 students at Brigham Young University have benefited from the nearly $600,000 in mentoring grants through the Office of Research and Creative Activities. But one BYU student in particular has gone above and beyond.
James Robertson, a 2002 BYU graduate from Provo, received an ORCA scholarship at the launch of his research project about beetles. Now, Robertson is a recipient of a grant from the National Science Foundation worth $750,000 based on his undergraduate research.
Robertson became interested in entomology — the study of bugs — while a senior in high school.
“As a kid, I was always interested in zoology,” Robertson said. “But I learned about bugs in a certain section of my zoology class, and that”s when my interest sparked for entomology.”
When Robertson got to BYU, he enrolled in a class of Michael Whiting, professor of integrative biology.
Although Robertson didn”t have any research experience, Whiting invited him to work in his laboratory.
“Dr. Whiting let me come up with my own research idea and mentored me through the whole process,” Robertson said. “He gave me the training and laboratory work experience to perform the specific lab techniques I needed.”
Robertson began studying beetles in 2000 and continued his research year-round until he graduated. Collaborating with Joseph McHugh, professor of entomology at the University of Georgia, Robertson analyzed the DNA sequencing of the pleasing fungus beetles to revise the beetle family tree.
The fungus-eating beetles get the pleasing name from their intense colors.
“The beetles have striking color patterns like bright yellow with black zigzags and red spots,” he said.
Robertson also studied the behavioral patterns and fungus preference of the beetles.
Whiting”s mentoring is all part of ORCA”s efforts to support research and creative expression of academic scholarship.
“The goal of undergraduate research should be to give the students significant experience, which makes them competitive for graduate school,” Whiting said. “We bring students into labs to train them with the tools they need to be efficient with data. When they become efficient, we work with them on projects from design through publication.”
Mentoring not only allows undergraduates to do amazing things, said Matthew Maddox, administrator of the BYU mentoring grants, but it allows them to work one-on-one with a professor and get much more out of their education than before.
“Working with Dr. Whiting made all the difference for me getting into graduate school,” Robertson said. “Just getting good grades isn”t good enough. They look for research skills.”
Because of his experience, Robertson continues to expand his research on the evolution of beetles at the University of Georgia this fall. The National Science Foundation grant will be split between Whiting”s and McHugh”s labs where Robertson will be a participating researcher.