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Papua New Guinea to Provo: Biology students participate in mentoring program

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Leilani Miller | University Relations | 6 August 2009

Brigham Young University–Hawaii Biology students Daniel Ka’onohi and Keone Young (pictured top) are knee deep in a three-year long mentoring program provided in conjunction with Brigham Young University in Provo, BYU–Hawaii, and a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Last year Professors Dr. David Bybee of BYU–Hawaii and Dr. Michael Whiting of BYU joined forces to take a group of biology students from both institutions to Papua New Guinea, a remote and relatively unstudied region of the southwest Pacific. "We decided that we could get a collaboration going," explained Bybee. "Whiting, an entomologist, would do the rain forest work, I, a marine biologist, would do the coral reef work, and the students we brought with us would get valuable field work experience in both terrestrial and marine environments."

Ka’onohi and Young got down and dirty learning field research skills, diving to coral reefs and shipwrecks, searching through the rainforest for Whiting’s ‘magic bug,’ and the intertidal zone for Bybee’s feather duster worms. "It was really good because we had a lot of top researchers there; people with their master's and Ph.D.'s that were willing to teach us and show us what to do," said Young.

Young and Song working at computuerNot only gaining valuable fieldwork experience in both fields, Young and Ka’onohi were also being groomed as "potential participants" of the first of three "six-week summer workshops [over] three consecutive years to bring Polynesian students from BYU–Hawaii to BYU in Provo so they can gain hands-on experiences in molecular biology and systematics," said Dr. Hojun Song (pictured left with Young), holder of the three-year NSF grant and a post-doctoral researcher working with Whiting. "The plan is to give motivated undergrads from BYU–Hawaii a chance to have thorough research experiences so they can learn all aspects of research from data generation, analysis, writing a manuscript, and a presentation of their data in a scientific conference."

Similar to last year’s Papua New Guinea arrangement, the BYU–Hawaii students worked on individual projects this past summer related to the research directed by instructors at Whiting’s BYU lab. "Keone is doing a deep level phylogeny of Ensifera (crickets, katydids, camel crickets, wetas) based on two ribosomal genes. Daniel is doing a phylogeny of Gryllidae (crickets) based on two ribosomal genes," said Song. "They have learned a lot from interacting with other students working in the lab, and also from the discussions with me and Dr. Whiting." Though the studies performed during the last year’s and this year’s expeditions have "no direct relationship," they have both given Young and Ka’onohi extraordinary experiences they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Ka'onohi and Moulton doing lab work"The lab is state of the art and the rest of the students there are very friendly and knowledgeable," said Ka’onohi (pictured right with BYU Senior Matthew Moulton). "We were able to learn so much in just a short amount of time. I was able to use the knowledge gained at BYU–Hawaii from Dr. Day and Dr. Gold's classes to help me keep pace with understanding the molecular techniques and genetic ideas. … I am so grateful to be blessed with the many opportunities that have been granted me while attending BYU-Hawaii."

"What students learn from this workshop is cutting-edge science in evolutionary biology," Song explained. "Not only do they learn techniques, they learn from active scientists what science is all about. By reading and discussing contemporary scientific literature, students learn to think critically."

"This should be a very valuable experience in which they can learn specialized lab skills such as DNA extraction, amplification and sequencing," Bybee said. "These projects, if done well, will then be written up and prepared for presentation at a scientific meeting and publication next year."

Click here to read about last year's field work in Papua New Guinea

—Photos by Mark Philbrick, BYU Photography