Posted on May 8, 2017 by Tia Lalani

Undergraduate research lab offers students the opportunity to develop skills outside of the classroom.

Jamie Cole works to carefully arrange, pin, and clean beetles in the Butterflies and Beetles Research Undergraduate Lab of Entomology.

“I’ve definitely ripped some heads off…and some legs…” Jamie Cole laughs.

A second-year biology major who, having grown up in Camrose, didn’t have to venture far from home to begin her university studies, Cole spends two hours a week hunched over a tray of shiny black beetles who have travelled much further—all the way from the Philippines. Her concentration is palpable in the small and tightly furnished quarters where she takes care to arrange, document, and study the insects which, upon further inspection, look less black and more metallic purple. Care, being the operative word. She concentrates on keeping all the specimen’s body parts intact.

Cole is one of eight undergraduate students who make up Augustana’s newest, and thus far only, official undergraduate research collective, the Butterflies and Beetles Research Undergraduate Lab of Entomology. Led by professor Tomislav Terzin, the lab features his unique and extensive personal collection of insects, which he credits as the basis of interest in his research program.

“Students ask to work with me because I study mimicry in tropical species—it’s an interesting subject that is also visually appealing.”

Students have always been interested in Terzin’s research, as he has had almost 40 participants, over half of which have been volunteers, working for him since beginning as assistant professor of biology at Augustana in 2009. However, it’s only recently that the collective was formalized into a research lab, which came about by unanimous vote from students who have been working since January.

“What is unique about our group is that it’s undergraduates only,” Terzin explains. “Usually undergraduate research is part of graduate research in established, well-financed labs. We don’t necessarily have those resources here, but we have a lot of bright young people who can impact and offer contributions to scientific study.”

The lab includes students from first year to fourth and meets bi-weekly to discuss projects and best practices. Abigail Boateng, a first-year biology major, currently acts as secretary and takes meeting minutes, while other students have been developing a website and logo, ensuring the interdisciplinary nature of the lab; the students involved are learning much more than how to position beetles.

A collection of butterflies in progress of being pinned for display.

“There are a lot of benefits to being organized in the lab,” notes professor Terzin. “I’ve always had students conducting the research but, this way, collaboration and socialization is emphasized. Plus it gives them an idea of what it would be like to pursue research in graduate studies—I’m trying to give them that organizational experience as an undergrad.”

Creating the lab has also allowed students to engage with the community, and publish and present their work.

“When they start a project, the goal is always to publish, ” says Terzin, who works to ensure that his volunteers are gaining tangible skills, against the mentality that volunteer work requires sacrifice.

“The concern that volunteer work is exploitative is farfetched because of the benefits. Aside from the experience of being part of an undergraduate lab and the collaboration that is involved, students also get the opportunity to create a close working relationship with a professor. I’ve written letters for many of my former students who have gone on to be very successful, and it’s much easier to write a letter of reference if you’re connected to the work the student is doing.”

Biology majors Mary Cairns and Jessica Logan feel lucky to be able to perform undergraduate research in their first year in general, but credit Terzin with providing the with a certain level of autonomy in their work and allowing them the freedom to think about their research creatively.

“Tom gives us such a high level of respect as researchers” Cairns explains. “I have other friends that are doing first-year research and they’re basically human computers, putting data into spreadsheets, and even that is a privilege. What we have here is priceless.”

Logan and Cairns are working on an interdisciplinary project in conjunction with a PhD student in design studies at the University of Alberta’s North campus. The project involves creating a database of images that can be searched using colours and patterns, as opposed to mere words. This database has the potential to be used in the field of design as well as biology, from applying natural colour patterns in different mediums to mimicry and convergent evolution. They will be co-presenting the project at Augustana’s Conference on Undergraduate Research and Innovative Teaching in May, alongside Cole who will present on the possibility of mimicry in her beetles.

Augustana Department of Science chair Peter Berg credits the lab for its significant research as much as the experience it’s providing to undergraduate students. Professor Berg spoke of the fascinating ways this research could be used in the future and is currently being used in scientific study.

“This research can be utilized quite broadly in the liberal arts and sciences, across a number of disciplines,” says Berg.

For example, the skin structures of these insects lend themselves to an area of study in physics called “metamaterials” which looks at designing the surfaces of a specific object so that they appear to us in a certain way. They also apply to the field of biomimicry, which solves human problems by using natural structures.

The Beetles and Butterflies Research Undergraduate Lab collective includes eight current members and two former “founding” students.

Berg also recognizes the importance of beginning undergraduate research early, so that students are able to determine whether or not to pursue research in graduate studies in the future.

“This lab provides opportunities for students on a number of different levels, and with different complexities,” Berg states. “By exposing students to this kind of research opportunity and engaging them in the lab early, they are able to assess in what ways they’d like to pursue studies in the area.”

Terzin is just as appreciative of the chance to guide undergraduate research as his students are to work with him.

“I’m very proud to be a part of Augustana and to have this opportunity to be engaged, not only in research but in expanding the borders of undergraduate research,” Terzin says. “I’m thankful to be able to explore new and creative ways to research in such a supportive place.”

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