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BYU biology students to present insect research at scientific conference this week

Six undergraduate biology students at Brigham Young University presented their research at the largest gathering of insect researchers in the world. The annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America was held in Salt Lake City Monday, Nov. 15 through Wednesday, Nov. 17.

"This conference is a major opportunity for our students to gain real exposure to the top scholarship in our field," said Riley Nelson, an associate professor of integrative biology at BYU. "But not only did they get to exposed to great science, they got a chance to present their own work to fellow scientists who can appreciate the solid work even an undergraduate can do to further the discipline."

The BYU students hoped to repeat their success from last year's conference, where three undergraduates won top awards over doctoral candidates and graduate students from other universities who were presenting their dissertation findings.

"Most of the research that was presented at this meeting was done by established academics and professionals who have been studying insects for years, if not decades," said Nelson. "The fact that our undergraduate students who are novices in the field can come and present their work at such a significant conference and actually compete against doctoral candidates says an awful lot about our students and our program."

Nelson's student Todd Anderson, an integrative biology major at BYU, presented his paper, which was a study focused on identifying a broad category of tiny flies called empididae that live on Mt. Timpanogos in Utah Valley. Little research had been done on these flies in the past, but Anderson estimated that perhaps 33 different sub groups of empididae with dozens of unidentified species could live on and around the mountain. His findings solidly confirmed his hypothesis, with 25 new genera positively identified.

"I think this conference is an amazing opportunity to show the results of our work," Anderson said. "The unique thing about doing research at BYU is the chance to go out and study something as an undergrad that no one else in the world is doing."

Michael Whiting is another BYU integrative biology professor who studies insects and whose students also presented at the conference. One of them reported extensive research from a broad genetic survey of almost every dragonfly in the world. Seth Bybee, a conservation biology major at BYU who won a second-place award at last year's conference, presented his paper, which examined the genetic signatures of the dragonflies to look at the evolution of the insects and their mating behavior. His work classified the insects into massive family trees, showing which dragonflies were genetically more closely related to each other.

"Our research was very surprising," said Bybee. "We found things we didn't expect in an insect family that is spread across the world and has an incredible amount of diversity. It's wonderful that we have this opportunity to present our research at the top conference in our field."

Writer: Brad Jensen

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