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BYU undergraduates beat out doctoral candidates at scientific meeting

3 win awards at annual meeting of Entomological Society of America

In what is becoming a frequent occurrence for Brigham Young University students, three undergraduates won awards for their research at a national meeting, despite competing against graduate students from other universities, including many presenting the results of their doctoral dissertations.

The trio studies under integrative biology professor Michael Whiting, an entomologist. They participate in his mentored student learning program and assist him in DNA-based research involving beetles and other creepy-crawlies. They accompanied him to the national meeting of the Entomological Society of America in late October, where they earned their honors in the evolution/systematics section of the conference.

Sean Taylor, from Aiken, S.C., won a student oral presentation competition. He is a senior biochemistry major who plans to pursue a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology.

"I learn more in a week at the lab than in months in the classroom," Taylor said. "Few undergraduates get the experience of having their own research project. Even fewer get the chance to present their work next to graduate-level research, and fewer still will even be competitive. The fact that we did so well speaks highly of the mentoring experience offered by Dr. Whiting."

Seth Bybee of Provo took second in a student papers competition. He is a conservation biology major who wants to follow in the footsteps of his mentor by applying for doctoral programs in systematic entomology. Bybee credited BYU's supercomputing facilities with contributing to his award, since Whiting's team uses them to process and analyze DNA sequences.

"You would be hard pressed to find another lab on campus where undergrads are able to make so many of their own decisions about their research and how they will carry it out," Bybee said. "This award signifies more than anything a strong combination of mentoring and freedom in research in the Whiting lab."

Jaron Sullivan, of Stephenville, Texas, won an honorable mention in the student poster competition. A senior English major, Sullivan is bound for medical school next fall. He believes his experience studying the genomics of beetles will help him gain future research positions during and after medical school by showing his proficiency in science and genomics.

"I cannot say enough good things about Dr. Whiting," Sullivan said, noting that Whiting recently asked him to write a scientific paper about his research. "It would be much easier for him to just take my results and put my name on the paper. He'll spend much more time revising what I write than he would doing it himself, but he wants me to learn and he knows that it will be beneficial to my goals in medical research."

Whiting credits his students for their hard work and intellect.

"I get excited about research, but even more excited about watching these undergraduates get involved in research," he said. "Not only are we answering fundamental questions about biology, we're preparing the next generation of researchers as well."

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