Students Present Ant Research at National Conference

By Christine Bottles, Weather Vane student newspaper

While most EMU students were relaxing their first weekend of spring break, junior Elisa Troyer and senior Nathan Derstine were talking about bugs- fire ants, to be specific.

associate chemistry professor Matthew Siderhurst
associate chemistry professor Matthew Siderhurst

Thanks to associate chemistry professor Matthew Siderhurst, Troyer and Derstine spent the first weekend of their spring break at the Entomological Society of America Eastern Branch 81st Annual Meeting in Maryland.

“It’s following in the tradition of what other professors are doing,” said Siderhurst. “Across the disciplines here at EMU, going to conferences is important.”

Only undergrads to present research

Troyer and Derstine’s experience was different than other students’ conference experiences though; they actually presented their research. Troyer and Derstine were the only two undergraduate presenters in a sea of graduate students and experts.

“I think I was definitely a little anxious because we were the only undergrads who were presenting,” Derstine said. “But I felt confident in our presentation.” Troyer and Derstine have been working with Siderhurst on a project that looks for methods of controlling the fire ant in Hawaii by identifying their alarm pheromone(s) and figuring out how to use this knowledge to control the ants’ invasiveness.

“The broad goal is to use this chemical to help develop something to attract ants to one place so they could eat something bad for them to make them die,” said Derstine.

Research corrects mistakes

Troyer presented her academic paper first, discussing a chemical produced by invasive fire ants, which she and EMU graduate David Showalter helped identify two summers ago. The chemical had been previously misidentified by other scientists. Next, Derstine presented on the application aspect of this discovery and how he and his colleagues tested the pheromone in the field.

While this conference was a highlight in Derstine and Troyer’s educational careers, the foundation for the opportunity to present was laid several years ago.

“Nate was in the first class I taught at EMU. Elisa [was] in my general chemistry class. That’s where the relationship with my students really begins,” Siderhurst said. “I’ve been very lucky to have them work in my lab and get to see how they work.”

Living and learning together

Siderhurst has been working with several EMU students including Derstine and Troyer, over the past few summers. The group spends time living and working together, as well as playing card games and talking about life issues. Read more…

“Living together in Hawaii really helped us get to know each other, so it was almost like a cross cultural experience in a way, with the faculty and student interactions,” Siderhurst said.

“That’s just another level of relationship that’s hard to get other places.”

Developing a relationship with Siderhurst through this scientific research has had a profound impact on Troyer, who said that when she first came to EMU, she could not have cared less about bugs. “After working with Matt, insects are fascinating, and I can get really, really, really excited about them,” Troyer said. “Working with him opened up another path for me. I could see myself being happy doing either [something in the medical field or something with insects].”

Derstine agreed that Siderhurst has helped him explore career options as well. “I’ve known I’ve wanted to do research, but research and biology is a huge field. Being really involved in this project from start to finish was great. The conference gave me a better idea of how the whole research thing works. It’s given me a route, a possible thing to do. It helps me think about grad school preparation. The conference was about exposure,” he said.

‘Presenting’ a unique experience

Siderhurst explained that getting to present research as an undergraduate is a unique experience. At a larger school, science professors would likely be more focused on graduate students than on undergraduates, but EMU’s small numbers help professors emphasize the learning process.

Siderhurst said. “This is the first time I have had students present at a conference. We’re doing good science. They are out there experiencing it. The next step is to then put yourself out in front of the scientific community and say, ‘here’s what we’ve been doing,’ and get critiqued and get feedback and ideas from experts.”

While this is an exciting part of the learning process, he noted that it can also be scary to put one’s research out there at an academic conference. When he first asked Troyer and Derstine to present, he said they were willing but still required some “arm twisting” on his part.

“Both of them have presented here at EMU before. This was just taking it to the next level,” Siderhurst said. “I think they approached the opportunity with enthusiasm tinged with trepidation. “We started preparing at the beginning of the year. Last week, it was, ‘ok, go through it,’ and do that over and over again so it really becomes second nature.”

Both Troyer and Derstine plan to travel with Siderhurst to Hawaii to continue research with the pheromones this summer. But will they be able present again next year?

“As long as we continue to do research that’s quality stuff, we’ll keep presenting,” Siderhurst said.

Read about this and other in-the-field research students are participating in…