EMU student Nicole Miller and Professor Matthew Siderhurst on the island of Hawai'i during their summer research expedition.

Students, professor conduct entomology research in Hawai’i

On the eastern coast of the island of Hawai’i sits the Daniel K. Inouye U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center, where two students from Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) spent part of their summer tracking insects that prey on papaya fields. 

Theo Yoder, who’s majoring in biology and digital media, and Nicole Miller, a chemistry major with a minor in biology, accompanied Professor Matthew Siderhurst to Hawai’i with the assistance of a Kauffman-Miller Research Award. The Kauffman-Miller Research Awards are named for emeritus professors Glenn Kauffman (chemistry) and Roman Miller (biology), and fund opportunities for biology, chemistry, and environmental science students to immerse themselves in research.

Siderhurst has conducted research in Hawai’i, and brought students into the island entomology fold, for 14 years. 

Check out photos from their experience below, contributed by Yoder.

From left: Nicole Miller, Professor Matt Siderhurst, and Theo Yoder gathering materials to track a melon fly in a papaya field with harmonic radar.  

Their research focused on melon flies, oriental fruit flies, and Queensland longhorn beetles. For the melon fly and the beetle, they used harmonic radar to track the insects. Harmonic radar works, in layman’s terms, by sending out a signal which is reflected by tagged insects. The second harmonic signal is then picked up by a receiving system.

“The melon flies that we release have a very tiny tracker on them which we attached that allows us to locate them and track their movement in a papaya field,” Yoder said.

Siderhurst tracks a melon fly that was released in a field.

The data collected from the tagged insects helps scientists understand the movement and behavior of these agricultural pests.

Siderhurst and Miller on a hike in the nearby volcanic landscape. 

“We hope this data will be helpful in building better computer models of fly movement in outbreak areas like California or Florida.” Siderhurst said. “Better models might help us treat for these pests more efficiently and reopen quarantined areas more quickly.”

For the fruit flies, Yoder and Miller synthesized proteins that could be used to lure the bugs away from valuable crops. 

The small city of Hilo, where the research center is located, is on the wet side of the island, although Siderhurst said it was fairly dry during their trip. 

“The city is right on the coast but the land rises to the mountains which are both almost 14,000 ft,” he said.

Both students remarked on the natural beauty and recreation opportunities they got to enjoy while off the clock. 

“I enjoyed meeting other scientists while gaining experience in a lab setting and spending my free time exploring the beautiful Big Island!” Yoder said. “This trip taught me experimental design and critical thinking skills that will be beneficial as I continue my journey into the medical field.”

Miller suggested that, “If you’re ever on the Big Island, I highly suggest cliff jumping at South Point!”

Siderhurst and Miller in the research center, which is operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Research in Hawaii was truly an amazing opportunity,” said Miller. “Not only was I introduced to aspects of different cultures, but I was able to further develop my research skills under the guidance of EMU staff while gaining experience in the field and making new connections in the scientific world.”

Siderhurst said that research opportunities such as these allow students “to see how science actually gets done.”

“It is a lot messier and less straightforward compared to what we often present in textbooks, lectures, and labs,” he explained. “Students get to see how social science is by working with colleagues, how much troubleshooting happens, and the various stages of research: planning, data collections and analysis, writing, and the thrill of making new discoveries!”