Float Like a Butterfly, Research Like a Scientist

By: Nicole Onken, CALS Communications Service

When people think of STEM research, butterflies aren’t typically what come to mind.

Three women are working to change that perception.

Kelsey Fisher, a graduate student in entomology, Riley Nylin, a junior in agricultural systems technology, and Signey Hilby, one of 19 students participating in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' George Washington Carver Summer Research Internship Program, are tracking monarch butterflies using automated radio telemetry, an electronics communications process that records the insect’s every move. They are one of the first groups to utilize this technology on butterflies.

Signey Hilby (left), Riley Nylin (center) and Kelsey Fisher (right) stand next to the automated radio telemetry equipment. Photo by Nicole Onken.

Researching Monarchs

“Essentially, we are figuring out what monarchs do to get from point A to point B,” said Fisher, a doctoral candidate in entomology and the primary researcher on the project. “We want to understand how monarchs move through a landscape containing various habitat types.”

To track how monarchs move to different habitats, the team records data on three things: how far away the butterfly can perceive a food resource, how the butterfly finds the food resource and how far will the butterfly fly from one food resource to the next.

The butterflies are captured off-site, and kept in a cage in the lab until they are needed for the experiment. When the team is ready to run a trial, the butterflies are individually packed up in envelopes to protect their wings and taken to the field site, which is typically to an Iowa State research farm.

The team takes the monarch out into the middle of the field, where they glue a tracker on to its abdomen. The butterfly is then released into the field and the researchers stand by with nets, ready to capture any wayward butterflies that try to escape the field area. The monitoring tests measure how long it takes the monarch to find food and lay its eggs.

The data is captured using four receiving towers, one at each corner of a two-acre field. The towers pinpoint the monarch’s location every 20 seconds. The electronic tracking and data receiving process is called telemetry. The towers and equipment were custom-built and designed specifically for the project by Fisher with the help of Fisher’s adviser, Steve Bradbury, a professor of natural resource ecology and management.

“We have adapted radio telemetry technology for our specific situation,” said Fisher. “This has never been done before. We’re one of the first groups to track butterflies with telemetry.”

While the team’s primary focus is the monarch, Fisher emphasizes that this measuring method can be applied to different animals.

“If a monarch can make it to this habitat, there’s a good chance a bee or a pheasant could potentially make it too,” said Fisher.

The researchers glue a transmitter to the underside of the butterfly's abdomen. Photo by Nicole Onken.

Summer Internships

While Fisher is doing this project as part of her doctoral studies, Nylin and Hilby are using this research opportunity to complete individual internships.

Nylin, an Iowa State junior in agricultural systems technology, applied for this internship at the suggestion of her adviser. Her internship is through Iowa State and the ISU Monarch Work Group.

“I was assigned to the monarch telemetry project because of my engineering background,” said Nylin.

Nylin took engineering classes in high school and was an agricultural and biosystems engineering major when she first came to Iowa State. She helped build the towers needed for the project using her engineering skills. Besides building the equipment, she also helps with fieldwork and data collection.

Hilby is an intern with the George Washington Carver Summer Research Internship Program, a diversity program sponsored by Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Hilby, an Upper Iowa University senior in environmental science and conservation management, found the program online when she was searching for a summer internship.

As part of the program, she is completing her own research that complements Fisher’s main project. Hilby’s research project focuses on how the butterflies behave once they are carrying the extra weight of the transmitter.

“We want to make sure the monarchs behave normally despite the extra weight,” said Hilby. “This will make our data more accurate.”

Instead of using transmitters, which cost $200, Hilby glues watch batteries to the butterflies for her tests. The weight of the watch batteries is comparable to the weight of a transmitter.

Hilby will present her research as part of both the George Washington Carver program and the Upper Iowa University program.

Women and STEM Diversity

Besides the groundbreaking research, another unique aspect of the project is that team members are women. Women and minorities are overwhelmingly underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics or STEM fields.

“Women are lacking in leadership positions. We really need more diverse role models in STEM,” said Fisher.

The researchers are used to being one of a handful of women in their science classes.

“Men in my science classes typically view me as girly and assume I don’t want to do the work, which isn’t true,” said Hilby. “I have to overcome this by taking charge during projects.”

Hilby also has a unique perspective from her participation in the George Washington Carver program. The purpose of the program is to promote diversity and provide research opportunities within STEM, which Hilby had limited experience with while growing up on a farm in Iowa.

“I’ve learned a lot about diversity and cultural acceptance from the Carver program,” said Hilby. “The individuals I’ve met in the program are inspiring.”

All three women encourage other women and minorities to become involved with STEM.

“There’s no reason not to go into STEM if you’re interested in it,” said Fisher. “If you see a passion in someone, encourage it and that could eventually become their future career.”

“If you’re thinking about going into STEM, just do it!” said Nylin. “It’s worth it.”

Hilby is participating in the George Washington Carver Summer Research Internship Program. The program gives undergraduate and high school students an opportunity to perform hands-on research with faculty members. The purpose of the program is to increase diversity within STEM and recruit the best and brightest students to Iowa State. In addition to research, interns participate in social and cultural activities and seminars.

Fisher is a member of the ISU Monarch Work Group, which is part of the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium. The consortium is a community-led group whose mission is to enhance monarch butterfly reproduction and survival through collaborative and coordinated efforts of farmers, private citizens and their organizations. Wendy Wintersteen, Iowa State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is serving as chair.