Going ants in Chicago

Gabe Trujillo ’15 researched the six-legged, elbowed-antennaed creatures for his internship at the Field Museum while studying In The Loop this spring.

The research experience is his fourth since becoming a student at Lake Forest College. It’s also his second encounter with ants in a lab setting; the first came when he was Gustav E. Beerly Jr. Assistant Professor of Biology Sean Menke’s Richter Scholar.

While his focus back then was on the identification and mapping of ants in Chicagoland, Trujillo’s work for Corrie Moreau, assistant curator for the zoology department and director of the ant lab at the Field Museum, aims to determine whether or not an ant’s caste placement has a genetic link.

“We’re trying to figure out what makes an army ant become a soldier or a worker or fit within some other caste,” said the environmental studies and biology double major. “Some scientists believe it’s just developmental—how much food they get or what time a certain hormone is turned on or off—but we’re trying to figure out if there’s a genetic element to it. For example, is an ant more likely to become a soldier ant depending on who her father is?”

Professor Menke is an associate researcher with Moreau, so Trujillo first met her during his Richter experience. In fact, Moreau used the data Trujillo collected as a Richter to collaborate for her research with the organization School of Ants.

Trujillo reminded Moreau of that collaboration—and the relevant research skills and techniques he had learned in Menke’s ant lab—when he emailed her about a possible internship in her ant lab at the Field Museum.

“It’s a great environment. They’ve been very inclusive and nice about teaching me to learn new skills and introducing me to new techniques that I can use for different types of science, not only working with ants,” Trujillo said. “A lot of the resources at the Field Museum have allowed me to gain experience and confidence in doing things researchers in other labs around the world are doing.”

He is working closely with a University of Chicago PhD student to run analyses and statistics of the data. The two will present their findings in North Carolina in June at the Evolution 2014 conference. The Undergraduate Diversity at Evolution travel award program is even paying for Trujillo to travel there from Hawaii, where he plans to spend his summer researching wasps and caterpillars.

This Hawaii internship is arranged by Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Science (PIPES). He will work alongside two researchers who are collaborating with the University of Hawaii at Hilo to investigate an invasive species of wasp that lays eggs inside of native caterpillars.

Previously, Trujillo spent as summer at Monteverde Institute in Costa Rica as a Groner Scholar to study native avocado plants that are a food source for the three-wattled Bellbird. He also conducted independent research during his study abroad experience in Tanzania.

Trujillo intends to spend his career as a researcher, perhaps in an academic setting. Thus, all of his research experience working with different species in different locations—to help him figure out what comes after ants and caterpillars and wasps.


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