Thursday, August 4, 2016

URSP Student Highlights: Courtney Whitman

I started working with Dr. van der Ham with a research project he was conducting in the fall of 2015. This project focused on how adult insect communities could be used to determine rate of decomposition of cadavers. Through assisting with this for two semesters, I began to make connections between the forensic entomology focus and my own major of environmental science. Out of these connections came the idea to conduct a similar study that would focus on ecology.  My research project looks at the community dynamics of carrion-specific insects. Additionally, I am trying to determine if the composition of insects in one sample site is representative of multiple sites.
In order to collect data for my project, Dr. van der Ham, an undergraduate student, and myself set up fifteen emergent tents in a wooded area. After placing a rat carcass under each tent, we collected the insects that flew into the tent’s collection apparatus everyday for two weeks. Once fieldwork was completed, I worked in a lab where I identified the insects down to the lowest possible taxa and kept records of the number of each taxon found. After all samples were recorded, Dr. van der Ham and I ran statistical tests to measure the species richness of each sample, the variation in community composition of each sample, and the variation in succession of each sample.
Gaining research experience as an undergraduate is something that has been truly invaluable. Though I don’t plan to pursue a career involving entomology, this opportunity has taught me everything from how to conduct fieldwork to how to analyze statistical data. I will also be presenting my data at a poster seminar, which will help improve my oral communications skills in a professional setting.