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Computer Science, Mathematics and Environmental Science

Counting on Beetles: AUP students unlock clues to the impacts of climate change


The impact of climate change is rippling across the globe and reshaping the natural world. At AUP, students are not just learning about it in the classroom; they are actively enhancing our collective understanding through unique research. This semester, an ambitious experiment is underway at the Joy and Edward Frieman Environmental Science Center. By investigating the reproductive outcomes of seed beetles, four graduating seniors aim to help expand our knowledge of how extreme heat waves impact the biological systems of wildlife.

Professor Elena Berg, an evolutionary biologist and director of the Center, spearheads this study and has invited her students to collaborate. The study draws upon her extensive research on the behavior of seed beetles, a popular and easily managed lab insect that feeds and lays its eggs on mung beans. Following an initial phase of this experiment, Berg and her students now aim to examine how the better-adapted beetles respond when subjected to week-long heat blasts, akin to those becoming increasingly common in the species’ native environment of southern India, and elsewhere in the Global South.  

“There is something special about diving into scientific inquiry and experiencing firsthand the complex interplay between climate change and biodiversity,” says Sarah Glavan, an environmental studies major with a minor in politics. Glavan is working on the experiment as her Senior Project and plays a leading role in the lab.

Navigating the vast body of existing research can be demanding. However, the satisfaction of delving into the intricate relationship between climate change and biodiversity made it all worthwhile.

Sarah Glavan Environmental studies major

“I had no idea what to expect,” says psychology major Emma Kelly. Kelly got involved after taking an animal behavior course with Berg and is volunteering her time to the project. She was curious about seeing the effects of climate change in the lab. “I've only ever read articles about it. I love getting to see how the research process actually works.” 

The experiment is labor-intensive, large-scale, and unfolding in a small lab. From January to June, the team is conducting a total of 12 experiments, often concurrently, starting with 50 pairs of beetles each. The students are partnering with technician Sophie Bricout to monitor a continuous cycle of beetles incubating, hatching, mating, and laying eggs. This begins when beans, with eggs laid on top, are moved into their own individual “virgin chambers” where the larvae can develop and hatch without interacting with other beetles until the time is right.

About every three weeks, a new generation of beetles starts hatching –thousands upon thousands at a time. “Everything goes nuts, and it’s all hands on deck,” says Berg. The team checks daily to see how many beetles have hatched. New male and female beetles are paired for mating in petri dishes of beans, and the female’s reproductive output –how many eggs are laid, and when– is tracked daily. Then, the process starts all over again, and the beetles multiply exponentially.  

It’s a gigantic amount of work,” Berg says, and the students’ dedication is crucial. “Each data point is precious and they are the ‘master implementers’ who help manage the many steps it takes to collect the data we need. Research is often repetitive and detail-oriented–it can be hard to stay switched on at all times.” 

The students would agree. “The most challenging aspect is self-discipline,” says Maya Golub, also an environmental studies major. Golub had fewer classes this spring and is volunteering her time to the project. “I've become more meticulous and learned to allocate more time to tasks. A single mistake can significantly compromise the quality of the data.” Kelly, while noting how repetitive the process is, says she also finds it “calming and enjoyable.” 

“Counting beetles and searching for eggs on beans may sound mundane, but it's where the real challenge lies,” says Glavan. “A few weeks ago, the two experiments we are running overlapped, and we had to check around 30,000 beans to see how many beetles had hatched.”

Glavan is also drafting the introduction and methods to the research manuscript and balances the lab work with her first experience in science writing. “It requires a precise and unambiguous style. Navigating the vast body of existing research can be demanding. However, the satisfaction of delving into the intricate relationship between climate change and biodiversity made it all worthwhile.” Glavan will be a co-author of the eventual publication. 

As the team looks forward to diverse career paths, they anticipate that the beetle project experience will go far beyond this lab. “I learned so much about the techniques required for an experiment of this magnitude. And the experience was enriching; waking up early and spending long hours always left me feeling fulfilled,” says Golub, who plans to pursue a master's degree in marine sciences at the University of Utrecht. “I know that working in a lab will be part of my future career in research.” 

Kelly, who aims to earn a ​​master’s in cognitive neuroscience, is also grateful for research experience. “I’m glad it happened and that I got the opportunity to work with Dr. Berg,” she says. “I really enjoy getting to see a different side of professor Berg. It's always exciting getting to see professors doing what they love and what they're passionate about.”

Glavan aspires to bridge the gap between politics and sciences—to her, an essential blend of disciplines for the complex issues we face—and is considering a dual degree master's program at Sciences Po and Sorbonne Université. “What I enjoy about AUP is the opportunity to engage with professors beyond the confines of the classroom,” she says. “I'm deeply appreciative of Dr. Berg’s mentorship and inspiration. Her boundless energy, insatiable curiosity, and exceptional teaching skills have encouraged me to approach questions with meticulous thought and underscored the significance of resilience and perseverance in overcoming obstacles.” That determination will play a vital role in broader contributions to climate change and all science.