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A Busy Summer Researching Bees

Katherine Barrs (r) with her research partners, Mohamad Omar Ani and Kimberlyn Eversman.

News of declining bee populations has been reported for the last several years, worrying scientists and farmers alike because of their importance in ecosystems and in helping grow the food we eat.  Second-year student Katherine Barrs (biology and mathematics ’21) is one of those scientists who examined bees’ organizational behavior when she was part of a research team in the Social Insect Lab at University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

The lab, led by lead primary investigator Dr. Olav Rueppell, hosted Barrs, and other undergraduate students, through the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates.  Barrs spent many of her days dressed in a beekeeper suit outside in the summer heat observing the division of labor in beehives.  The research she and her team conducted is part of a larger project to prevent the rapid deterioration of bee colonies.

“I learned to work with insects that can and will sting you, while wearing a beekeeping suit. Bees have a daily schedule, and I had to learn it to perform my best work and still always be prepared for something to unexpectedly go wrong and recover from it,” Barrs said. “I conducted behavioral analysis on our experimental results. This process is very challenging because measuring behavior is very difficult and requires elements of defining and categorizing behavior to be common between all researchers involved. This process also involved watching hours of videos to collect data.”

Barrs found out about this opportunity from Georgia Southern’s Biological Honors Society’s (Tri-Beta) spring presentation on Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates and looked further into a project that would best suit her interests.

While working in such a unique and stimulating environment, Barrs really enjoyed the diverse group of colleagues she worked with in her research. “The diversity made for a rich learning environment and inspired our research efforts,” she said. “The experience was unique because all of us were dedicated to our project and working on it 24/7. We were actively learning from each other and contributing different elements to the project based on our diverse backgrounds.”

Barrs’s experience this summer helped her discover research ideas as well as skills that she wants to strengthen during her undergraduate career. “This summer gave me ideas for other classes I should take, helped me define my strengths and weaknesses, and demonstrated scientific skills that I should build up and work on in my undergraduate years like gaining computer science and coding experience,” she said.

She also had the opportunity to culminate her summer with a group presentation on the research and data obtained over a ten week period. “Looking back, it is crazy to realize that I began with little to no experience with my research project. Now, we have publishable results by the end of the program. I am looking forward to my research group submitting a research article for publication and traveling to present at other conferences throughout the year,” Barrs said.

The entire experience for Barrs from practice in a lab to learning all of the skills necessary to design, organize, and analyze successful research was very rewarding. The memorable experiences, new friendships, lasting connections, and transferable knowledge that she gained during her summer in Greensboro will help her as she moves forward with her own research.

“This experience shows participants what is available in their scientific field,” Barrs said. “And it enables you to discover what you like and what you don’t like within that scientific field.”

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