Science & Technology

USU Undergrad Researcher Working Toward Dream of Medical Career

At timed intervals, USU undergrad researcher Levi Wilkes, left, and doctoral student Madeleine Dupuy carefully document the behavior of billbugs they've collected from a local golf course and placed in petri dishes with natural predators.

Acceptance rates of Utah State University graduates to medical school consistently exceed national averages and the reasons for student success are well-documented. USU undergrads pursue rigorous pre-med coursework, receive seasoned guidance from faculty mentors, participate in a variety of service-learning and employment with patient contact and undertake hands-on undergraduate research.

USU human biology major Levi Wilkes is among Aggie undergrads preparing to apply to med school and, like his peers, he’s working hard toward his dream. But Wilkes’ current summer pursuits may seem a bit unusual for a future health care provider. The fledging researcher has been spending his nights crawling around a dark golf course collecting bugs.

“It’s actually a lot of fun,” Wilkes says. “Kind of makes me feel like a kid again.”

In the lab of USU entomologist Ricardo Ramirez, associate professor in the Department of Biology and the USU Ecology Center, Wilkes is studying billbugs, a common turfgrass pest, with doctoral student mentor Madeleine Dupuy.

With timers buzzing and video cameras recording, Wilkes and Dupuy meticulously document the behavior of captured billbugs in petri dishes with their naturally occurring predators: ground beetles and wolf spiders.

“We want to see if the billbugs still mate, if they lay eggs when predators are present,” Wilkes says. “Obviously, that one isn’t mating (as he points to a ground beetle devouring a squirming female billbug.)”

The researchers surmise natural predators could keep the pesky billbugs, which cause millions of dollars in turfgrass damage throughout the United States each year, in check.

Chemical insecticides are commonly used to keep the stubborn insects, members of the weevil family, at bay, but Dupuy says alternative measures may yield better results. For example, encouraging growth of existing populations of the billbug’s natural predators might be a solution.

Wilkes says he chose the Ramirez Lab because it affords him the opportunity to work outside in the field as well as in the lab.

“Some of the research projects I applied for before accepting this one sounded like endless pipetting,” he says. “This lab offers a lot of variety. I like watching how bugs interact and seeing them in their natural habitat.”

But Wilkes is also learning all research involves necessary drudgery.

“Sometimes research gets tedious, because you have to repeat trials over and over again and make sure everything is compiled and documented correctly,” he says. “You have to be very detail-oriented.”

Even so, Wilkes says it’s exciting to put knowledge learned in the classroom to work in the lab and the field.

“I just took an ecology class last spring and wondered, ‘Will I ever use this?’” he says. “The answer is ‘yes’ and that’s pretty cool.”

Related links:

Contact: Madeleine Dupuy, 435-797-8230,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

In USU's Ramirez Lab, a ground beetle devours a smaller billbug during predation trials. The researchers say the natural predators may be key to keeping billbugs, a major turfgrass pest, in check.


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