Clayton Gunnell - Getting Antsy

Clayton Gunnell in lab

Getting Antsy with College of Science’s Undergraduate Researcher of the Year

When someone works with tarantulas, cannibalistic ant lions and armor-laden velvet ants, you would think there has to be some sort of reward for that beyond the excitement that comes with discovery.

There certainly is – at least for Clayton Gunnell.

For his research of the critters, the biology major has been named the 2011 College of Science Undergraduate Researcher of the Year.

Clayton Gunnell 2011 Undergraduate Researcher of the Year, College of Science“(The nomination) shows that my hard work isn’t going unnoticed,” he said. “I don’t know, call it a blessing. It’s comforting that someone notices my hard work.”

That someone was James Pitts, a UAES researcher and Gunnell’s mentor who submitted the nomination. Pitts was quick to cite Gunnell’s dependability and integrity as two key attributes that make Gunnell such an effective researcher.

“He comes to the lab when he says he’s going to be here,” Pitts said. “He really takes it upon himself to read outside of the lab—he actually looks things up and understands on his own.”

As for the integrity department, Pitts said it is Gunnell’s in-lab honesty that impresses. You know, with entering data, there are many times where you could tweak things to come out a lot more often,” he said. “Clay doesn’t do that. He never has.”

Gunnell’s first project involved tarantulas from central California. The work involved extracting and sequencing DNA from the muscles of 100 of the arachnids and comparing the findings with other tarantula species. The research produced surprising results.

Gunnell said that he learned that there was only one tarantula species, rather than four, in the central valley of California. Additionally, Gunnell found two unidentified species of tarantulas in the Sierra Nevada range.The theory is that since California was underwater an estimated 3.8 million years ago, the species was divided, leading to a different gene flow because of a different opportunity for gene selection. Gunnell compared the theory to a male’s being compelled to be isolated in the mountains with 10 females, rather than 400. With fewer potential mates, the offspring would have less variety of physical characteristics.

Gunnell and Pitts are currently working on manuscripts about their findings that will be submitted to scientific journals.

The second project involved researching what particular historical event prompted the diversity seen today in organisms, particularly related to ant lions. It included determining where the species may have overlapped in both their morphology and living environments. The results were in the first manuscript Gunnell every co-authored and it was published in Psyhce: A Journal of Entomology (2010).

The third project was comparing the velvet ants’ ancestors to the current species to see what relationships still exist. Gunnell said one particular gene, ITS II, is a very rapidly mutating gene, so it can result in a different ancestor within the particular gene structure. The research team found that the phalange of the wingless velvet ants, which are the females, were not changed by the mutation of ITS II over the generations. They were findings about organisms which Gunnell reminded are just a fraction of the many organisms which roam terrains that humans may forget are decorated with life.

Clayton Gunnell with a tarantula on his shoulder“Everyone sees a desert as barren, with no organisms, but deserts are one of the most biologically diverse places that there are,” he said.

Just as creatures and their environment interact in countless obvious and unseen ways, Pitts’ contributions to Gunnell’s experience have been numerous.

“James has definitely been a huge impact on my college career,” Gunnell said. “He’s definitely helped me in just more than academics. He’s become a great friend, and kind of an inspiration, I guess.”

Gunnell said he appreciates the several ways Pitts has instructed him because he has ambitions to become a dentist and, later, a professor.

“James is very well-rounded, and not just in biology,” the senior added. “I respect that. He has inspired me to be more well-rounded in turn. He’s definitely helped in more ways than just academics.”

Gunnell’s appreciation reflects the way he feels about the many lessons he’s learned about himself in doing research.

“I learned not to get discouraged, to be very precise,” he said. “You’ve gotta have dedication, and gotta be willing to say, ‘James, I don’t know what that means. You need to explain that to me.’ You need to be humble, because it definitely takes baby steps to learn what your results mean.”

Gunnell ? who approached Pitts and asked to be involved in research projects ? was not surprised to learn that research opportunities were available for undergrad students because it is vital for students with majors in science as they make themselves attractive to employers.

“It’s one of the things they look for,” he said. “They will ask ‘Do you volunteer? Do you do research?’ I think the overall bubble of the research system is a great opportunity for undergrads.”

“I’m elated that James would nominate me, because he has a lot of researchers and undergrads,” Gunnell said. “I’m glad he respects and sees my hard work.”

Clayton Gunnell, 2011 College of Science Undergraduate Researcher of the Year, Wellsville, UT
James Pitts, Faculty Mentor, Biology

Writer: Rhett Wilkinson