Each year, up to $100 billion worth of harvested food is lost worldwide to pests and microbes. A Kalamazoo College graduate’s research could hold part of the solution.
Marco Ponce ’19, a biology major from San Diego, conducted his Senior Individualized Project (SIP) last summer under Rob Morrison ’06, a research entomologist working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at Kansas State University. Their work targeted alternative methods for managing red flour beetles, which primarily attack stored grains.
“Our research has found that these beetles release some pheromones that make them come together in groups, and others that trigger them to spread out,” Ponce said. As a result, “we wondered how their density affects their behavior when they look for food. We’ve found the beetles responded less to food when they’re grouped in higher densities, so we’re trying to synthesize the pheromone that makes them aggregate and use it as a repellent. Our goal is to figure out how to use their biology against them.”
Ponce learned in April that he earned a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Fellowship to attend Kansas State as a graduate student this fall, meaning he and Morrison will conduct more research beginning this month. The two will study how lesser grain borer beetles and microbes interact to ruin harvested grains.
“Every year after harvest, we lose anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of our food commodities,” Morrison said. In addition to the U.S., “if you look at some developing countries, this means about $100 billion in commodities are lost every year. Marco’s project has global ramifications. If he can find some of the attractants useful for pest management, that will go a long way toward ensuring less pest damage and making agriculture more sustainable.”
Ponce is the second Kalamazoo College student in as many years to earn a prestigious NSF Graduate Fellowship.
“When he was selected, he was up against some students who already are in their graduate programs,” said Biology Professor Ann Fraser, Ponce’s academic adviser. “It’s always gratifying to see students take an interest in science, even if they just make a hobby out of it. But it’s especially rewarding for me to see students go into entomology. There are so many opportunities to get involved in entomology because insects affect our lives in so many ways.”
Ponce and Fraser got to know each other when Ponce was reconsidering his pre-med path. His classes helped him realize he could seek other opportunities in science, and he found the best opportunity in Fraser’s entomology lab.
“That was the transition for me,” Ponce said, admitting his first year at K was difficult, especially as English was his second language, having grown up primarily in Tijuana, Mexico. “I considered changing majors until I saw the email from Dr. Fraser inviting me into her lab. I was surprised because I wasn’t the best academically at the time. It’s one of the reasons why I’m still here: I found my passion.”
Ponce first performed research in Fraser’s lab with painted lady butterflies, a species common in all climates throughout the world. His work analyzed how their antennae responded to different odors at all stages of pupating from caterpillars into butterflies, and Fraser was thrilled with his work.
Around the time that Ponce joined Fraser’s lab, Morrison began working for the USDA. Fraser asked Morrison whether he would consider conducting some summer research with K students. Morrison quickly took Ponce and Taylor Van Winkle, another biology student, into his tutelage, and both stayed with Morrison and his wife, Emily Fraser ’09, last summer. Since, Van Winkle and Ponce have become two of only three seniors to earn an honors designation out of 34 biology students submitting SIPs this year. Such honors are “a testament to his [Morrison’s] strong guidance,” Fraser said.
A college track wasn’t always in Ponce’s view. At one point, Ponce expected to join the work force immediately after high school. That changed when he met Pablo Roncoroni, a teacher and mentor at Ponce’s San Diego high school.
One day, Roncoroni told Ponce, “‘I want you here tomorrow and we’re going to start filling out your college applications,’” Ponce said. “I wasn’t sure college was for me because my family didn’t have a lot of money, but I applied and got accepted into many. Then Mr. Roncoroni talked to me about private colleges with smaller class sizes and having more chances to work with professors. He wanted me to be exposed to a different environment.”
As a result, not only did Ponce find K, but so did four other students from that high school who since have followed in his footsteps.
“One thing that is really incredible about Marco is that English is a second language for him,” Morrison said. “He’s moved across the country to attend college. He’s a first-generation student. He’s had all these layers to deal with, yet he has never used anything as an excuse. He’s always exceeded my expectations and that’s a testament to his character. He keeps going despite his obstacles.”
In his other pursuits at K, Ponce founded the College’s Entomology Club with Van Winkle, which soon will start working to inspire students at Kalamazoo’s El Sol Elementary.
“The goal of the club is to introduce students and the community to science in a different way,” said Ponce. “We want them to be hands-on.”
Ponce has also participated in Sukuma, a peer-based study group for students of color in the sciences, providing an atmosphere of community, belonging, learning, support and achievement. He’s worked with Assistant Professor of Sociology Francisco Villegas on the Kalamazoo County ID program, which aims to provide residents with ID when they otherwise have none. And he received the College’s Senior Leadership Award, which honors students for their invaluable contributions to the Kalamazoo College community.
“Marco is very creative,” Fraser said. “I invited him into my lab because he is such an original thinker and he has a great science mind. He is among the longest-serving students ever in my lab. He is a real ambassador of science.”