Buzzing with excitement: Sofia Dartnell PO ’22 awarded esteemed Gates Cambridge scholarship

A student crouches in a field and poses for the camera.
Sofia Dartnell PO ’22 won one of 80 Gates Cambridge Scholarships, earning her a full-cost scholarship to the University of Cambridge to pursue a PhD in zoology. (Courtesy: Sofia Dartnell)

Many people are bugged by insects. They think that many-legged crawlers are creepy or a nuisance – in short, mere pests. But Sofia Dartnell PO ’22 has always believed that butterflies and bees are nothing to truly be afraid of. 

Dartnell’s obsession with bugs began early in her life.

“I was literally just the kid who would sit there in the grass collecting bugs,” Dartnell said. “I’d catch them in my little net … bring them in the house to look at, bring them outside and release them.”

Dartnell’s passion for plant pollinators has now procured her the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship. After she graduates from Pomona College in May, she will fly across the Atlantic to study at the world-renowned University of Cambridge in the fall. Dartnell is one of only 80 students selected to join the 2022 cohort. 

The Gates Cambridge Trust was established in 2000 and offers 80 full-cost scholarships annually to students from outside the UK to pursue postgraduate research in all disciplines. To be selected for the program, a student must demonstrate four criteria: outstanding academic achievement, reason for research, a strong commitment to helping others and leadership potential. 

Dartnell found out that she received the award in an airport bookstore while she was waiting for her flight back to school. She was “floored,” she said, almost passing out from excitement. Then she called her parents, who she cited as her biggest supporters all along. 

“It’s really my parents who fostered [my] interest in [insects] and … allowed me to pursue it,” Dartnell said. “A lot of people aren’t super bug friendly, or happy about bringing ants in the house and that sort of thing.”

Dartnell considers herself to be a bug expert at this point in her life. 

“I would call myself an entomologist by training,” Dartnell said. “I really love insects, and I have ever since I was little.”

Dartnell’s interest in insects has only grown since coming to Claremont, where she has been able to become involved in a variety of different insect projects. In her sophomore year, she joined associate professor of biology Wallace “Marty” Meyer’s lab and was supposed to start studying ants as part of the lab. However, after just two weeks of research, COVID-19 struck, and everyone was told to leave campus. 

But this didn’t stop Dartnell. When classes went remote, she emailed Professor Meyer to see if she could somehow still gain research experience. He presented an opportunity to her: to analyze and write up a six-year dataset on how five different habitat types affect butterfly communities at the Robert J. Bernard Field Station in Claremont.

“Basically, my research showed pretty conclusively that the grassland does not harbor as many butterfly species as this native area does,” Dartnell said. “It’s really sort of a pointer to save the [California] sage scrub, which is cool.”

The paper, for which Dartnell is first author, was recently published in the Journal of Insect Conservation.

“I think that everything that [we’re] doing, … contributing to literature, and thought processes and data, hopefully will move us forward [towards] a sustainable kind of future,” Meyer said. “Preserving biodiversity in these areas that are heavily impacted by human use is critically important if we want to, in [the] most extreme case, stop the sixth mass extinction.”

For associate professor of biology Frances Hanzawa, it was during her Insect Ecology and Behavior class, Dartnell’s first upper level biology course, when she realized Dartnell was going to excel at research. In the independent project portion of the course, Dartnell examined the behavior of crickets when escaping predators, cobbling together creative ways to simulate such interactions in the lab. 

“Most people would have gotten intensely frustrated because it was difficult,” Hanzawa said. “For her, it was a challenge. There was problem solving. It [was] fun … She hadn’t done independent work before. [It] was really impressive.”

“If the world … unites behind this cause, there is still hope.” —Sofia Dartnell PO ’22

Even when the pandemic disrupted life, Dartnell saw a problem to be solved, not an impediment. In the summer of 2020, when most labs did not do in-person research, Dartnell got a position at the Rocky Mountain biological lab, where she started her research on bumble bees. 

“Through summer research opportunities [like this], I’ve become super interested in bees,” Dartnell said. “[There’s] sort of a two-way street of how we should be promoting their diversity and sort of keeping them around … and how that can play back into crop benefits for farmers. And so for me, my main research interest is sort of targeted habitat modifications.” 

Currently, Dartnell is in the process of finishing up her thesis on the fall pollinator community, to see which bee species pollinates plants that bloom in the fall. 

At Cambridge, Dartnell’s research will be focused on how targeted habit modifications can strengthen biodiversity on farmlands, ultimately benefiting the environment, farmers and consumers too. Dartnell will be studying at Cambridge’s Darwin College and pursuing a PhD in zoology in the agroecology group led by Dr. Lynn Dicks. 

“What I think is really interesting about the Gates Cambridge Scholarship is that it’s really focused on social impact,” Dartnell said. “That, for me, is at least what set it apart … the whole thing with bees is that bees benefit humans also.”

Dartnell noted the importance of positivity when thinking about the issue of climate change. Though we may not necessarily be able to reverse things, according to Dartnell, we can still mediate the change and keep it from becoming more severe. 

“If the world … unites behind this cause, there is still hope,” Dartnell said. “I think it’s important to keep a positive outlook because if not, you’re sort of turning people off of the idea of helping.”

The biggest lesson Dartnell has learned throughout college is to pursue her passions. Just like the humble bumble bees she studies, she’s planning on working to bring about a better world.

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