Some children grow up fascinated with sports, video games or dolls. Sofia Dartnell was obsessed with ants and grasshoppers and butterflies. That passion has now landed her a prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She will join its 2022 cohort of scholars at the University of Cambridge next fall, one of only 25 Americans and 55 international students selected for the award.
Dartnell has been accepted into Cambridge’s Darwin College—yes, named for Charles Darwin--to pursue a Ph.D. in zoology in the agroecology group led by Lynn Dicks. She will study the effects of novel environmental land management schemes on bumblebees, focusing on how targeted modifications can strengthen biodiversity on farmlands. Her goal is to help find ways to incentivize farmers to modify their landscapes to support bee populations. The result could be a win both for the environment and for farmers, with crop harvests improved by better pollination.
Dartnell’s interest in research began early. “I remember sitting in our garden in Connecticut looking for insects—catching them, studying them and releasing them,” Dartnell says. Recently, going through old boxes, she found a book on insects that her mother had bought for her. “The pages were falling out,” she says, because she’d read it so many times.
Until she got to Pomona College, though, Dartnell didn’t know she could actually turn her passion into a career. Then, in Professor Wallace “Marty” Meyer’s lab, she discovered the wide variety of questions that could be studied when it comes to insects.
“When she started in my lab, she was going to study ants at the field station,” Meyer recalls. But, he says, just three weeks into her research, COVID-19 struck, classes went remote, “and she left campus and all the ants behind.”
A couple of weeks later, Dartnell emailed Meyer asking if there was anything else she could do to gain research experience. “We have a six-year dataset on butterfly assemblages,” he told her. “Do you want to learn how to analyze this type of data and write it up for a publication?”
The resulting paper, on which Dartnell is first author, was published this month in the Journal of Insect Conservation. It explores differences in butterfly assemblages in five habitat types represented in the Robert J. Bernard Field Station in Claremont, finding the highest species richness in areas of native sage scrub and the lowest in non-native grassland. Drought did not have an impact on population counts—a tribute, Dartnell says, to the resilience of local butterflies that have adapted to California’s ever-drier climate.
Frances Hanzawa, associate professor of biology, notes that her Insect Ecology class was Dartnell’s first upper division biology course, and it includes an eight-week self-directed research project. Dartnell chose to investigate cricket escape behavior using slow-motion video and a test arena she created. “It was difficult,” Hanzawa says. “A lot of students would have found this frustrating, but she clearly enjoyed the challenge. She’s creative. She enjoys problem-solving. She has focus and can pay attention to detail while keeping in mind the larger question she is examining, the big picture.”
Though her time on campus was disrupted by the pandemic, Dartnell supplemented her biology studies with summer research. She spent 10 weeks working at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in 2020, and joined a team conducting insect surveys on a military base in the Ozark Mountains last summer. She has also become an advocate for hands-on science education, supporting the Rooftop Garden Project on campus and serving as a teaching assistant for Genetics and Conservation Biology. She one day hopes to become a professor.
The Gates Cambridge Scholarship was established in 2000 with a gift of $210 million to the University of Cambridge by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It was the largest gift ever given to a university in the United Kingdom. Scholars in the program not only receive full tuition and living expenses at the university, but they become part of a community of Gates Cambridge Scholars, both during their academic experience and after they become alumni.
Selection is based on four main criteria: exceptional intellectual ability, potential for leadership, why they have chosen their field of study, and, according to the website, “a commitment to improving the lives of others.”
“Throughout my studies, I’ve been focused on what I’ve learned at Pomona and what I can do to help the world,” says Dartnell. “That focus really made me interested in this scholarship.”
Dartnell calls herself “a hopeless optimist,” an important outlook in an age when discussions around climate change can often be filled with gloom and doom. “I refuse to see things that way,” she says. She tries “to stay positive and take wins when they come.”
For the next four years—and probably long after that—Dartnell will be taking that optimism to her work on land modification to promote bee diversity, with a goal of benefiting not only insect but human populations as well. “We can make small modifications,” she says. “Even little changes can accumulate to a big difference.”