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A Thesis with an Interdisciplinary Core

Cataloging Lichen through their DNA

Though Brian Colgrove is working towards a degree in Statistics, he has paired his skills as a statistician with his interest in biology to pursue an ambitious Honors thesis project; the “Intermountain West Lichen DNA Reference Library.”

An Honors student from Minnesota, Brian loves to ski, rock climb, scuba dive, compete in triathlons, and do virtually anything outdoors. He is a statistics major, with an emphasis in Biostatistics and a minor in Mathematics. Like many Honors students, his experiences reflect broad interests. Last year Brian received a College Undergraduate Research Award (CURA) from the College of Life Sciences, indicative of his enthusiasm for putting his research skills to work. He particularly enjoyed his study abroad trip to China and Japan where he was able to study the environmental biology of each of those countries' national parks. And, a research project in one of his Honors classes stands out for Brian as a particularly memorable experience when his poster about Neils Bohr, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was included in a display at the I.J. & Jeanné Wagner Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City last year. His involvement with the BYU Honors Program began long before that though! Brian’s two older brothers are both BYU Honors graduates and introduced Brian to Honors before he came to BYU. Brian says he has since learned for himself how much he appreciates the program. He says, “Whether it was making posters highlighting the influence Jewish people had on the 20th century, reading Being Mortal, or writing a research paper on my favorite comedy show, Galavant, I absolutely LOVED the Unexpected Connections courses. [They] were my favorite part of my Honors experience. The professors that taught them were amazing, and the classes were engaging and extremely insightful.” The value behind interdisciplinary thinking now finds its best application in his thesis project.

Brian says his Honors thesis is allowing him to implement another aspect of statistics that he loves -- using data to solve real-world problems. His thesis project came to life during the fall of 2018, when he was in Dr. Leavitt's BIO 130 class. That semester, he learned the importance of research and the significance of being published. This motivated him to get into research with Dr. Leavitt--specifically, in helping another student in the Lichen Lab -- to gain research experience. This project not only gave him research experience, but also was the culminating event that jump-started his own thesis project. Although Brian takes great interest in biology, he and Dr. Leavitt worked towards finding a project that was more suitable for him as a statistics major. This led them to the idea of creating a DNA reference library, titled, “Intermountain West Lichen DNA Reference Library.” Brian then spent most of the Fall 2018 semester writing up a CURA proposal for his project to get funding. His CURA proposal was later accepted and he began working on the DNA reference library. Since then, he has been working on improving, updating, and proving the functionality and practicality of his DNA reference library. He also plans to create several more tables and figures to better represent the data he has collected. As a final step, he intends to compare how his team’s DNA reference library compares to global DNA reference libraries in terms of identifying species based on their DNA barcode. To date, Brian and his team have included 6,000 lichen DNA sequences in their DNA reference library, and that number continues to grow.

Like any thesis project, Brian experienced his fair share of obstacles along the way. Brain admits that in his first meeting with Dr. Leavitt, he didn’t know what a lichen was. This quickly changed as he threw himself into the research of lichen as he assisted another student in the Lichen Lab. He also learned firsthand just how messy science is, noting nothing is for certain. Creating a method of organization of his DNA reference library also presented challenges since species of lichen that are tabled in the DNA reference library may be called by one name, but may in reality be named something completely different. Brian offered the following recommendation to students deciding which path to take in beginning their thesis project: “I would recommend talking to a professor whose research is something you might be interested in. It doesn't matter if you have the experience, as long as you are willing to put in the effort to gain the knowledge you need. I didn't know what a lichen was before I met with Dr. Leavitt. To this day there is still a lot I don't know about them. However, I am learning new things every day, and by doing so, I am getting closer to my goal of publishing my research.”

Brian was able to utilize skills of inquiry for his thesis because his project is “interdisciplinary at its core.” He is not a biology major or minor, but he loves biology and the way that it works with statistics--this is why he’s studying biostatistics! It was difficult for him to approach the Biology department to find a research project without being a biology major. Not only this, but it was especially challenging to write a CURA proposal to a board of biology advisors and professors for approval without a background in the study of biology. However, Brian states that, “It was because I had already taken some unexpected courses that merged two different disciplines into one that I was able to handle it. I had already been exposed to different thinking patterns and knew how to write for a specific audience while not being a part of that group.” Brian’s involvement in the Honors program, and specifically in the Unexpected Connections courses, is what made the difference for him.