Beckman scholar's research could aid threatened species of lizards

headshot: Isabel Thompson
Isabel Thompson, a cell and molecular biology major, was named a Beckman Scholar.
Image Credit: Valerie Wojciechowski

Isabel Thompson has a curiosity about science that keeps her hand in the air during class discussions.

Thompson's curiosity played a large role in her being selected for the national Beckman Scholars Program, a rigorous, 15-month mentored research experience for undergraduate students. Thompson, who is majoring in cell and molecular biology, will receive an award of $21,000 over the course of the program. The program is funded by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation; Grand Valley was selected in 2017 to participate in the program for three years.

Thompson's mentor is Jennifer Moore, associate professor of biology. Thompson said they share a love for amphibians and reptiles, which led to her research project focused on lava lizards in the Galápagos Islands.

Increasing numbers of tourists and land development on the islands has impacted lizards, Thompson said. Her goal is to assess if human interaction has had a distinct effect on the genetics and population levels of lava lizards. Moore visited the islands in 2017 and 2018 to collect samples; Thompson is extracting DNA from those samples.

"The lava lizard is a threatened species," Thompson said. "This work would help inform conservation management plans."

This is not Thompson's first entry-point into research. After her first year at Grand Valley, she worked with Jodee Hunt, professor of biology, over a summer to observe the behavior of large cats at John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids.

Thompson, from Holland, said she has always been comfortable choosing biology as a major. What gave her pause to think was adding a minor. "I settled on anthropology, then statistics at some point. The problem is I like everything and I ask a lot of questions," she said.

Moore said Thompson's passion about research and science will work to her benefit as a researcher.

"Research is born out of strong sense of scientific curiosity, which Isabel embodies," Moore said. "She’s also got the dedication and drive to carry this project through to completion, even over the inevitable speed bumps that are a big part of research."

Susan Mendoza, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship, encouraged Thompson to apply for the Beckman program, which OURS administers. Thompson said completing the essay and interview process was a good challenge.

"It was scary because I was putting myself out there. The process caused me to really think about my place in the scientific community," Thompson said.