Jonathan Koch was bit by the entomology bug while an undergraduate at UH Hilo. Now he’s back at the university with a PhD and a passion for pollinators.
By Anne Rivera.
An alumnus of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo who has returned to the university as a postdoctoral fellow has won the 1st runner-up award in a video competition hosted by the Entomological Society of America.
Jonathan Koch, a conservation entomologist specializing in bees, and team members Ethel Villalobos, an entomologist and member of the Honey Bee project at UH Mānoa, and Jonathan Wright, a graphic designer with Hazard Design in Honolulu, joined up to enter the annual 2017 YouTube Your Entomology Contest. Their video, “The Odd Couples: Pollinators” (see details about production), has won the runner-up award out of more than 30 entries.
- 1st Place: Ant Plants: Cecropia – Azteca Symbiosis (By Peter Marting, Arizona State University; and Andrew Quitmeyer, National University of Singapore)
- Runner-Up: The Odd Couples: Pollinators (By Ethel M. Villalobos, UH Mānoa; Jonathan Wright, Hazard Design; and Jonathan Koch, UH Hilo)
- Honorable Mention: Bt Sweet Corn: Is It Safe to Eat? (By Galen Dively, Ian Howard, and Taylor Schulden, University of Maryland)
- Honorable Mention: The Soil Food Web (By Maxwell Helmberger, Cornell University)
- Honorable Mention: Method to Create a ‘Window’ Into a Butterfly Wing (By Aaron Pomerantz, University of California, Berkeley)
The Koch team video discusses the natural history of bees and their value and diversity along with the current threats to bee populations.
“We wanted to provide an opportunity for people to learn how they can help bees on an individual level,” explains Koch, who, in addition to conducting research, is now a UH Hilo adjunct assistant professor. “Our video provided a platform for us to talk about the value of bees to a broader audience.”
Wright helped with the creation and production of the video, while Villalobos was the storyboard designer and lead investigator. Koch helped edit and narrate the video.
“It’s the responsibility of scientists to figure out a way to communicate better,” he says. “That’s the mission of the video.”
He adds, “The biggest challenge, was finding the time, especially when balancing teaching and research duties.”
Koch has returned to UH Hilo after graduating with a bachelor of science in environmental science and a bachelor of arts in geography in 2008. He was awarded a UH Hilo Chancellor’s Scholarship after graduating from Wai‘anae High School on O‘ahu in 2003. Although he struggled to nail down a major during his first years as an undergraduate, Koch knew he wanted to work in science.
And now pollinators, especially bees, are a passion.
“I got sucked into pollinators,” he says about taking a conservation biology class during his junior year. “These animals that move pollen from flower to flower with the goal of feeding these floral resources to their offspring excited me.”
About bees in particular, he says, “Bees have interesting lives where they collect pollen for the protein and nectar for the sugar, but they are economically important and provide ecosystem services through pollination.”
It is estimated that one in three bites of food is the product of pollination, so human livelihood depends heavily on pollinators, like bees. Over the last decade and a half, bees have been on the decline—this is due to various factors that include disease, climate change, and competition with nonnative species.
Koch says this is why he decided to go into insect protection and conservation.
“I wanted to pursue a career to understand how insects respond to the environment, in terms of their genetics, health, and ability to reproduce,” he says. “Bees are vital. They inspire me to do this type of research.”
As an undergraduate in 2007, Koch earned a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) internship with the Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Sciences (PIPES), which allowed him to venture up to Mauna Loa and observe plants.
“It blew my mind because I could just sit outside all day and watch plants,” he says. “It was quiet, and all these little insects moved and did really cool things.”
After some encouragement from advisors and mentors, Koch applied to graduate school and attended Utah State University with a full fellowship to do research on a declining bumble bee species. This project focused on pollinator conservation, which Koch says, “was a perfect fit.” He earned his master of science in biology and doctor of philosophy in ecology from Utah State.
Returning to UH Hilo
“The reason I’m back at UH Hilo is because I wanted to be a part of the program, and do meaningful research here again,” explains Koch.
He was awarded a National Science Foundation competitive postdoctoral fellowship grant, which focuses on the broadening participation in the sciences and is specifically geared for those looking to work with universities in broadening diversity.
“What better place than UH Hilo,” says Koch.
He currently is doing research on invasion genomics, which includes an examination of large portions of whole genomes to understand the genetic diversity of invasive species.
Although he is primarily at UH Hilo as a researcher, Koch does teach courses for the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science graduate program and mentors graduate, undergraduate, and PIPES students.
“I love teaching, it’s a lot of fun,” he says.
Currently Koch is investigating the genetic structure of an invasive fly in Hawai‘i that has been here since the 1980s. His main research focus at UH Hilo is in agricultural insects like Spotted Wing Drosophila (Drosophila suzukii). On the mainland, these species can wreak havoc on farms as they primarily infest soft, fleshy fruits like grapes, blueberries, and raspberries.
Before expanding globally in 2001, Spotted Wing Drosophila made a stop in Wai‘anae, O‘ahu in 1982, and is now found throughout the major Hawaiian islands.
“My goal is to study how invasive species evolve rapidly in places like Hawai‘i,” says Koch. “I am interested in using genetics to answer a fundamental question in evolutionary ecology, including ‘How fast do species evolve?’ and ‘How do invaded environments shape evolution?’”
Through the use of new genomic tools, Koch can study whole genomes to monitor very small changes in gene frequencies over time, which may help to answer these fundamental questions.
Koch says he wants to be a better educator and learn more from the students he teaches. He says the pollinator video is an example of how important good story telling is to the scientific community.
“My goal is to raise awareness of the value of insects on our planet and see more engagement in the sciences,” he says. Through his research, he says, he feels he can tell a good story, which is needed in order to inspire people to think and care about “your small piece of the world.”
“Science is meant to inform people, so they can make decisions,” says Koch, “It is our job to do the science, it is your job to make the decisions. To inform the public there must be scientific engagement, and projects like our YouTube video help facilitate opportunities for people to critically think about nature and science.”
About the author of this story: Anne Rivera (senior, communication) is a public information intern in the Office of the Interim Chancellor.
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