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Scientific Method

Entomologist impressed with student work in return to Washburn

Rebecca Schmidt-Jeffris on campus with a handful of mealworms

From The Ichabod - Spring 2018

The closing remarks to a room of young scientists were an invitation to be innovative and unconventional.

“Follow your next untried path. Do something wonky. Make sure you do what you’re hired to do, but start asking what if, how come and why.”

Rebecca Schmidt-Jeffris, bs ’10, delivered those remarks as keynote speaker on April 7, 2018, at the joint meeting of the Kansas Academy of Science and Kansas Entomological Society. Students from Kansas colleges present their research at the yearly meetings.

“One of the goals for this meeting is to inspire the researchers of the future,” said Rodrigo Mercader, associate professor, biology. “It’s great to have a recent Washburn graduate who is now a professor doing fantastic research. She’s a perfect example.”

Schmidt-Jeffris, who earned a doctorate in entomology from Washington State University in 2015, is an assistant professor at Clemson University, South Carolina, where she maintains a research and extension program. She’s the direct pipeline from her research on mite and insect pest populations to the farmers who need it.

Schmidt-Jeffris grew up loving animals, and while others were playing kickball, she was dissecting weeds. She took that determination to Washburn, but learned her first semester – when she got her only C in cellular biology – you have to buckle down and have a plan. When it was time to choose her undergraduate research project, she wanted to study vertebrates. She remembered tadpoles do not eat their siblings, and with faculty encouragement, she researched whether praying mantises, also cannibals, eat their siblings. They did.

“I’ve never heard a faculty member here say you couldn’t do a research project,” she said. “It’s like, ‘How can we do it? Let’s find a way.’”

For her doctoral research, she went even smaller, researching mites.

“So much can be happening on the surface of a leaf. It’s like the Serengeti, but you’re holding it in the palm of your hand. That’s so cool to me,” Schmidt-Jeffris said.

Returning to Washburn for the weekend meeting, she was impressed with the students’ level of work. Presenting research, she said, is the most important part.

“If nobody knows you found it, you haven’t done the science.”

Reegan Miller, a senior molecular biology and biotechnology student, shared her research on wheat hybrids. She’ll attend graduate school and wants to work on gene therapies for genetic diseases.

“I think I’ll have a lot more confidence since I’ve had the chance to work in a lab, work on a project and work one-on-one with a mentor,” Miller said.

Schmidt-Jeffris is seeing more students researching these levels.

“When I was at Washburn, it was few and far between to see undergraduates working on high-level genetics projects,” She said. “Now, it seems to be the norm.”

Paul Bergeron, a senior environmental biology major, will be on Schmidt-Jeffris’s research team next year when he pursues a master's degree in entomology at Clemson. He presented his findings on what factors make beetles migrate.

“A lot of people think the students coming from Washburn are first or second year master’s students,” he said. “We get a confidence boost and realize how much our professors care and are doing for us.”

Schmidt-Jeffris reflected back on her time at Washburn studying bugs and competing on the debate team.

“Nothing quite kills your fear of public speaking like having to do it every hour on the hour,” she said of debate competitions. “I had just a phenomenal time at Washburn. I love the biology department. It’s wonderfully functional. They all want to work together as a team toward education.”


150 Years of Kansas Science

When John D. Parker called for an organizational meeting in 1868 of what would become the Kansas Academy of Science, he said Kansas needed to bring together scientists and “secure the results which flow from association.” Parker was a professor of natural sciences and higher mathematics at Lincoln College – now Washburn University – when he co-founded KAS. In other positions he held, he helped start science academies in Kansas City, Nebraska and California.

In a letter to the KAS president later in his life, Parker said if people “will continue to cherish these Academies so that they shall become a blessing to multitudes in coming years, and if these Academies will remember that they are closely related in origin, interest and work, and ever bear toward each other those fraternal relations which should characterize scientific brethren, I shall be recompensed beyond any expression of words.”

Quotations compiled from editions of “Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science.”

The Ichabod magazine spring 2021

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. Read the 2021 spring edition online and look for it in mailboxes in May.

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