Research Offers Multiple Lessons

November 15, 2016
SPOKANE, Wash. – For Gonzaga University biology major Eric Gutierrez, worries about being in the path of a typhoon while in Southeast Asia conducting research on exotic beetles last summer turned out to be the least of his problems. Negotiating the language and cultural barriers the night he arrived got his blood rushing the most.

As part of a National Science Foundation grant studying the evolution of exaggerated traits of the rhinoceros beetle, Gutierrez arrived in Taiwan’s Taichung Ching Chuang Kang Airport around 11 p.m. on July 4. He and his GU advisors had made plans for every aspect of his 26-day research trip, except the first night. For that, Gutierrez figured he would stay at a nearby hotel before his bus departed seven hours later to the research site in Puli – a town located in the center of Taiwan.

Grabbing his research equipment, clothes and laptop, Gutierrez set out from the airport in search of a place to bed down for the night. Finding no accommodations, he grew more anxious and entered a nearby convenience store.

“I didn’t really want to stay there but I thought, ‘why not?’ It turns out this convenience mart is not open 24/7 so I had to leave,” Gutierrez recalls. “By this time, I was walking around at midnight in a town and country I did not know and where I don’t speak the language. I had no idea where to go.”

Headed down the street, Gutierrez spotted a street vendor who tried to help him find a place to stay but, after 30 minutes in the hot and humid air, it was clear frantic hand gestures would not resolve the language barrier.

A couple on a scooter stopped and, seeing Gutierrez needed help, directed a cab back to him.

“I get in and he starts blasting the air conditioning for me. Then, he turned his phone into a hotspot and we could then literally have a conversation via Google Translate. I said I needed a place to stay for the night and then in the morning I have to catch the bus. He dropped me off, gave me his card, so I called him the next morning. He picked me up and took me to get the bus.”

Finally making it to Puli, Gutierrez began his research through the NSF grant biology Professor Brook Swanson received titled “The Evolution of Exaggerated Traits.” The research is being done in partnership with scientists at Washington State University and University of Montana.

Well rested, relaxed and settling into his exploration of the mechanics and material properties of the rhinoceros beetle’s horn, Gutierrez was informed a typhoon was headed his way. Fortunately, the powerful storm withered to only strong wings and scattered rain by the time it arrived in Puli.

Back on campus, Gutierrez, a senior from Healdsburg, California, is continuing his research with Professor Swanson whose grant will provide for additional undergraduate students to travel to Southeast Asia to study the beetles.

“There are differences between a wild beetle and one bred in captivity, so the field experience will be invaluable to understanding the horns,” Swanson said.

For Gutierrez, the research trip offered a tremendous opportunity for hands-on science research and invaluable experience in negotiating a foreign culture and thinking on his feet.

After graduation this spring, Gutierrez plans to take a “gap year” discerning his future and whether he will apply to medical school.