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ASU junior presents his research on Capitol Hill

ASU junior Gabriel Zilnik is among scores of ASU undergraduate students who are supplementing their classroom education with hands-on research experience in laboratories and field sites across the Valley.

He also is one of 74 young researchers selected from a pool of more than 700 national applicants to present a poster on the results of his research at the Council on Undergraduate Research on April 13 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Zilnik, an anthropology major from Mesa, has spent the last year working in the lab of James Hagler, a research entomologist at the USDA Arid-Land Agricultural Research Center in Maricopa, Ariz., as part of the School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research Experience (SOLUR) program.

In Hagler’s lab, Zilnik developed an indirect method to investigate scavenging activity of ladybugs and the soft-winged flower beetle. The new method, which involves spraying chicken and rabbit immunoglobulin proteins onto other insects eaten by the ladybug and flower beetle predators, will ultimately be used in field studies to discern active predation from scavenging activities.

Zilnik's interest in research first manifested itself when he worked in research laboratories while attending Mesa Community College. Yet other passions intervened: Zilnik's love for playing guitar led him to "live the dream" and quit school in an attempt to become a full-time musician in New York City and Los Angeles. The hyper-competitive music industry forced Zilnik to work in retail, at which point he "realized how valuable an undergraduate education could be."

"I decided to move back to Phoenix and attend ASU,” Zilnik says. “I had a number of friends who were at ASU and liked it, and I thought I would like the research opportunities available." Zilnik has gone on to volunteer in a number of labs at ASU.

"My biggest piece of advice for any undergraduate would be to get involved in research,” he says. “I think it would be great if every undergraduate student had some sort of research experience. It is not that difficult to contact professors who do work that you may find interesting and ask to volunteer with them. After you are volunteering, ask yourself, 'do I really like this work?' If you do, great! Keep working hard. If not, then take that as something that you have learned and move on."

For Zilnik, agricultural research at the USDA is the perfect match. In hindsight, this match makes sense: Zilnik, a first-generation college student, says his parents, who immigrated to the United States from Poland, had previously worked on farms and that farming has always played an important role in their family.

“But beyond doing the agricultural research, I want to be one of the people who bridges the gap between science and the public. All of this great research goes on every day without the general public knowing any of it,” Zilnik says. “I want to change that and try to bring science to the community.”

In some ways, the conference Zilnik was selected for is geared towards doing just that: bridging the distance between science and the community. The conference, hosted by the non-profit Council for Undergraduate Research, is held annually in order to highlight the importance of federal funding for undergraduate research.

Government-funded research grants set aside funds to allow scientists to sponsor Research Experiences for Undergraduates, or REUs tailored to work in the laboratories.

"I definitely would not have been able to do this research if it was not for the REU," Zilnik says.

After he graduates from ASU in May 2012, he plans to get his doctorate in agricultural studies.
Eventually, Zilnik hopes to be involved in policy work.

He says that there were many eye-opening moments while he was in the nation’s capital. “Washington is a beautiful, vibrant city… I do genuinely believe that the people who work there are trying to make a difference and do what they think will be best for our country."

While in Washington, Zilnik scheduled a meeting with U.S. Representative David Schweikert, whose 5th congressional district includes Tempe and ASU, but the federal budget debate required a postponement.

"I’m not discouraged. I believe that there need to be open lines of communication between scientists and Congress, and I’ll try again during the Easter recess. I want to talk about the importance of undergraduate research at ASU, what that means to constituents (myself included) and the country as a whole.”

Conributed by Daniel Garry, School of Life Sciences intern

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