ARCS Foundation honors doctoral candidates with 2013 awards

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Talia S. Ogliore, (808) 956-4531
Public Information Officer
Posted: May 23, 2013

Jonathan L. Whitney:  Department of Biology, College of Natural Sciences
Jonathan L. Whitney: Department of Biology, College of Natural Sciences
Zachary L. Bergeron:  Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering, CTAHR
Zachary L. Bergeron: Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering, CTAHR

Twelve UH Mānoa graduate students have received $5,000 awards from the ARCS Foundation Honolulu Chapter in support of their ongoing research and scholarship.  Two of these students were recognized with 2013 “Scholar of the Year” awards in Scientific Merit and Potential Societal Benefit categories, winning an additional $1,000. The ARCS Foundation Honolulu Chapter has given more than $1.5 million in awards to UH students since its inception in 1974.

Scholar of the Year -- Scientific Merit

Jonathan L. Whitney:  Department of Biology, College of Natural Sciences

Genetic populations separated by physical barriers such as steep mountain ranges are often invoked to help explain how species diverge—but in the ocean there are few such obstacles.  Jonathan Whitney is working to describe a different type of evolutionary process for speciation on coral reefs, hotspots for Earth’s biodiversity.

Whitney is studying a common Hawai‘i reef fish called the arc eye hawkfish that exhibits two permanent color morphotypes—one uniformly dark and the other lighter and striped.  The two color morphotypes appear to have diverging ecologies, occupying slightly different habitats on the reef and yet overlapping enough to allow interbreeding.

“Due to ecological complexity on reefs, these fish are experiencing different selection pressures, despite being right next to each other,” said Whitney, whose research combines ecology, behavior, and genetics. “By studying the arc eye hawkfish, we can get a better sense of how natural selection may restrict gene mixing and split a single species into two, even without physical barriers.”

Whitney’s work provides the first direct evidence of a marine fish species’ divergence in Hawai‘i’s waters and may offer the first glimpse of the actual gene changes involved in speciation while divergence occurs.

His findings could have profound implications for the conservation of marine fishes.

“If we can understand how and on what spatial scale natural selection affects gene flow between populations, we will be better equipped to manage marine populations and ultimately improve species conservation,” Whitney said.

In addition to the Scholar of the Year Award, Whitney is the recipient of the ARCS Foundation’s Maybelle Roth Award in Conservation Biology.

Scholar of the Year -- Potential Societal Benefit

Zachary L. Bergeron:  Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR)

Peptide toxins pack the punch in the venom of spiders, scorpions, snakes and cone snails. These toxins target ion channels that regulate physical processes in the nervous system. Agricultural researcher Zachary Bergeron is exploring peptide toxins for their potential for controlling mollusk pests, like the snails that are vectors for rat lungworm parasite.

Bergeron is using biofluorescence as a sort of “molecular lightbulb” to measure the activity of compounds derived from the toxin of endemic Hawaiian cone snails that prey on other mollusks.

He hopes to create a fluorescent ligand-based assay to identify compounds that can be engineered to create biodegradable new molluscicides for use in protecting Hawai‘i’s food crops and the people who eat them.

“Traditional snail baits and snail pellets are often highly toxic to domestic animals and humans, not to mention our own endangered and endemic Hawaiian snails,” Bergeron explained.  “By screening for bioactive molecules in peptide toxins, we can identify the potential building blocks for a safer, more targeted pesticide for agricultural pest control.”

In addition to the Scholar of the Year Award, Bergeron is the recipient of the ARCS Foundation’s Helen Jones Farrar Award in Tropical Agriculture, as well as a number of recent CTAHR recognition awards.

The ARCS Foundation Honolulu Chapter awardees for 2013 include:

Harus Jabran Zahid, Astronomy

Raphael Ritson-Williams, Conservation Biology

Todd A. Baumeister, Computer Science

Emily C. First, Geology and Geophysics

Jennifer H. Rayno and Jeremy B. Young, Engineering

Aaron T. Tamura-Sato, Mathematics

Kelsey O. Roe, Medicine

Julaine M. Ching, Nursing

Patrick M. Stengel, Physics

About the ARCS Foundation (

The Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS) Foundation advances science and technology in the United States by providing financial awards to academically outstanding U.S. citizens studying to complete degrees in science, engineering and medical research.  The ARCS Foundation Honolulu Chapter has awarded more than $1.5 million to University of Hawai‘i scholars.