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Four NLS student-scientists rub elbows with professionals

NEW LONDON -- Four New London-Spicer students got a taste of the professional scientist's life when they presented their research on monarch butterflies at a national conference last month.

Emily Molenaar, 16, Matthew Molenaar, 13, Daniel Garding, 13, and Joe Shekleton, 14, who moved to Wheaton this school year, shared their research at the Conservation of the Monarch Butterfly: Population Dynamics and Migration conference in California.

The students are among about 20 area children and teenagers who have been collecting data on monarch butterflies in the New London area during the summers. The data is used by the University of Minnesota's Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, which collects data from volunteers throughout the United States and Canada.

The conference was held in San Luis Obispo, Calif., on Dec. 8 and 9. The students displayed poster boards of their research over two days and fielded questions from scientists, including Lincoln Brower, a renowned monarch biologist.

Emily Molenaar said being able to present at such a conference was "really cool."

"We learned a lot and it was great being with friends," she said.

They traveled with Laura Molenaar, a NLS elementary science teacher who started the local student monitoring program. She is also Emily and Matthew's mother. Donations from the University of Minnesota, Waterfowl Association and the New London Izaak Walton League funded the trip.

The students presented their research from the past two years of monitoring monarchs at Stoney Ridge Farm in rural New London. Matthew Molenaar and Garding compared the monarch populations between 2004 and 2005.

Emily Molenaar and Shekleton examined whether Stoney Ridge Farm produced a greater percentage of monarchs than the rest of Minnesota.

"They were sharing on a truly equal level with lifetime scientists," Laura Molenaar said.

The students also listened to scientists present their research to conference attendees and participated in group discussions about monarch biology.

The students are familiar with the migration patterns of monarchs in Minnesota, which fly to Mexico for the winter. But they were unaware until the conference that monarchs also migrated to California from the Rocky Mountains.

Part of the conference included a trip to the San Luis Obispo County monarch wintering site. There, butterflies that have migrated from the Rockies gather in clusters in trees for the winter. It's unknown exactly why they cluster, but Emily Molenaar suspects it could be to keep warm. It may also be a protection mechanism against predators, Laura Molenaar said.

The students also learned information they can use this summer when they begin monitoring again. They learned more about parasites that can affect monarchs and the effects pesticides might have on the monarch population.

In the small group discussions, researchers talked about how it was sometimes difficult to find the exact information they wanted on the Internet. Emily suggested creating a Web site that would be a central location for monarch research with links to projects. Monarch researchers are looking into having such a Web site, Emily said.

There were a few other students groups at the conference, and the NLS students hope to keep in touch with them. They may even plan a trip to visit a group from Arlington, Texas.

The teenagers also got to take in a few more typical California attractions. They visited the beach and saw the Hollywood sign, which "is not as great as you'd expect," Matthew said.

"I think they airbrush it," Emily Molenaar added.

Despite their scientific research experience, Emily Molenaar, Matthew Molenaar and Garding aren't considering careers in research biology. Emily Molenaar, though, is thinking about going into medicine.

For more on the monarch project, visit