Pomona College senior with bug passion headed to Cambridge

by Andrew Alonzo | aalonzo@claremont-courier.com

Sofia Dartnell is the one in her friend group who halts everyone during a trip to educate them about, and then photograph, whatever bug has caught her attention. The 22-year-old Pomona College senior loves the outdoors and knows her insects.

She calls her interest in all things multi-legged a passion. Recently, her passion garnered her a prestigious opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. in zoology at Darwin College in the fall of 2022. Officially a Gate Cambridge Scholarship recipient as of January 11, Dartnell will build on her undergrad research, and childhood spent catching insects in her home state of Connecticut.

“It’s crazy, I’m still pinching myself,” she said. “I was in the middle of the [Palm Beach] airport and I was like ‘oh my gosh.’ I think that was one of the moments I was closer to fainting from news.”

Dartnell is one of only 25 Americans and 55 international students selected for the 2022 award, according to Pomona College.

“I felt that there was a chance, and I’m one of those people who likes to throw my hat into the ring and so I knew I had a really good fit with my project and it was something that I was really passionate in. I feel like it’s a tribute to a lot of hard work I put in,” she said.

Twenty years ago, Dartnell was a three-year-old living in the chilly city of Greenwich, Connecticut. She recalled having a typical millennial upbringing mostly watching animal programs like zoo documentaries and “Zoboomafoo.” She remembers the winter weather being unforgiving, so she spent the nicest of Connecticut days and summers outside catching insects.

“From childhood, I’ve really loved being outside and in nature,” Dartnell said. “Summer was really just me sitting outside in our backyard catching bugs.”

Dartnell could not identify a specific a point at which the interest in bugs was planted in her, all she remembers are her earliest childhood moments catching them. She also recalled having numerous books on insects as a child, given to her by her parents, Sabine and Rian Dartnell.

“My parents really helped foster that passion [in me].” she said. “At some point, I can’t even remember when it was because I was that little, but one of my parents got me a bug net and then I had this little terrarium with a magnifying glass on top so I’d catch butterflies, crickets, ants and whatever I could find basically, and just put them in there with some leaves and just watch them for a few hours and then let them go.”

“Really, thanks to my parents for allowing me to have this passion,” Dartnell said. “I know a lot of people are not super bug-friendly, but that was really fun [growing up].”

Her parents became used to their first child’s bug catching antics fairly quickly. It took her three younger siblings much more time to catch on to their big sister’s interests.

Dartnell went to elementary and middle school in Connecticut before attending Rye Country Day School in New York. In school, Dartnell found herself enjoying science and biology courses because they highlighted how people studied the real, living world. She boasts a special love for ecology, describing it as “a current and progressive thing.”

“Not to say the other [fields] are not because obviously they still are. But for example, you look at a flower and you see a hummingbird come to this flower, that’s an immediate, sort of now reaction,” she explained.

While in high school, she enrolled in a biodiversity course one summer and made a week-long trip to Ecuador, an experience which reinforced her love for bugs. She saw the wildlife of the Cloud and Amazon rainforests, and observed biologists carrying out their day’s work. The trip, along with her AP Biology class, showed Dartnell that she could turn her passion into a viable career option.

She remembers a few classmates who were focused on getting into Ivy League schools to become the next big lawyer, doctor or business mogul. When she learned she could take up entomology, it only brightened her smile and horizons.

“I was like, wow people study bugs? That’s awesome,” she said.

In 2018 Dartnell enrolled in Pomona College as a biology major. During her college years, even during the early stages of COVID-19, she immersed herself into various research projects.

From running across Fort Lenard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks during active trainings to capture and study insect life, to, in 2020, spending 10 weeks in Colorado at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory studying native bees as they emerged from the snow, most of her research involved recording data on insect behaviors across various habitats.

In early October 2022, Dartnell will begin her studies at Cambridge’s Darwin College, studying zoology under Lynn Dicks, Ph.D. Dartnell’s research will involve “targeted land modifications” as she’ll be trying to answer the question, “What can [we] do to make a human space more bee friendly?”

To do so, Dartnell will be studying English bumblebees and the ways “agriculture can be modified to make it more bee friendly.”

“There’s basically this novel … land management scheme, it’s called ELM, environmental land management schemes in England set forth by the government to make their land more nature friendly,” she said. “And so my research will … be looking at these different schemes and options these farmers have and seeing which ones of those are actually bee friendly.”

Though she’s extremely thankful to be on the list of recipients, the humble student shared she’s also nervous to share the honor with other such accomplished students.

“I was reading a lot about the other scholars … so I’m honored to be up there,” she said. “But reading about all these other candidates and people who have won the award there was this sense of like, ‘oh my gosh these people are so accomplished,’ like I’ve just studied some bugs.”

Dartnell added that Pomona College and her professors, her past high school and grade school teachers and family have given her the confidence and tools necessary to succeed at Cambridge.

In the meantime, she’s looking forward to graduating from Pomona College in May. On Monday, she said she heard she had been accepted as a leader for the same biodiversity trip to Ecuador that she attended as a high school student. She is, however, still debating the logistics.

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