Briana Ezray credits her mentors for helping her pursue her interests

by University Communications,

As commencement approaches, our graduates reflect on their Willamette experience and share their plans for the future. This is the fourth of our four-part series.

As a seventh-grader in Sacramento, Calif., Briana Ezray ’14 was part of a team that won the state title at the Science Olympiad Competition. Her ability to help identify 26 insect orders enabled her team to advance to nationals at the University of Illinois Champagne-Urbana.

It was there, after seeing her first authentic insect collection, that Ezray was bitten by a passion for bugs.

“I’m passionate about entomology because I think insects are fascinating,” Ezray says. “I don’t really know why. It could be because they’re so different from humans.”

Years later, this interest led Ezray to major in biology at Willamette University and study the native bee population through the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Now she’s preparing to take her research one step further by earning a doctorate in entomology from Penn State.

“I’m both nervous and excited,” says Ezray, who wants to be an entomology professor one day. “Nervous to be moving across the country, but excited to get to start an entomology program.”

Entomology Meets Liberal Arts

When applying to undergraduate schools, many of Ezray’s friends were attracted to large universities with specialized entomology programs. But Ezray wanted something else.

She wanted to attend a smaller school, one where she could forge strong relationships with her professors and peers. After visiting Willamette University and hearing a skateboarder call out “Come to Willamette!” Ezray knew she found a place where she’d thrive.

“People were so friendly and the faculty were really supportive,” Ezray says. “I really liked the friendly atmosphere and the small, close-knit family kind of feel that Willamette has.”

Ezray (or “Breezy,” as she’s known around the biology department) started her freshman year by taking a College Colloquium course, “Willamette Naturalist 2.0,” taught by biology professor David Craig.

It was through that class that Ezray applied for and won a College Colloquium Grant, which enables incoming sophomores to undertake scholarly, creative or professional research projects.

She used the grant to study colony collapse with the Oregon Department of Agriculture — an opportunity owed in part to Craig’s efforts to connect Ezray with a former Willamette faculty member who now works at the department.

“I knew she was a well-organized and attentive student from the very beginning,” says Craig, Ezray’s faculty advisor. “She also has a strong sense of the things she is excited about, what she likes, and one of those things is insects. Knowing her goal of going to grad school in entomology, we just started working on that in College Colloquium.”

Hands-On Experience

During the summer of 2011, Ezray learned the taxonomic identification skills needed to recognize Hymenopterans, the order of insects that comprises sawflies, wasps, bees and ants.

A year later, she applied what she learned by launching a comprehensive survey of the Willamette Valley’s native bee population. Though the job, she selected more than 20 bee sampling sites at farms growing everything from radishes and melons to squash and blueberries. She also trained other ODA staff members how to trap and collect bee specimens themselves.

Through the survey, Ezray wanted to evaluate native bee populations in specialty crop settings, develop a comprehensive list of bees in Oregon and apply conservation efforts where necessary.

“This survey is very important because native bees are a potential alternative pollinator for crops typically pollinated by honey bees,” Ezray says. “This project provided me with hands-on experience in entomology fieldwork.”

A Commitment to Service

Craig says Ezray embodies Willamette’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born,” because she seeks to promote economically and ecologically sustainable farming through her research.

“Her passion for insects is like a superpower,” he says. “You have to figure out how to use your talent to help somebody else who has a problem.”

What’s more, Craig says Ezray will have a lot of knowledge to share with future generations of Willamette students.

“I think Breezy will be a great mentor to future Willamette students as an alum,” Craig says. “She’ll be part of the network of people that I’ll draw on to mentor the next Breezy.”

Although looking forward to earning her doctorate from Penn State, Ezray says her Willamette experience is one she will always treasure. To this day, she’s glad she chose to receive a liberal arts education and become a member of Willamette’s community.

“I’ll miss how supportive people at Willamette are,” she says. “There’s definitely a family here. You can go to anyone on campus and they’ll help you if you need them.”

• Article by Emma Jonas ’15, creative writing major