Miyauna Incarnato, squatting in a grass field.
Miyauna Incarnato, a biology graduate student who is studying monarch butterflies, was drawn to the Nebraska prairie, where she does most of her research. Photo courtesy of Miyauna Incarnato.

As the heart of the monarch butterfly migratory flyway, Nebraska plays a significant role in the lives of the endangered species.

And University of Nebraska-Lincoln biology graduate student Miyauna Incarnato is striving through her research to conserve the monarch butterflies, which have drastically decreased since the 1990s.

Incarnato grew up in Akron, Ohio, but chose to attend UNL primarily because of its National Science Foundation National Research Traineeship Program. She said it is a collaborative experience in which she can work with other graduate students in different areas of study. 

She was also drawn to Nebraska specifically since the state has prairies and UNL is more nature-oriented compared to other schools. 

“I was really excited to come out here to Lincoln that offers a lot of maybe the more amenities that you’re looking for in a big city, but is only a drive away from a lot of the environments I want to study,” Incarnato said. 

Kristi Montooth, Susan J. Rosowski associate professor of biology and one of Incarnato’s advisors, said she met Incarnato when she joined her research group this past fall. 

“I was just really struck by her enthusiasm,” Montooth said. “She has a really amazing, inspirational personality.”

Montooth said she noticed Incarnato’s honesty about her thoughts and views and felt like she carries a real sense of integrity in herself and her work.

Conservation is at the core of Incarnato’s passions and of her research. Incarnato said conservation is important to every aspect of people’s lives because by making the world a better place, it makes the quality of life better overall.

Incarnato said her research will investigate the impact of urban environments on monarch butterflies. The research will do this by contrasting the performance of monarch butterflies in both prairie and urban habitats in summer and fall conditions that induce migration. She said her research will test her prediction that monarchs in prairie environments have a higher survival rate and greater adult performance compared to those in urban environments. 

She said she was inspired to conduct this research when she was an undergraduate student and worked with bees on prairies. 

“I wanted to broaden my horizons a little bit for graduate school and one of the species I’ve always wanted to study is monarchs,” Incarnato said. “They have this wonderful timing on this huge migration and as much as people know of monarchs, not as much is known about monarchs as we would like to think.”

Research suggests that there is currently an insect apocalypse, meaning insect rates are declining at an alarming rate. Studies also show that monarch butterfly populations have also declined in the last 30 years, according to Incarnato. 

“I think that monarch populations are a particularly important species to study,” Incarnato said. “I hope to do my part of the puzzle by looking at our urban environments and trying to see what is affecting them.”

Incarnato said insects usually can be used as a sort of bioindicator species, meaning that when they are struggling in certain environments, it can be a sign that other species and animals are going to struggle as well. 

“So by studying these large populations with these very distinct ecological patterns, we can hopefully make some conclusions, not only about their populations, but even start to learn something about other butterflies or may even other insects as well,” Incarnato said. 

Montooth said Incarnato’s research will give good insight into how garden planting practices might impact monarch butterflies to help with their survival rate. 

“I’d say if she asks to do some monarch research in your backyard, you will be happy to have her there,” Montooth said. “She’s really a pleasure to work with.”

Incarnato said she wants to encourage children to get involved in science because growing up, she felt like working in a science field was unattainable.  Now, she feels that there are a lot of avenues into science and different types of science that people can pursue. 

“It’s really fun and it’s something I want to show students that there are lots of ways you can do it and as long as you can ask questions, you can be a scientist,” Incarnato said. 

She said one’s educational background, especially before college, does not matter as much as people assume when it comes to careers in science. 

“I failed Chem as an undergrad the first time I took it and I took it again. That’s ok. It’s okay to fail. It’s okay to have to do things over,” Incarnato said. “I think the important part is that you keep trying and you find what you want to do even if you do fail, that you’re not scared of failure. Failure isn’t necessarily that you can’t do it, it’s that you have to find how you can do it in your way.”

Hello! I'm Carly Jahn and I'm a senior journalism major and I'm minoring in criminal justice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Besides reporting for Nebraska News Service, I also work as a news editor at The Daily Nebraskan. I'm interested in investigative journalism and giving people a platform to share their voice.