Sunday, June 16, 2024

Fourth generation Griz graduate carves path of research at UM

| May 10, 2024 12:00 AM

MISSOULA – As a fourth-generation Griz, human biology senior Drew Engellant’s University of Montana roots run deep. But he’ll leave his own unique legacy of research and creative scholarship upon graduating this spring.

Before Engellant became a Griz like his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents before him, he grew up in Kalispell with a keen appreciation for the natural splendor of Big Sky Country and a passion for exploring it.  

“I think the time I enjoyed the most was whenever I could sneak away to Glacier National Park,”  Engellant said. “I just fell in love with climbing the mountains.”

Engellant also spent his childhood playing lots of sports, including football, tennis and lacrosse. But his main sport was basketball, where he spent quality time on the court learning from one of Griz Nation’s best: three-time all-Big Sky Conference star and Engellant’s father, Daren Engellant. 

Between his love for the grandeur of the Treasure State and a desire to stay relatively near his close-knit family, Engellant considered universities throughout Montana and eastern Washington when it came time for college. 

A visit from the Davidson Honors College to his hometown helped affirm Engellant’s choice to become another generation of Griz. When he visited UM’s campus a few months later and dropped by the DHC, he was struck by how everybody seemed to know him not as just another prospective student, but as an individual. 

“Everyone in the honors college remembered my name,” Engellant said. 

Engellant opted to abstain from playing sports in college when he committed to UM and instead focus energy on his affinity for biological sciences and gaining practical research experience in University labs. The choice let Engellant recreate in his free time, learning to backcountry ski and continue to traverse the tops of nearby mountains.

“I love Missoula for that reason,” he said.

Engellant’s place in the honors college helped him stand out among 200 students in UM’s Genetics and Evolution class freshman year and form a mentor relationship with Regents Professor of Evolutionary Biology Douglas Emlen, who teaches the course’s honors section.

“He has all the things I look for in stars. He was really interested and engaged, always upbeat and positive,” Emlen said of Engellant. “I was impressed enough that I asked him to join my lab.”

Emlen studies the evolution of exaggerated animal weapons, like the horns found on rhinoceros beetles. He invited Engellant and four other undergraduate students to research the mating habits of rhinoceros beetles, manipulating the diets of male beetles and studying how their level of nourishment did or did not affect females’ willingness to mate. 

Engellant and the other students spent their summer working together to coordinate feeding, measuring and weighing of the beetles, as well as setting up courtship sequences for 200 male and female pairs. 

Rhinoceros beetle mating behavior involves the male climbing onto the female and conducting a song and dance routine on her back. Engellant’s role was to point a laser at the beetles and record their trembling while courting on the side of a tree. 

“It took a bit of finesse, and Drew was really good at it,” Emlen said. “He’s a dream student to have in the lab.”

The researchers hypothesized that the female’s decision to mate may depend on the nourishment of the male, but Emlen said results showed the females did not appear bothered by whether their prospective partners were well fed or not. 

Engellant said the opportunity to provide input on the research so early in his college career gave him the confidence and ambition to work on larger projects as an undergraduate. 

“Research wasn’t really on my radar,” he said. “I was super lucky to get involved my freshman year.”  

After finishing up with Emlen’s lab, Engellant followed his interest in human biology and became involved with the Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism, a research center directed by UM Professor Brent Ruby. 

Starting at 5 a.m. most mornings before class, Engellant helps study human performance and physiology under extreme environmental stressors. The research focuses on heat acclimation to help U.S. Air Force members adjust to conditions before they’re deployed.

While the two labs differ significantly in their area of focus, Engellant said, the connecting thread is the vast opportunities each experience has opened him up to. 

“Being involved in research gives me real-world application,” Engellant said. “I think it’s given me a more holistic education.”

Between classes and the lab, Engellant found time to work as a certified nursing assistant in a hospital’s orthopedic and neurology department, often putting in 12-hour shifts. The work helped glean insights into his future career goals. 

Engellant also continued his mentor relationship with Emlen out of the lab and into the mountains, leading him and his lab on steep treks up peaks in Glacier National Park.

“We’d never done anything as dramatic as that, and we’d never have been able to do it without Drew. I think it's a testament to his leadership,” Emlen said, adding that Engellant offered to lead him up mountains again this summer. 

After graduation, Engellant will stick around UM to complete a master’s of science in business analytics. Once finished, he plans to pursue a career in data analytics in the fields of health care or biology. 

“I want him to discover the things that light his fire unequivocally,” Emlen said of his mentee’s future. “I think his path right now is a good one.”

While he expects to eventually leave Montana to follow his ambitions, Engellant plans to return to the state he calls home. 

“I want to be valued as a contributing member of my society,” Engellant said of his career hopes. “But ultimately, my goal is working a job that also allows me to be with my family.”