Helena resident to study iguanas

June Johnson, a Mississippi State University student who hails from Helena, received a $2,000 summer research grant at the beginning of May from MSU’s Shackouls Honors College.

Johnson, 19, is doing her research on the genetics of a certain species of iguana, Bartsch’s iguana, in the hopes of helping with conservation.

Johnson said she had to pull her grant application together hurriedly, so she was surprised when she found out she won.

“I had just heard about it a week and a half before they announced the winners,” she said. “I was just shocked.”

This is the first year that MSU’s honors program has been able to give out these awards, said Honors College Associate Director Kevin Knudson.

“We were able to select about 11 students. We were very selective. Not even half of everybody who applied was accepted,” he said. “June’s project was one of the better ones.”

Since undergraduate research is new to MSU, Johnson said she’s happy to be a part of the inaugural program.

“I’m only a junior now, and I can do research and be rewarded for it,” she said.

Bartsch’s iguana, which is an endangered species, is native to the islands of the Bahamas. Scientists are trying to move the iguanas from human-populated islands to islands free from human influences, Johnson said.

Studying the iguanas’ genetics is important because the iguanas are found on many different islands in the Bahamas. The iguanas from different islands have key genetic differences, and scientists want to be sure those differences are still represented when the animals are moved, she said.

The information scientists glean from the iguanas’ move can help later if other species need to undergo the same process, Johnson said.

Johnson said she’s not sure what she wants to do upon finishing her undergraduate degree in biology sciences. Veterinary school or graduate school is probably in her future, she said.

Knudson said Johnson’s attitude and intelligence would help her along the way to accomplishment.

“She’s very self-motivated. She’s very bright and very enthusiastic,” he said. “Her faculty supervisor was very excited about working with her. I expect her to be really successful.”