Drosophila Conference: Part II

by Lorien E. Menhennett

Things are coming together, thanks to the Drosophila genetics conference I have been attending this week. What exactly do I mean? What I mean is that I think I have discovered what I want to study for my PhD. And it represents a beautiful dovetailing of my research passion, and clinical compassion.

Let me explain. On Thursday afternoon, I attended a session at the conference entitled “Drosophila Models of Human Disease.” This was the session I was most excited about, because disease is what I am interested in. Although until Thursday, I wasn’t sure which disease. That became more clear to me after a presentation by Dr. Susumu Hirabayashi from Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He presented his work on “A Drosophila Model Linking Diet-induced Metabolic Disease and Cancer.” In other words, a compelling example of how diabetes and cancer are connected. (Which is something I was not aware of previously.) I found myself riveted throughout the presentation – it was an elegant, and eloquent, demonstration of the use of Drosophila melanogaster genetics to explore a disease that has devastating implications for the people who suffer from it. To be more precise, some 25.8 million people in this country alone, according to the American Diabetes

Association (http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/diabetes-statistics/). That is, approximately, a whopping 8.3% of the U.S. population. And that proportion is only going to get higher as baby boomers age, and as more and more people become overweight and obese.

Diabetes is not unfamiliar to me. In fact, only a few days ago, I wrote a blog post about a diabetic patient at the free clinic where I work as a Spanish medical translator who refused to start taking insulin, and the lessons I learned from that encounter. Probably the majority of the patients for whom I translate have diabetes, in part due to the fact that Latinos are at a higher-than-average risk for this disease (as are African-Americans). From those translating sessions, and from conversations with doctors at the clinic, I have learned a great deal about the various complications associated with diabetes, as well as the treatments for it.

As I sat listening to Dr. Hirabayashi’s presentation on Thursday, it clicked: studying diabetes would represent for me a confluence of my passion for genetics research, my compassion for the Latino community, and also my clinical experiences and knowledge thus far. I found myself nearly bouncing with excitement (although I contained myself, for the sake of the conference attendees sitting behind me).

The next day, I rewrote my “significant research experiences” essay (which is for my MD/PhD application) to reflect what I had learned at the career luncheon, as well as to reflect my discovery of this new research – and clinical – interest. Which really isn’t so new; it’s more a matter of me only now putting the pieces together. I also began investigating laboratory research opportunities to study diabetes and other metabolic disorders at various graduate schools. I found many such opportunities, both at schools that were already on my “to-apply-to” list, as well as schools that were not. (I will likely be adjusting that list accordingly.) I also discovered that my dual experience with two of the most popular model organisms in science – mice and fruit flies – will serve me well, as most researchers studying diabetes use one of those animals in their work.

If I do indeed decide to study diabetes (for the PhD side), that would lend itself very nicely to becoming an endocrinologist (for the MD side). That would involve doing a residency in internal medicine, and then a fellowship in endocrinology. I have been wanting to find a research subject that coordinated with a medical specialty, and this does exactly that.

Do I have it all figured out? No. Could I change my mind on this? Sure. But it is nice to have a jumping-off point, and a potential goal, as I embark on this MD/PhD journey.