doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

Tag: drosophila

Drosophila Conference: Part II

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 ( 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.

Drosophila Conference: Part I

Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly)

Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly)

Wednesday evening was the start of the Drosophila genetics conference. Over the last couple of days, I have learned so much, both about this amazing model organism, and about the research community that studies it. The first evening, there was an incredible presentation by a recent PhD graduate who had studied olfaction in both Drosophila melanogaster and in the mosquito. As I learned through her presentation, fruit flies have a natural aversion to carbon dioxide. However, they are attracted to decaying fruit (they eat the microorganisms inhabiting the fruit). And fruit emits carbon dioxide. This presents a paradox: why are the fruit flies attracted to the fruit, if they are naturally avoidant when it comes to carbon dioxide? She discovered that there are various compounds (also emitted by the fruit) which inhibit the flies’ carbon dioxide odor reception mechanism. She then extended this work to mosquitoes, which have significant gene homology (similarity) to fruit flies when it comes to their carbon dioxide receptors.



Mosquitoes, though, have the opposite behavior when it comes to carbon dioxide: they are intensely attracted to it. In fact, that’s how they discover humans – by sensing the carbon dioxide plumes that we inhale. (Which I found fascinating; I had no idea that was how they found us!) She tested the same compounds that had inhibited the fruit flies’ carbon dioxide odor receptors, and found that they also inhibited the mosquitoes’ receptors. In essence, she may have found the next generation of mosquito repellents, which could be released into the air rather than applied directly to the skin. In related experiments, she also discovered compounds that mimic carbon dioxide’s appeal to mosquitoes. Her goal in doing this was to try to develop a more effective trapping mechanism for mosquitoes. Apparently, current mosquito traps involve producing carbon dioxide via burning propane or evaporating dry ice, two methods which are both expensive and cumbersome. She did indeed find several compounds that mimic carbon dioxide’s effect on these flying pests, which could be used to trap and kill them. These mosquito solutions may not be as relevant in this country, where mosquitoes are mainly annoying. But mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria are devastating in many third world countries, and coming up with more effective ways to combat the spread of these diseases (via trapping mosquitoes, or repelling them) would be a significant accomplishment. Several wonderful, real-life applications of Drosophila genetics!

Thursday afternoon, I went to a career luncheon sponsored by the Genetics Society of America (GSA). I sat at a table with several undergraduate students, as well as a professor from Tufts and another professor from Albert Einstein College of Medicine. We students were there to learn about choosing the right graduate school (that was the topic at our table – other table topics included science writing, starting a lab, finding a post-doc position, etc.). The professors were very candid and helpful, in terms of helping us learn about the selection, application, and interview processes. I definitely feel I have a better sense of what PhD committees want to see in my research essay after the conversation I had with those professors. This led me to rewrite my “significant research experiences” essay, which is part of the MD/PhD application, yesterday. (And I think the essay is much improved!) One of my own questions related to how to discern the “environment” of a school, or a specific lab. For example, is it super competitive? Is the PI (principal investigator) a true mentor, or is he/she hands off? I told the professors that of course I would love to go visit a dozen schools, but I simply can’t afford to do that. As a student living solely on loans, I’m pretty much flat broke. The professor from Tufts suggested e-mailing graduate students from the PhD programs I am interested in and just asking them what it is like to work and live in that particular school environment. I’m not one to be afraid to ask questions, but I had honestly not thought about this. So that’s something I’m looking forward to doing. It’s tough, because I essentially have two sets of curriculum to evaluate – a medical school’s and a graduate school’s. And because I will (hopefully!) be spending seven to eight years wherever I go, I want it to be a positive experience, as much as possible. I also asked both professors about my own unique background – which is strong in journalism, and perhaps less strong in science than the PhD typical applicant – and how that would be perceived by PhD admissions committees. The Tufts professor said that I could turn what might be seen as a weakness by some into a significant strength. For example, with my writing background, I am in a much better position to successfully write scientific papers and grant proposals than other graduate students, who likely have weaker writing skills. That was very encouraging to me.

I realized this morning that this conference has, overall, been a fantastic opportunity for me to learn more about the research process, community, and experience. I have felt pretty confident in my knowledge about the medical aspect of my application experience and process, but until this week, I have simply had less exposure to the PhD community. What I have absorbed in the last few days will, I believe, help me achieve and succeed in the other half of what I want to do with my life. And that’s a good feeling.

When it comes to conferences – especially ones where you have to shell out some money – you never know what you’re going to get. Will it be worth your while, and worth the expense? In other words, will it deliver? This one definitely has.

Lovely Larvae

On Thursday, I started my work in the Genetics research lab. Granted, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but given that I want to do an MD/PhD, this is the perfect way for me to spend six hours each week (10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Thursday).

Before beginning any actual “research,” my professor had me read two of his own published articles as background information. Both had been published in the journal Cell, which, if you’re not familiar with it, is quite prestigious. So his work has gotten some attention from the scientific community. He and his colleagues have been looking at olfaction (sense of smell) in drosophila larvaeDrosophila melanogaster larvae. In the first paper, they identified a set of genes responsible for olfaction in the larvae (previously, it had not been known which genes controlled the sense of smell in the larvae). This was really quite an accomplishment, and the methods they used were pretty amazing. (Don’t worry, I won’t go into the details unless someone asks!) In the second paper, they looked at behavior of the larvae in response to different organic compounds, both attraction and repulsion. I will be doing an extension of the second work, performing behavioral assays with the larvae and testing their chemotaxis response (that is, movement in response to chemicals). By the end of the semester, I will (hopefully!) have generated quite a bit of data, and will write a formal lab report about my progress.

In addition to doing the behavioral assays, I will also continue to read scientific articles, which will be great – I love getting exposure to more scientists’ work, techniques, etc. And there will be some freedom in the work I do as well – if I want to take the work in a particular direction not previously explored, I have the ability to do that, under my professor’s direction. Which is pretty amazing.

All in all, I look forward to this semester’s work. Who knows what we may find? That is the beauty of science.

Spring Break!

dros confOK, so maybe it’s a bit early to think about spring break, given that the semester just started yesterday. But I have exciting plans. So I want to share them. No, I’m not going to Aruba or Cancun – I’m going to the 53rd Annual Drosophila Research Conference, to be held right here in the Windy City, March 7-11, 2012.

I first heard about this conference last year, when my Research Methods professor, Dr. Kreher, attended it (it was in San Diego then). When I met with him this morning to talk about working with him this semester on his fruit fly research, he brought up the conference … and I immediately decided I would go. It will be a great learning opportunity, first of all – dozens of scientific posters and talks to attend, all about Drosophila genetics. It will also be a great networking opportunity, especially since I’m applying for my MD/PhD this June. You never know whom you will meet at events like this, and what kinds of connections you will make.

I will, of course, post more about it after I attend the conference. I’m sure I will have lots of exciting fruit fly news to share.

And who knows? Maybe some day in the future, I’ll be one of the presenters …


Geneticists, and scientists in general, may not exactly have a reputation as having a sense of humor. But, I argue, many of them truly do. I have evidence to prove it, which I will present in this post. I stumbled across this evidence when searching for an appropriate name for my iPad. I simply Googled “funny gene names,” and came up with a list of sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant, sometimes culturally referenced, names for genes of various organisms (especially my dear Drosophila melanogaster). Here are some of my favorites, taken from a couple of Web sites that I found:,, and I hope they bring a smile to your face, as they did to mine.

These are all from Drosophila melanogaster:

 Gene name History behind name
 18wheeler This gene is expressed in 18 stripes in developing larvae.
 agnostic Agnostic flies fail to learn odors in certain temperatures. Agnostic people also have problems making up their minds.
 amontillado Mutant larvae do not hatch. In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado,” a man who is still alive is walled in.
 brokenheart A mutation in this gene causes a defect in heart development.
 cheap date These mutants are very sensitive to alcohol.
 cleopatra In these mutants, an interaction with the asp gene is lethal. Queen Cleopatra supposedly committed suicide with a poisonous asp.
 clown Mutants’ eyes are red and white.
 coitus interruptus Mutant males literally engage in withdrawal during copulation (it lasts about 60% of the normal 20 minutes).
dachshund Flies have crippled legs, resembling this dog species.
dreadlocks The connections between nerve cells of these flies are not correct, and the result resembles the hairstyle of the same name.
drop dead These mutants’ brains deteriorate rapidly; they begin to walk in an uncoordinated way and then die.
dunce These flies have impaired learning.
glass-bottom boat These flies’ larvae are transparent.
grim, reaper These two genes together mediate programmed cell death (apoptosis) in the fruit fly.
groucho Mutants have a greater-than-normal number of bristles (like Groucho Marx).
icebox Female icebox mutants do not care about courting males.
ken and barbie Both male and female mutants lack external genitalia (like Ken and Barbie).
limo This gene is involved in protein transport.
lot A Biblical reference: mutants like salt more than usual.
lush Mutation causes increased desire for alcohol.
out cold Mutants lose coordination when the temperature falls, and eventually become paralyzed.
sarah Mutants are practically sterile (another Biblical reference, to Sarah, Abraham’s wife).
stuck Mutant flies get stuck in females.
swiss cheese Mutants have holes in their brains that resemble swiss cheese.
van gogh Swirling wing hair patterns resemble van Gogh’s paintings.
yuri Mutants have difficulty with gravity. The gene was found on the 40th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic space flight.

Thanks to the tinman Web sites I referenced above for these gene names and explanations; visit the site for more. Fun stuff!