doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

Tag: fruit fly

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 (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.

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.

Mosquito

Mosquito

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┬ácompounds 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.