Saturday, March 10, 2012

Drosophila Conference: Part I

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. 

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