Tag Archives: Research

Fruitless remains ever-fruitful: a genetic story of love and aggression

One of the most exciting prospects of biological inquiry lies in its potential to explain the peculiarities of our own lives. Human behavior provides some of the most spectacular examples of the output of a fundamentally biological system, the brain, but despite decades of remarkable research spanning the scale of neurotransmitters, to brain hemispheres, to interactions on the internet, we struggle to firmly explain the biological (and environmental) underpinnings of any given human behavior.

Luckily, some of our behaviors aren’t exclusive to our species. Chimpanzees seem to mourn the death of family members. Ants are capable of organizing into social hierarchies that eerily resemble human social structures.  Even the lowly fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, goes through bouts of light and heavy sleep that resemble human sleep cycles. All these examples suggest that the biology of behavior might be conserved in the same way that many genes are conserved from fly to human, and hint that perhaps the same genes control similar behaviors in wildly different organisms – a hint that tantalizes scientists to this day.

Thomas H. Morgan, the Nobel-prize-winning biologist who popularized the use of the fruit fly, D. melanogaster, as the model organism of choice for modern genetics, pictured in his Fly Room at Columbia University. <a href="http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1933/morgan-article.html"> Source </a>

A century ago, when the fruit fly was popularized as a model organism by the lab of Thomas Morgan, these similarities were fairly well-appreciated, but tools for manipulating fly genetics and observing fly behavior were lacking.  Fifty years later, researchers were better-prepared to manipulate the fruit fly genome, thanks to advances made in prior decades with mutating the fly genome with x-rays. In 1963, a researcher at Yale named Kulbir Gill used this technology to create mutant flies that lacked the typical behavioral program ensuring male pursuit of female partners for reproduction. These mutant male flies courted male and female partners equally, and utterly failed to reproduce. Gill dubbed this mutation ‘fruity,’ a less-than-appropriate pun on the fruit fly and its mating strategy, but limited his observations to a short note in a fly journal, declining to investigate further.

Undergraduates are needed

_DSC0097The University of California is a powerhouse of STEM research, whose prestigious faculty harnesses the skills of an army of graduate students and postdocs. Those young scientists are the engines of scientific progress. They build their psyches around the idea that they are the young elite of academia. No one gets to Berkeley without the benefit of research experiences at the undergraduate level.

In spite of this, many graduate students and postdocs with whom I’ve spoken are downright dismissive of the contributions of undergrads in the lab. This has lead to a chilly environment for students seeking to do research at Berkeley, while their peers at schools like Reed and St. Lawrence are literally guaranteed senior research experiences. These other schools understand that even for students not planning to go to graduate school, the experience of working in a real lab is invaluable.

Though UCB has recently improved, adding courses like CHEM-96, the SMART program, and the fourth annual Undergrad Research Symposium, we’re still a decade behind. The reticence on the part of many faculty and graduate students to be part of the solution is antiquated.

During my time at Berkeley, I’ve had the pleasure of working with two undergraduate students. I’m going to tell you the reasons why I recommend that every graduate student do the same.

More on the future of scientific discourse

Hearst EdificeTechnology is inevitably changing how scientists interact with journals and, ultimately, with each other. Consider workshops such as BeyondthepPDF2 and platforms hosting primary literature discussion such as Journal Lab. If this is the future, how can graduate students find security in future incentives with subjectively “classical” contributions? By re-evaluating the assessment criteria and the process of dissemination for scientific findings in a technological age, we can work identify the gaps in scientific discourse that need to be filled.

Graduates are confronted with using new approaches to scientific discourse while maintaining previous Gutenberg-inspired methods (e.g. paying publishers to sell it, paying more for color photos when ink is no longer an issue, etc.) . Chris Holdraf writes an insightful overview to how training in graduate school is shaping the world beyond the walls of academia in his article Beyond Academia: a new approach to PhDs. Future jobs for scientists include the possibility of filling in these gaps, and science hubs and blogs are becoming epicenters for real-time data sharing and discussion, like platforms being established by PLOS, for instance.

Inspiration from abroad

Fourteen hours into a 21 hour train ride, I began to second-guess myself: had I make a mistake in weighing the cost vs. benefit ratio of my trip?  After 19 hours of flights and layovers to reach St. Petersburg, a maze of buses and subways, a 21 hour train ride to a small town in northwest Russia, a concerning “off road” bus ride to a discrete dock, and a very cold boat ride through the gray bleakness, we finally reached the remote field station along the White Sea.  I was exhausted, and (as the person who had travelled the farthest) becoming concerned that perhaps I was being too indulgent with time, money, and resources by travelling this far to learn protocols and information that I could have probably obtained by reading a paper or walking to a neighboring lab at Berkeley.

Fourteen hours into the program, I had no more doubts – travelling halfway around the world to discuss scientific questions and to collaborate with researchers from various parts of the world is absolutely worth it.