STEMM Idol Speaker

The fruit-fly and the human brain may not seem to have much in common upon first glance, but Assistant Zoology Professor Joyce Fernandes, PhD, of Miami University made the connection for CJ students Tuesday, March 8 as the month’s STEMM Idol Speaker.

As part of the school’s celebration of Brain Awareness Week, Fernandes along with MU graduate student Matthew Siefert discussed the important role fruit-flies can play as model organisms used for studying the neurobiology of humans. The student/teacher duo has been experimenting with the small, winged insects together in the lab for nearly four years.

Among the many reasons why the fruit-fly is ideal for use in the lab, Fernandes and Siefert cited its similarities to humans; each has a brain and experiences the five senses. Additionally, both grow from baby or larva to adult, encountering a multitude of neurological changes along the way; however, a fruit-fly’s life cycle only takes about 10 days to come to fruition. During this short lifespan, the fruit-fly undergoes different stages in which behaviors are learned including crawling, walking, jumping, flying and mating.

“The brain has to be rewired to accommodate these new motor skills,” Siefert explained to students in the CIL. Likewise he said the brain also accommodates for bodily trauma and aging in much the same way, so by examining this rewiring one can develop a better understanding of certain neurological disorders including Parkinson’s disease, spinal muscular atrophy, Huntington’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.

“It would be impossible to study these diseases in humans,” Fernandes stated. Instead, the genes that cause such disorders can be expressed in the fruit-fly and studied in a safe, controlled and timely manner.

Five questions for an MU graduate student.

Matthew Siefert grew up in Dayton and attended Bellbrook High School. As an undergraduate at Miami University he majored in zoology and minored in neuroscience. He is currently completing his second semester of a two year graduate program at MU and plans to finish with a Masters of Zoology degree. Siefert also teaches two introductory courses at the university and is one of eight graduate students working in the zoology and neuroscience research labs in Oxford.

Why is it important to study zoology?

I think it is important in developing a basic understanding of what’s going on around you. Biological sciences answer some of the basic questions so even if you’re not particularly interested in the subject, I think taking a zoology class would help out just in general to get an understanding of biological functions.

What advice would you give a high school student interested in studying a STEMM-related field in college?

Take classes outside of those subjects to make yourself a better all-around person. It may sound like a pain, but other classes can be awesome and I think they can help you see all sides of things. Coming from a science background you might see things one way, but if you take a religion course you could learn to view something a different way.

What is one thing a high school student can do now to prepare to be successful in college?

Improve your study habits. Personally, I was not very well prepared to study in college. Think of it as learning a whole year’s worth of material in one semester in college.  And you have to read. Some professors encourage you to read at least two hours a night. I don’t think it has to be two hours, but you have to read to keep up with it or you’re not going to get the information you need to pass the exams. I think that is one thing that kids underestimate going in to college, how much they’ll actually have to study on their own.

What is the coolest thing about going to graduate school?

Having it paid for. I was lucky enough to get an assistantship so my school is paid for, and I get paid to do research and teach.

What jobs or careers are available to those with a zoology degree?

A lot of times when you tell someone you’re a zoology major they think you are going to work at a zoo, but there are a lot of venues. Zoology is good for those on the pre-med and pre-veterinary tracks or for anyone wanting to do research .After school, I hope to work for Cincinnati Children’s or do research for Procter & Gamble.