Small Insects Have Sizable Influence on Rochester Senior

By Blake Silberberg ’13
Univ. Communications

In one of the many science labs that make up Hutchinson Hall, there is a room full of thousands of different species of Drosophila, or as most people know them, fruit flies. This is where Yelstin Fernandes ’13, a biology major at the University of Rochester, has been participating in ongoing intercellular transport research as an undergraduate member of the Welte Lab.

The Welte Lab studies the process of how different items are transported throughout cells. Their research hopes to discover the mechanisms by which cells control the specificity, timing, and destination of this transport by studying these qualities in the Drosophila embryo.

Fernandes contacted Dr. Welte after taking a class with him during his sophomore year, looking to participate in ongoing biology research here at the university. For almost two years, Fernandes has been undertaking an independent study with the Welte Lab, examining two proteins, Wech and Halo, which are involved in regulating the movement of lipids during the development of the Drosophila embryo. To accomplish this, Fernandes characterizes various strains of flies and determines their genotype based on defining attributes, such as whether their wings are straight or curled when examined under a microscope. Fernandes then isolates the flies with the genotypes he is interested in examining, and crosses them in order to examine the embryos of their progeny. His research helps to clarify expected results, and in some cases discover unexpected attributes. This past summer, Fernandes discovered an anomaly in a sequence of Halo protein mutations, where instead of a mutation; there was an entire deletion of a gene segment.

For Fernandes, the study of biology is something he has been interested in pursuing since childhood. “I was always intrigued by simple things like why some people had blue eyes, or how blood clotted. The answers I got, albeit basic, were always so interesting to me because I could see the science visibly in my own life.”

After being accepted into the University in 2009, Fernandes decided to enroll because of the opportunity to participate in research as an undergraduate. “During my time here, I’ve been able to satisfy a lot of the same basic curiosities I’ve had since childhood, but with much more detail,” he explained. “Through studying biology I currently have a much deeper appreciation for the profound beauty and complexity of the world we live in.”

According to Fernandes, participating in hands-on research has been one of the defining experiences of his academic career. “Undergraduate study is very much a basic overview of certain topics. Being in a lab exposes you to a very specialized and narrow study. I’ve learned so much just by sitting in on lab meetings. Initially, just the words thrown around had me incredibly confused, but now I feel I have a much better understanding of the topics that are being researched.”

Fernandes also credits his research experience for showing him to how graduate research is undertaken in the laboratory environment. “Being able to do an independent study has definitely exposed me to all the work that goes on in the research world, from writing, researching, and presenting in front of people,” he said. “I’ve also gotten to understand what science research really is. Basically it’s about setting up experiments, failing a lot, and then coming up with a solution once in a while. I have a much greater appreciation for certain scientists and experiments you hear about in class and the ingenuity involved in problem solving.”

Article written by Blake Silberberg, an intern with University Communications and a member of the Piggies. He is a senior majoring in political science.