In the midst of a surely hectic midterms week, Elena Brindley took time to share her experiences working in undergraduate research. Her research foci thus far have revolved around mosquitoes and their vision. Elena started out her research by working alongside Prof. O’ Tousa of the Department of Biological Sciences in a lab that focused on degenerative eye diseases in Drosophila melanogaster, commonly known as the fruit fly. Her current research investigates the correlation between mosquitoes' behavior and response to light, alongside Matthew Leming, a fourth-year graduate student in the department.
Brindley made clear in our interview one common misconception when it comes to mosquitoes' behavior. “A lot of people think mosquitoes use their sense of smell to transmit disease but studies show how mosquitoes use vision to bite and find people.”
So, how does one go about testing this hypothesis? In Elena’s lab, several methods are employed to find out the correlation between a mosquito’s activity and its eyesight. Electroretinography (ERG) is a procedure in which electrodes are stuck onto a living mosquito’s eyes and light pulses are sent though the electrodes. A software records the mosquito’s response and can determine if the animal is visually impaired. The second technique involves dissecting, staining, and imaging the retinas of mosquitoes for different proteins. First, the head is bisected and placed in formaldehyde to harden it. Once that is complete, the mosquito's head is placed under a microspore and special tools are used to dissect the retina. Then, it is stained for proteins. A primary antibody attaches itself to the retina (protein 1) then the secondary antibody (with fluorescent dye) attaches itself to protein 1. The florescent dye in the secondary antibody is what allows the protein to be seen. The protein that has been the focus of Elena's research question is Aaop1. The special thing about this protein is that it relocates based on the time of day to the response of light.
With this information, Elena and Mathew were able to find links between light and the behavior of mosquitoes and determine the light threshold (how dim a light can be in order for mosquitoes to respond to it). For example, a mutant mosquito (one without a properly developed Aaop1) had a threshold much higher than a wild type mosquito, meaning it needs more light to stay active. This information can be used to create more effective mosquito traps that use lights to lure the mosquitoes.
Next, Elena shared some of her experiences in a lab looking back as a senior about to graduate:
Q: What is the most challenging part of your research?
A: Balancing the commitment with school, work and other time commitments.
Q: What is the best part about your research?
A: Being able to creatively design your experiments and apply the things you spend so much time learning in class.
Q: What about lab safety? Do the mosquitoes try to escape?
A: The Mosquitoes are contained pretty well inside buckets with a mesh covering. So they can't really escape. And since we need to them lay eggs, we actually give them our blood, by letting them bite our arms. They are lab mosquitoes, so they have no disease.
Q: Any advice for those who want to get started on research?
A: Communication is key! And start small--show that you're interested.
Q: Anything else you would like to add?
A: My lab is awesome and my graduate TA is amazing!
Post-graduation, Elena hopes to conduct research regarding ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.