Offbeat Occupations: Undergraduate research assistant does experiments on the fly (lots of them)


Kansas University junior and research assistant Hailey Baker is pictured Wednesday with a tube containing around 500 fruit flies, which she is using for reseach purposes. Baker says she mates and selects fruit flies before dissecting them to get a better understanding about gene mutations.

Hailey Baker breeds flies.

We spend our lives fighting the annoyances, and she breeds them, by the tens of thousands, in a small room in Haworth Hall on the Kansas University campus.

Surrounded by vials filled with the buzzing insects, she goes about her work, methodically sifting through the masses to find the right two.

There’s no mood lighting, no Barry White: “You just put them in a little vial, and they’ll do their thing and give you a lot of fly larva.”

Baker works as an undergraduate research assistant at KU. Science experiments need flies — Drosophila fruit flies to be specific — and these flies need Baker.

The experiment Baker is helping with, simplified for those who don’t study genetic biology, studies how genes are passed on.

“We focus on flies because a lot of their genes are similar to humans,” she said. “This will give us a better understanding for why, like, certain mutations cause human diseases.”

But before the professor types get to the information, hundreds of hours of minute, methodical work is involved — work that falls on the shoulders of Baker.

Her job involves three things: breeding flies, dissecting flies and dyeing fly body parts.

She starts by finding the flies that express the right traits or genotypes: These could be flies with long legs or red eyes or curved wings. She then breeds the flies in a vial filed with fly food, and the female lays eggs in the mixture ­­of sugar, cornmeal and yeast. Then it gets tricky.

“The hardest part of it all is timing,” Baker said. “I get really worried I’ll mess up.”

The fly larvae, maggots, must be monitored. They enter the pupal stage, and once they hatch out two weeks later, there is a time window of 16 hours before they reach sexual maturity and breed. Their breeding throws the entire experiment off because the breeding will not be selective and will skew results.

The moment of truth comes when Baker then dissects the female flies, using a microscope to help her pull out body parts that hold specific gene and protein localization. She dyes these body parts and looks for color changes showing the gene concentration. No changes mean the experiment failed.

“It’s disappointing when a experiment doesn’t work, but you’ve got to keep doing it until it does work. But even if what you’re expecting didn’t happen, it’s still good information to know.”

She has been working at this job for about a year. She thinks the experiment has gone through roughly half a million flies.

Baker, a junior at KU, got involved with such work as a freshman curious about a career in research. She doesn’t necessarily know if she still wants to go into research, but she said the job is good for her.

And on the idea of the macabre nature of her work, raising insects only to dissect them a few weeks later and kill them by the thousands: “It bothered me at first, but now I don’t really think about it,” she said. “It’s a fly. If it were on my head, I would smack it.”


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