I’ve had a request! My first one, I think! So today I’m going to write about fruit flies.
A really long time ago I was a biology major. I’ve tried to think about why, and I think it’s probably because I really liked my math and science teachers in high school, and I thought biology was particularly interesting. At one point circa freshman year of high school, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. Then I thought I’d be a research scientist, and I think I was somewhere near the tail-end of that phase when I started college.
My first quarter I took cell biology, and that went fine. It went well, even. I actually just found my lab notebook for that class, and apparently we got extra credit for coming up with superior titles for our labs. The ones that earned me half-a-point?
- Was It O.J. After All? DNA Isolation and Analysis
- Protein in Jell-O? Only in the Biology Lab…
- Huffing and Puffing or Barely Breathing? Respiration of the Mitochondria [note the Duncan Sheik reference]
- The CIA (Cytoskeleton in Action)
I was such a witty 18-year-old.
The second quarter was genetics, and that went not as well. There were a variety of reasons for this, not limited to the following:
- The guy teaching the course was nicknamed “Dr. Death.”
- “Dr. Death” was callous. He would say things such as, “You don’t fail into biology. You fail into English,” and “It’s true — kids make stuff up all the time,” (on how he got dismissed from jury duty for a sexual abuse case).
- I was one of just a few freshmen taking the class (thanks to my beloved high school biology teacher and my score on the AP exam), and the sophomores were cliquey jerks.
- My 55% on one of the exams, which was actually a bit above average (I pulled an A out of the class, somehow).
- I had the lab partner from hell. Seriously — the laziest girl I’ve ever met. I still hate you, Cindy, and I’m glad you got a D. And I know how immature that is, but I don’t care.
- Fruit Flies.
Apparently they changed this a couple years after I did it, deciding there was more to genetics than tracing mutations through generations of Drosophila. But while I was there, this is how it worked: You got your flies, which had some predetermined mutations (we had the “Milhouse” strain, named after The Simpsons character, and had to track dark eyes and curly wings), and you kept them in these little vials, and you had to keep them from mating uncontrollably. You, the experimenter, had to determine which flies could mate, which meant separating the males from the females before they were sexually mature. To do this, you would put them to sleep. How do you put a fruit fly to sleep? You shake the little vial a bit to stun the flies, then use something called “FlySleep” or “FlyNap” or something ridiculous like that to anesthetize them for just long enough to count and separate them by sex. Do the female flies wear lipstick? They do not. You can tell by the presence or absence of sex combs on their little fly elbows. Sex combs. Sounds hot, doesn’t it? It isn’t. Male flies have these little barbs on their elbows that allow them to grasp female flies and mate. I guess it’s kind of an evolutionary alternative to the opposable thumb.
(picture showing eye color mutations)
The thing about all of this was that the lab lasted something like 8 or 9 weeks of a 10-week quarter. And also, you had to make sure (sure sure) you didn’t allow just anyone to mate with anyone. Throw into this that the fruit fly reaches sexual maturity just 8-10 hours after birth. So if you let your flies go more than eight hours unattended, you were fucking up your experiment. We had 24-hour access to the lab, and in theory you could trade off with your partner so that you could actually take a weekend off every now and then, or at least a night.
Except I had Cindy, the laziest girl ever, for a lab partner.
So every eight hours I was in Olin Hall, checking on the flies, being ignored by the sophomores (except Celeste and Laura, who were cool). I decided that while I found biology of utmost interest, I was in no way interested in spending my life tied to a lab. Or even the next three years. So I switched to English and wrote papers on Wordsworth and H.D. the next quarter and never looked back. I still can’t say English was the best fit for me, but I know it’s closer. When you start X-Acto-knifing your biology text book to use lines like “the lipid bilayer is the only barrier between the living and the non-living world” for poetry projects, you should probably pay attention to what your mind is telling you…