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Undergraduate’s study links stress, sugar consumption

A Binghamton University undergraduate’s research confirmed a link between flies’ behavior and stress.

Jacob Gordon, a senior majoring in integrative neuroscience, spent the past three summers documenting flies’ relationships with sugar consumption and stressful environments.

Drosophila melanogaster, or common fruit flies, are the focus of Gordon’s research in Pavel Masek’s behavioral neurogenetics lab. These flies often serve as model species in research; they’re small, inexpensive to maintain and have a short enough life cycle to provide ample data. While seemingly ideal, working with these subjects nevertheless requires immense patience.

Gluing flies onto slides for observation in a way that won’t harm the insects can be frustrating, but Gordon persevered.

“The students, at the beginning, are not always perfect,” says Masek, an assistant professor of biology. “And if they are not perfect, the flies use this, and they really physically peel themselves off [the slide]. … The fact he doesn’t get really discouraged; this is a huge plus.”

Masek said Gordon’s work was key to understanding that the flies peel themselves off due to stress, causing the flies to expend more energy.

When Gordon first joined Masek’s lab, he didn’t expect to be given his own project, much less be able to author a paper by the time he graduated. “I expected that I’d probably be working under a grad student most of the time,” he says. “I was really pleased to find out that I would be able to have my own project.”

His work in the lab compared free-walking flies to glued-down flies, and it became clear that even when both sets had not been fed, the glued flies consumed more sugar. He believes the stress of being restrained is what led the flies to increase their sugar consumption.

Gordon plans to finish his paper this year and he hopes that his publication will not only build upon earlier research, but also affirm current methods of monitoring fly activity.

“I think it’s really important to research on lab techniques because these are the foundation of more important research,” he says.

Gordon, who is applying to medical school, expects to volunteer locally during the spring semester while finishing his research. Outside the lab, the Falmouth, Maine, native works as a medical scribe, serves as vice president of the Student United Way and teaches piano to fellow students.

His biggest takeaway from his research experience? Everything matters, and you may end up creating ripple effects that can change what’s currently known.

“These little things can seem boring, but they are important,” he says. “When explaining my research to someone, they may say, ‘Oh who cares’ because it’s hard to see the practical application, but the practical application is that this little change could affect all the research that comes after.”

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