I knew from the look on their faces that they didn’t believe me.
“Fruit flies?” They asked incredulously.
I had just told my family that I would be spending the next five years of my life — the prime of my 20s, the pinnacle of my academic career thus far — working on the genetics of a pest that is brought home on bananas from the grocery store.
Fruit flies, or drosophila melanogaster, are incredibly important to biological research. Fruit flies share with humans about 75 percent of all genes that cause human disease. Additionally, scientists can use fruit flies to make discoveries that are ethically or financially impossible to make in humans. After discussing these topics with my family, including the six Nobel Prizes awarded to scientists who had worked with fruit flies, they realized that I was actually pursuing something impactful.
Our conversations about genetics reminded me of something important — I love to teach. However, I was about to enroll in a graduate curriculum that did not offer me a teaching opportunity. I knew I needed to find another way to stay involved with genetics education if I was going to make it through graduate school.
A few months later, I was standing at the head of a classroom at the Clemson Center for Human Genetics. The room was filled with seventh- through 12th-grade students and their parents from a local homeschool group. A parent had recently reached out, wondering if I could talk to the students about genetics, and I had leapt at the opportunity.
Initially, I was worried about connecting with these students; however, these fears quickly faded when I saw a transformation in one of the middle schoolers that I’ll never forget. She started out quiet at the beginning of the lesson, but as she learned more, her eyes opened wide. The wheels in her head were turning rapidly, and she began to ask question after question until we ran out of time. She truly “got it,” and nothing has encouraged me more because it reminded me of my own “got it” moment in eighth grade — that was when I knew I wanted to study genetics and be a scientist.
Through the Clemson Center for Human Genetics, I have been able to foster research and outreach collaborations with the Greenwood Genetic Center. The GGC’s division of education offers excellent genetics education activities directly to seventh- through 12th-grade students across South Carolina, including the Junior Genetics Scholars Camp. In the summer, high school students are introduced to GGC faculty and staff and are exposed to real-world laboratory activities, including some that involve fruit flies.
I never know how a student will react to seeing a fruit fly in a laboratory. Perhaps the students’ reactions stem from the contradiction between a sterile space and a “gross” insect, or perhaps the idea of studying an insect is as ludicrous to the students as it initially was to my family. Either way, many students are overcome by curiosity and excitement, and they often ask me humorous questions about fruit fly dreams, the biggest fruit fly ever and if a fruit fly can swim. And although some students remain quiet throughout the activity, it is rare that I do not see a smile on their faces as they leave the classroom.
Not only have I found in-person education opportunities across a range of ages and educational environments but also, through volunteering at local science fairs, working with outreach programs like Skype a Scientist and attending formal science communication workshops such as ComSciCon, I have further broadened my scientific outreach and education experiences.
Looking back over the first half of my graduate career, I’ve realized that some things never change. I will always have to justify why I’m spending five years of my life studying the genetics of a pesky little insect. But hey, thanks to my outreach and education experiences, I’d like to think I’m at least a little better at justifying it than I used to be.