Maureen Filak’s interest in research was piqued by taking a genetics class in her sophomore year with Dr Susan Halsell. “The work Dr Halsell described was really interesting to me,” says Maureen, “ She applied her fruit fly research to the human diseases of spina bifida and anencephaly – and my cousin has spina bifida, so I was very interested in that.”

Spina bifida is a failure of spinal tube development. It can result in paralyzation or an exposed spinal cord in extreme cases, but some cases are so mild that they are barely noticeable.

Maureen studies the role of a protein called RhoA in the various processes that occur very early in the development of a fruit fly embryo. Because many of the pathways involved are conserved between species, it is hoped that discoveries made in the fruit fly can ultimately be applied to humans.

Maureen spent a lot of time setting up and analyzing genetic crosses in fruit flies in order to generate a very useful mutant. She took a RhoA mutant – a fly that does not express RhoA – and inserted a heat-shock construct that allowed the RhoA gene to be turned on and off using temperature. This way, the RhoA gene can be turned off at different specific stages of the developmental process to see what role the protein has at that stage.

By the end of Maureen’s honors project, she had not yet managed to look at the mutant flies, but she had worked out a good protocol for imaging development, specifically the process of head involution, in living wild-type embryos, using the confocal microscope. This has paved the way for other students in Dr Halsell’s lab to take over and continue the project after Maureen graduates.

Maureen loves the independence afforded her by doing research. “Although Dr Halsell was an amazing help,” she says, “I had to do all the grunt work myself and it taught me time management”. She also says that writing her honors thesis, although no easy task, was incredibly rewarding. In fact, she did such a good job with it that she was awarded the 2010 Phi Kappa Phi Honors Thesis Award for her work. One of the best things about research, Maureen says, is the way that her research and her schoolwork overlapped. “My research helped me succeed in school and my schoolwork helped me understand my research, and that is probably my favorite part, because I love it when everything connects.”

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