Undergraduate Spotlight: Sophia Wilson (Trinity ’24)
Sophia Wilson (Trinity ’24), majoring in biophysics, speaks with Staff Writer Abby Hjelmstad (Trinity ’25) about her experience as an undergraduate researcher in the Kiehart Lab within Duke’s Department of Biology.
AH: What is it like to be an undergraduate researcher? What do you do?
SW: It’s been pretty good. I work with fruit flies in the Kiehart Lab in French Science. I’m doing an independent study this semester, so it’s supposed to be about 10 to 12 hours every week. I’m looking at genetic deficiencies with fruit flies and imaging dorsal closure, which is a key part of embryogenesis (the formation of embryos) and a good model system for neural tube closure and wound healing in humans. We take flies from the Bloomington Stock Center and cross them with specific imaging flies that Dr. Kiehart has developed. These flies have a portion of their chromosome deleted, and right now I’m looking at the right arm of the third chromosome. I breed these flies with the imaging line to get the desired genotype, and I look at them under microscopes and observe dorsal closure to see if there are phenotypic differences for each of the deficiency flies. If there are differences, then we look further into what portion of the chromosome was deleted and whether there are any known dorsal closure genes in that region. If not, then we look at the genes in that region, test them with the imaging lines, and see if we can pinpoint which gene causes the phenotypic differences.
Above: Vials of Drosophila melanogaster specimens used in Wilson's research.
AH: What made you interested in research?
SW: I did research in high school for my senior thesis at the Medical University of South Carolina. I studied preeclampsia and realized that I really like medical research. I want to do an M.D.-Ph.D. and do half clinical and half research in the future, so I knew that I have to have undergraduate research experience. I emailed around to some labs and Dr. Kiehart was the first one to reply and give me an interview!
AH: When did you start working in this lab?
SW: I started last year — maybe in October, or November? I emailed Dr. Kiehart over the summer and met with the lab manager, Janice, in September. I was a volunteer for the first year — just to learn about the process of the lab and if I was interested in it — and then I applied for independent study this spring semester.
AH: How has your involvement in research affected your Duke experience?
SW: Overall I think it’s been pretty cool. It’s really interesting to see the direct application of what I’m learning in classes to research. In Biology 202 [Gateway to Biology: Genetics and Evolution], we talked about genes, deficiencies, and marked balancers, which we use all the time in the lab. I was like, “Oh, I actually know what this is now.”
AH: Do you think you’re going to stay in the same lab throughout your time at Duke?
SW: Yes. I think it would be cool to continue my research and dive deeper into specific deficiencies — which I’ll be doing next semester — and look at more genes that affect dorsal closure over the course of my time at Duke. Also, I really like my lab and enjoy the people I work with.
AH: Do you feel like you’ve gotten to know other people in your lab?
SW: Yes. Dr. Kiehart’s lab is really small. There are three undergraduates right now who are currently doing research, and there are a couple of undergrads who are hired to help our lab manager with her research, so they change out the vials that the flies live in. And there are two graduate students, a lab manager, a lab tech, and Dr. Kiehart. It’s been particularly nice getting to know my lab manager — she’s really sweet — and my graduate student, Mina. She talked to me a little bit about the process of getting a Ph.D. It’s been nice getting to know them and the other undergrads in the lab.
AH: What’s it like to work with fruit flies?
SW: It’s pretty cool. They’re really easy to work with. I just put them to sleep with CO2 and look at them under a microscope. It takes about four weeks for me to get the flies that I need to image, so it’s relatively quick. They’re really low maintenance. I just have to change their vials every three days to change out their food, and that’s really it.
Above: A snapshot of Wilson’s lab bench in the Kiehart Lab.
AH: Do you have any interesting research stories?
SW: Well, there was one time that the CO2 tank was empty. All the labs on the floor use a specific fly room, and there are three CO2 tanks hooked up that we use to put the flies to sleep. If the tanks get empty, then your flies start to wake up, and you have to trap them under some plastic or just kill them if they are not the right flies. I’ve had to do that a couple of times. I’ve also stayed in the lab until midnight imaging, so that was interesting, being the only person in French Science Center.
AH: Do you have advice for students looking to get involved with research?
SW: You’ve really just got to cold email. I looked at probably 20 different websites, and Dr. Kiehart’s website said that they were hiring current undergrads for research assistants. Also, each department normally has a list of related research labs and their websites, so I would go to each of them to see if they have an open lab position, and definitely email them if they do. Even if they don’t, it’s still worth a shot. I sent out only five emails because Dr. Kiehart responded within two minutes. And just have a blurb about your resumé, explain why you want to do their research and if you have any other research experience, and ask them if they want to meet. And that’s really it.
All images courtesy of Sophia Wilson.