Can you tell us about yourself? How did your research at Midd prepare you for your NYU job? I’m from Long Island, NY and I recently graduated from Midd in May 2019. I studied neuroscience and minored in anthropology while at Midd. I am now living in New York City working as a research assistant in the Stavropoulos Lab at NYU Langone’s Neuroscience Institute studying behavioral neurogenetics in Drosophila (fruit flies). I believe my time and thesis studying sleep and synaptic strength in the Dash lab really prepared me for this jump to a big research institution in a big city. During my senior year and summer leading up to it, I had the unique opportunity to really dive into a project and solve the unexpected problems that come with research. I learned the value of rigor and how to conduct an extensive literature review to synthesize new frameworks, which helped me understand perplexing data. My thesis, in addition to my Neurogenetics senior seminar, where I learned about methods I now use every day, really prepared me for a full-time research position.
Can you tell us about your job pre-COVID? What might a typical day have looked like? Before COVID-19, I worked on various projects examining sleep and brain development in fruit flies. We’re working on publishing multiple papers right now, so I was helping finish old experiments and starting new projects of my own. On a typical day I may have set up genetic crosses, loaded sleep assays, analyzed confocal images, ran PCRs to verify genotypes, or performed fly husbandry. I also participated and presented in biweekly journal clubs and joint group meetings with other labs at Langone. One of my long term projects was building new genetic lines to better understand one of our target genes, insomniac, which causes short sleep in flies. The insomniac gene plays a key tole in Cullin-3 ubiquitination pathway and has multiple implications for developmental disorders, such as autism, myoclonic dystonia, and potentially cancer in humans.
Help us understand your thought process when your lab closed in mid-March. Whose idea was it to bring the fruit flies home? Being in NYC, I felt the realities of COVID-19 early on. As the virus slowly spread globally, NYU Langone began preparing for the worst in January and by the start of March, every lab was preparing for a long term shut down by halting experiments, stocking up lab supplies, and making a list of “mission critical” activities. One of my main tasks at the time of the shut down was building new fly lines to be used in my next projects. I found myself 2 months into 4-5 month genetic schemes with no way to hit pause on the rounds of matings. In the week leading up to our ofﬁcial closing, my principal investigator (PI) and I tried to come up with a plan. He brought a few vials of ﬂies back to his apartment and started ﬁguring out ways to examine and sort ﬂies under a microscope without our normal CO2 anesthesia. As I began spending more time in my apartment, walking to and from my lab multiple times a day on an alternating schedule with a grad student who also lived within walking distance, I ﬁgured that I should give an at-home ﬂy setup a shot. I knew my PI would have plenty of paper writing and other things to juggle remotely and handing off my complicated projects to him just didn’t make sense to me. After some trial and error and a few escapees, we ﬁgured out that rotating metal PCR blocks in and out of my freezer worked well as short term cold anesthesia and that an at-home set up was actually possible. I then made the decision to relocate to my parents’ house on Long Island where I am now lucky enough to have both the company of my family and the relatively easy ability to drive into the city once a week to maintain our lab. Now more than a month in, I’ve been dubbed the “home ﬂy guru” by my lab and tens of thousands of fruit ﬂies have taken up an indeﬁnite residence in my house. Every morning at 10am, I wake up my ﬂies from their night sleeping in our windowless, downstairs bathroom and get to work tapping ﬂies out of their vials onto rotating PCR blocks under my microscope in the dining room. Between Zoom meetings and data analysis, I routinely check my vials, sorting out animals that I want to cross in future generations. At 10pm, I put my ﬂies back into the bathroom and tuck an old towel under the door to keep any extra light out. I’m pretty proud to say that very few have escaped into the house, although I will admit I do get occasionally yelled at by my younger sisters when a stray ﬂies in front of the TV or someone unfortunately ﬁnds one in their tea (I now have a new appreciation for why there’s no food or drink allowed in lab). Overall, I think my family has adjusted quite well to all of our new companions and the ability to continue creating new genotypes will allow my lab to hit the ground running with experiments once we can return.
You have also been instrumental in managing all the logistics around manufacturing and delivering 1800 face shields for health care workers on the front line ﬁghting COVID. Tell us about how this role came about, your role as the operations manager, and what skills you’ve called upon to carry out this task so effectively. After a week of settling into my new reality, I started feeling restless and really wanted to do something to help the larger problem at hand, Covid-19 in New York. I reached out to one of the coordinators of the Neuroscience Institute and asked her if she knew of any opportunities for remote volunteering. I had heard about options to man hotlines, summarize new Covid literature or contact elderly patients in their homes, but after getting passed around to different people, I found myself in contact with Dr. Timothee Lionette of NYU Langone’s Institute for Systems Genetics. Early on in the ﬁght against Covid-19, Tim wanted to ﬁnd a way to use the hospital’s own resources to address the extreme shortage of PPE across the city. In collaboration with Langone’s ICU and Emergency Medicine staff, Tim came up with a design for 3D printed reusable face shields and began assembling prototypes. Just as face shield production was starting to ramp up, I got involved as a remote operations manager for the project. Over the last 3 weeks, I have gotten a crash course in supply chain management as I used slack, email, and text to coordinate an expansive team of 3D printers across NYU groups and various makerspaces who volunteered to join our cause. I was responsible for getting all of the materials from across the city to our volunteer assembly team at the NYU Langone Medical Center and then distributing the ﬁnished shields. Since I’ve started, I’ve been able to organize the delivery of over 3000 reusable face shields to a long list of the hardest hit hospitals and frontline organizations across the city. Figuring out how many shields to send to which hospitals with my ﬂeet of volunteer drivers was a daunting task and I really had to draw upon all of my judgement abilities to decide how to quickly and equitably distribute our shields. I also managed the unexpected requests for cleaning supplies when hospitals were entirely out and worked with my volunteers to bundle together whatever we could ﬁnd to help further. It was stressful juggling all of our assembly partners and responding to the needs of the various residents, physicians, and nurses I was in contact with, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Seeing the rows of refrigerated morgue trucks lined up outside my lab and hearing the ﬁrst-hand stories from within the hospitals left me with a feeling of dread about the horrible reality that was facing the city, but being a part of this project also gave me so much hope. I found a resilient community of strangers who tirelessly worked together to contribute in whatever way we could to help our city and the people in it during an unprecedented time. I’m ﬁnally starting to see a drop in requests and while many hospitals are still hurting, people are optimistic and hopeful that the main surge has passed.
As a fun addition, I’ve also connected with my high school’s STEAM lab through my youngest sister. They’re now printing the same shields and with the help of our other sister (Jillian ’21), we’re assembling them in my house and distributing them to local hospitals in Suffolk County. It’s been cool to see younger students get involved with the design and printing process over Google Hangouts!
And ﬁnally: next steps. Tell us your future plans… On top of my job wrangling ﬂies at home and volunteering on this project, I’m currently putting the ﬁnishing touches on my medical school applications. While I don’t know what the application cycle will look like during these dynamic times, I’m hopeful everything will work out in the end.
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