Building an Education
Microbiology major gets valuable hands-on experience in virology lab
By Tara Roberts
To discover whether tiny fruit flies can pass along a virus through the air, Justin Anast had to get creative.
Anast, a junior microbiology major at the University of Idaho, used beakers, canning jars, fly vials, netting and even a strap normally used to carry shotgun shells to build a system that would keep the flies close enough to spread the disease, called Drosophila X Virus, but not close enough to touch each other.
“It’s cool that I got to design it from scratch,” Anast says.
Anast presented his work at the College of Science Expo on Oct. 17. His research is part of a large collaborative project among four UI researchers and a professor at the University of Texas Austin studying viral evolution using fruit flies – frequently called by their genus name, Drosophila – and their native viruses.
In order to use fruit fly populations to model how viruses spread, evolve and coexist with other viruses, researchers have to understand normal viral behavior in the flies. Work like Anast’s builds a foundation on which future projects will rest.
“The point is we’re trying to set up a model system for viral adaptation that’s never been used before,” Anast says. “We have to first figure out how these viruses grow and are transmitted.”
Studying viruses is a good fit for Anast, who hasn’t settled on a career but is interested in laboratory work related to infectious diseases, working as a medical technician or for the Centers for Disease Control.
“I’ve always been interested in viruses and pathogens and bacteria,” he says.
And this isn’t Anast’s first time learning real-world science methods in the lab. He’s also worked in inorganic and analytical chemistry labs.
“By the time I graduate, I’ll have four years of research experience,” he says. “I’ve learned so much about molecular genetics. My class professors have taught me a lot, but working in a lab has taught me some things you could never learn in a lecture hall.”
Anast expects those years of experience to pay off after he completes his bachelor’s degree – and he encourages other students to take advantage of UI’s many opportunities for undergraduates to gain lab experience.
“I think a lot of students think just getting good grades is enough. People want experience – grad schools, med schools, they all want good people with experience,” he says. “Even with a heavy course load, you can manage it.”