When Mika Matera-Vatnick ’21 received President Martha E. Pollack’s email in March announcing the closing of campus, her first thought was, “What am I gonna do with my flies?”
Matera-Vatnick, like many other undergraduate student researchers on campus, had to abandon her honors thesis research project as classes transitioned online for the remainder of the semester.
Last spring, Matera-Vatnick joined the Wolfner lab, led by Prof. Mariana Wolfner, molecular biology and genetics.
“Research is the main thing I’m involved with on campus. When I’m not in class, I’m in the lab,” she said.
Currently, her research is on pause, since as of March 28, faculty and students are no longer allowed to work in laboratories, barring Matera-Vatnick access to laboratory equipment that is essential to the continuation of her research.
Matera-Vatnick is exploring the genetic basis of sperm competition in fruit flies — the competitive process between sperm of two or more different males to fertilize the same egg during sexual reproduction.
Her passion for genetics started during a summer research experience at the bioethics department at the National Institutes of Health after her freshman year, where she learned about personalized medicine.
“We are all unique with our own unique genomes and we need to treat patients based on their individual needs and their own genome. This is what led me to take the genetics and genetics lab courses at Cornell,” she said.
Specifically, Matera-Vatnick is researching whether there are certain genes linked to mating plug ejection times.
Mating plugs are gelatinous secretions used in the mating in fruit flies and other species, including various primates such as kangaroos and reptiles. These secretions are deposited by a male into a female genital tract and later harden into a plug that glues the tract together. The plugs prevent females from re-mating, making it possible for females to store sperm.
“In my experiments, I’m comparing how long different strains of flies take to go through the process of mating plug ejection and seeing if there is a genetic basis and where in the gene this might come from,” Matera-Vatnik said.
In fruit flies, the female expels the mating plug within five hours of mating in a process called mating plug ejection. The timing of ejection influences the paternity share of the fruit fly’s mates, playing an important role in mate competition.
Matera-Vatnik randomly selected genetically diverse types of fruit flies to assess the time it takes for female fruit flies to undergo mating plug ejection. Mating plug ejection times can be compared to genetic variations across these specific fruit fly lines.
This comparison can reveal key genes associated with mating plug ejection, evolutionary histories of neural circuits and the role of these neuronal pathways in female sexual selection — when a female chooses a male to mate with.
Understanding the process of sexual selection in insect reproduction may contribute to developing strategies for controlling pests and disease vectors in agriculture and public health.
Matera-Vatnick spent last summer at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City learning about computational biology, which is the analysis of biological data through computer simulated models. In contrast to the work she did at WCM, Matera-Vatnick typically conducts her research on fruit flies in a wet lab. A wet lab is a lab where experiments are conducted and chemicals are handled, whereas in a dry lab, data is analyzed with computers and other technology.
Not much is known about the genetic basis that underlies the variations in mating plug ejection timing, but Matera-Vatnik is determined to find out.
“I learned so much about how computational tools can be used to answer biological questions that are impossible to answer in a wet lab. I think that combining wet lab and computational power together will bring a unique angle to the questions I’m interested in answering,” she said.
Though research on campus has been put on hold, Matera-Vatnick is hopeful she can finish this project as her honors thesis.
“This is the project that will be my senior thesis project. With all the uncertainty of being here, and hopefully the plan is to stay here over the summer, I want to take this project as far as I can before I graduate,” Matera-Vatnick said.
Matera-Vatnick is currently in her hometown Washington, D.C. While she is unable to continue her research at the Wolfner Lab, she still attends weekly lab meetings and will be drafting sections of her honors thesis for the rest of the semester. She plans on taking the MCAT at the end of summer, if permitted.
In the meantime, Matera-Vatnick hopes to make the most of her Cornell research experience, upon her return to campus.
“I’m trying to take as much as I can from campus,” Matera-Vatnick said. “Thanks to amazing mentorship from my [Principal Investigator], graduate students and other students in the lab, I can say I’m very lucky with who I’ve surrounded myself with on campus.”