Student Spotlight: Drea Darby

Modeling Infection in Fruit Flies

Andrea DarbyDrea Darby is a doctoral student in entomology from Las Vegas, Nevada. After earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and attending the 2018 Diversity Preview Weekend, she chose to pursue further study at Cornell due to an alignment of research interests and a feeling of support.

What is your area of research and why is it important?

My research focuses on host-microbe-environment interactions. In particular, I research the impact of nutrition on infection dynamics in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. I view the host as an environment that a pathogen inhabits, which can be hostile due to antibacterial molecules and beneficial due to the presence of vital nutrients. Understanding how changes to host physiology and pathogen performance occurs in context of nutritional status will further our knowledge on the impact that diet has on surviving infection.

What are the larger implications of this research?

I am particularly interested on the impact of high sugar diets on infection outcome. Patients with hyperglycemia or type II diabetes are more susceptible to and have a higher risk of dying from bacterial infections. Fruit flies have been established as a model for various human diseases like type II diabetes and experience similar symptoms to diabetes patients when reared on high sugar diets. My research uses fruit flies as a disease model for understanding the mechanisms by which high sugar diets lead to increased susceptibility to bacterial infection.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

My first research experience as an undergraduate was in a fruit fly lab investigating the impact of microbes on flies surviving dry environments. I just found it so amazing how organisms we cannot see have such a profound impact on the hosts they inhabit in all sorts of environmental contexts. Understanding that nutrition is a critical environmental factor in host-microbe interactions, I want to use the power of the fly to further our basic understanding of the mechanisms behind the impact of nutrition on infection. This in turn can help us understand these interactions in people.

What does it mean to you to have received a Ford Fellowship?

It means absolutely everything. I am extremely grateful to be a part of the Ford Foundation mission, which is to diversify the professoriate in the United States. Now, I am in a network with other People of Color, which is lovingly called the Ford Family. Being a part of a community of other Black and Brown academics is very powerful and impactful to me, since I rarely ever meet large networks of People of Color in general.

What will this fellowship allow you to do that you might not have otherwise?

I have the freedom to solely focus on my research. There are graduate students that rely on teaching assistantships to secure funding, which is a great opportunity to advance teaching skills, but it can be tricky to balance other expected responsibilities like research. As a Ford Fellow, I have access to professional development and mentoring that will help develop me during my journey to becoming a professor.

What are your hobbies or interests outside of your research or scholarship?

I have a passion for advocating for a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable environment in academia. It is important to me that Black and Brown people and marginalized groups like LGBTQIA+ are protected and valued in and out of academic spaces. Currently I am involved as co-leader for the Diversity Preview Weekend (DPW) at Cornell, which is an initiative between the fields of entomology and ecology and evolutionary biology and the School of Integrative Plant Sciences to introduce underrepresented minorities to Cornell and prepare them for graduate school applications.

For fun, I love playing video games, watching anime, and making my own cosplays to then wear at anime conventions.                                                                                            

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree?

I was a participant in DPW in 2018 as an undergrad, and that experience led me to choose Cornell. Out of all the schools I applied to, I felt like Cornell had the most support for me as a person and graduate student. There are people in and outside of my field that I felt supported by. Plus, the research my advisor engages in aligns greatly with my own interests and he is very supportive of me and my goals.