January 4, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 73—Fruit flies, and education

Fruit flies. For most people, the tiny insects that love rotting fruit are a pest they prefer never to see. But for scientists around the world, the insects are a key research tool used to study genes, which has led to countless discoveries such as identifying the genetic mechanisms of the circadian clock. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it was critical for scientists and staff at Indiana University to sustain its Drosophila, or fruit fly, collection, which is the world’s largest, housing over 77,000 different fruit fly strains, most of which are in high demand. In fact, in 2019, the IU Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center shipped 204,672 vials of flies to labs in 49 states and 54 countries. At the center, dozens of employees came to work each day in 2020, through lockdown and afterward, to minister to the flies that underpin scientific research. Caring for the creatures means regularly “flipping” them: transferring them from an old vial to a clean one that has been provisioned with a dollop of food. Isolated with other members of their strain, the flies mate and lay eggs, which hatch, pupate and reproduce, continuing the cycle. Cale Whitworth, an IU research scientist and one of five principal investigators of the stock center, says the center has strains that have been continuously propagated since around 1909. To keep its millions of Drosophila flipped and happy, the center employs 64 stockkeepers, as well as one media preparator — a fly-food cook — a kitchen assistant and five dishwashing personnel. All their hard work in 2020 did not go unnoticed. Once the center was able to ship flies again during the pandemic, dozens of supportive messages poured in from researchers around the world who depend on the center’s flies for their own research, research that has shed light on diseases from Alzheimer’s to Zika, all because of a tiny fly.

In other news, in addition to affecting our workspaces, the pandemic has also changed our educational centers, with schools throughout the country forced to go online and parents forced into new roles as proxy educators for their children. A study, co-authored by Alberto Ortega, an assistant professor in IU’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, finds that roughly 51 percent of all parents surveyed in March and April had at least one child struggling with distance learning, and the parents themselves were experiencing significantly higher levels of stress. Ortega says students' academic success ultimately relies on caregivers' emotional health, which sets the learning environment for their children. Without proper support, both adults and students will likely suffer. According to the study, parents with at least one student struggling with distance learning were 19 percent more likely than other parents to report anxiety. These parents also were 22 percent more likely to experience depression and 20 percent more likely to have trouble sleeping. The study also found that these levels of heightened mental distress were felt by parents across various socioeconomic categories, including income, the number of children in the household (above one), and the number of days that had passed since school closure. Ortega says since students will likely rely on some form of distance learning for the foreseeable future, parents could face extended periods of elevated stress and mental health disruptions. Addressing parents' emotional needs during the pandemic has become essential for students' success, he says. Researchers suggest schools can build a relationship with parents through ongoing check-ins to discuss how their children cope with distance learning and whether supplemental learning resources are needed to support students. While opening schools just to help parents’ mental health is not suggested, Ortega says schools and policymakers can create plans for providing mental health resources and virtual spaces to parents, in addition to helping them with questions about the schoolwork itself. It’s also crucial for parents to be open about their needs, Ortega says, and to communicate with their schools when they need additional help.