For his thesis, “Exploring Bacterial Factors Mediating Wolbachia Development During Drosophila Embryogenesis,” Matthew Holmes ‘15 studied how bacteria that live inside flies interact with their host. It was work that combined his previous biology interests, which included studying E. coli with Professor Iruka Okeke, with those of his advisor, Rachel Hoang, the chair of the biology department.
Next Holmes is off to Harvard University to begin a molecular biology Ph.D. program, a fact he attributes, in some small part, to his thesis. “I discussed my research in every interview through the [graduate school] application process,” he says, “so [my] thesis really provided the framework to prove that I could work in an academic context.”
How did Professor Hoang help you develop your thesis topic, conduct your research, and/or interpret your results?
Rachel really respects her thesis students and their ideas, and as a result most of her mentorship came in the form of one-on-one conversations in her office. These were two-way streets where the two of us pushed the project forward together. Even though more experienced, Rachel treats her thesis students more like colleagues, providing us with the freedom to mature as scientists. Despite how daunting thesis seemed as an underclassman, I can’t remember a meeting with Rachel where we didn’t laugh or one where we didn’t discuss my plans for the future, my other classes, and life beyond academics.
What did you learn from working on your thesis?
A lot of abstract lessons and realizations that will help me as I continue on in a scientific career. This year I began to realize that at the heart of science is the need to balance thoroughness and certainty with progress. I think that I’ll be refining this balance my entire life. It also gave me an understanding that scientific research moves forward slowly, but it moves forward. I also walk away from thesis being much more confident [in my] independent work. It’s difficult to make important decisions when working alone for fear of being wrong, but this year I learned to embrace the possibility of error and learn from those mistakes.
How or why could your thesis help other researchers?
I made a phylogenetic tree of a gene of interest from different Wolbachia strains, basically a big family tree of many types of this gene. We want this tree so that we can look at our trait of interest—in this case where the bacteria localizes inside the flies—and see if closely related versions of the gene have closely related localization patterns. With the tree-making bit done, the lab will now be able to look at images of Wolbachia localization and make some conclusions about what this gene does.
Photo: Pest and Diseases Image Library/Bugwood.org
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.