It’s been 21 years since Robin Cooper started working in the department of biology in the University of Kentucky College of Arts & sciences. It’s been 130 years since Thomas Hunt Morgan, Kentucky’s first Nobel Laureate, graduated from what is now called UK. What do they have in common? They used the same research organisms: fruit flies and crayfish.
“Thomas Hunt Morgan went on for graduate work and he was awarded the Nobel Prize, working with Drosophila [fruit flies] as a model organism. A lot of people don’t realize though, some of his first work was actually on regeneration in crustaceans,” Cooper said. “The power of genetics allows us to work with the Drosophila and do things really you can’t do with any other organism. Because of rapid development, you can manipulate genes really quickly and test out many different aspects from behavior to how the neuro circuits are formed.”
Sixty human diseases have been modeled in fruit flies. Cooper’s funded research focuses on synaptic transmission, for example, communication from a nerve to a muscle. He uses a technique called optogenetics—inserting a gene that is sensitive to light found in blue-green algae into fruit flies. “In our case, we are looking at neurons. You can shine blue light on the animal and then activate just their serotonergic neurons. Optogenetics can help us pick up on structural changes in the brain, changes in behavior of the animal, as well as developmental aspects.”
Cooper said in his 21 years at UK, his research team has had roughly 150 publications, 50 of those papers have undergraduates as first author or co-author and a handful have had high school students as authors. “Our last paper was actually with a high school student as first author. She developed a new saline that is used to keep the Drosophila heart alive.”
Listen to this podcast to learn why Cooper sent that high school student to an international conference in Poland and hear why he takes undergrads’ questions seriously.