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May 4, 2009
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

Graduation stories: Research on fruit flies earns senior a ticket to medical school

Anne Vezeau

LAWRENCE — As Anne Vezeau graduates with dual bachelor’s degrees in biology and Spanish this month, she’ll conclude a stellar undergraduate career marked by a passion for research. Indeed, her work to shed light on the mating of fruit flies has borne results significant enough to be submitted to a major journal of biology.

Asked for the secret to her success, Vezeau cited the work ethic she learned from her mother, Shelley Lyle, who raised her as a single parent in Columbia, Mo.

“It’s dedication, dedication, dedication,” Vezeau said. “What my mom told me when I came to KU was, ‘Your job right now is to go to school — and you work your butt off at it.’ So I’ve tried to treat my education as a career, and tried not to say, ‘I can skip my classes’ or ‘I don’t want to go into lab today.’ It’s seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and not giving up.”

Studying under Jennifer Gleason, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, Vezeau honed her skill at using the scientific method — the rigorous process of compiling observable and measurable proof of natural phenomena.

“Anne has inspired me,” said Gleason. “Her thesis was on the mating behavior of Drosophila nebulosa, one of the many species of fruit flies. None of the experiments she performed had been done before in our lab. Much of this work she did on her own because I was on maternity leave.”

Working without the usual level of supervision, Vezeau finished her thesis in May 2008 and won departmental honors. The D. nebulosa fruit fly is particularly interesting to scientists because it has no mating song, unlike most fruit flies.

Vezeau said that although the little insects look nothing like humans, they are vital to biomedical studies because they may share homologous genes that can provide useful insights.

“They’re a good model species,” said the undergraduate researcher. “They reproduce quickly. A lot of their organ systems and genes are especially applicable in human medicine. Their mating habits shed light onto the mechanics of sexual selection and, in the larger picture, evolution.”

In a painstaking process, by hindering certain senses in the fruit flies, Vezeau determined which were critical to their reproduction. Her experiments demanded a great deal of trial and error before she landed on solutions that made her investigation feasible.

But Vezeau’s difficult work shaped a new understanding of the fruit flies’ mating. As a result of her research, she earned a prestigious Gould research fellowship in biology.

“She stuck with it,” said Gleason. “She solved her technical issues and had a great set of experiments that demonstrated that females had to be able to smell to be able to mate, although males did not, and that vision is important for mating.”

Her aptitude for problem solving should benefit Vezeau as she enters the KU School of Medicine this summer. As an undergraduate, already she has spent time working at the KU Medical Center as a clinical researcher and physician’s assistant. Furthermore, she has volunteered in emergency rooms at the Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., and Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

Also, Vezeau has given her time to Natural Ties, a program for people with challenged mental ability, as well as the Jubilee Café, where she served breakfast to Lawrence-area homeless people.

These experiences explain Vezeau’s double major in biology and Spanish, subjects that may seem unrelated at first glance. But the aspiring doctor says that fluency in Spanish will improve her ability to communicate and effectively treat patients from differing backgrounds.

“I was taking Spanish classes because I’ve always been interested in medicine, and it’s really useful in the medical field,” said Vezeau. “So when I got to my fourth year, I just decided to take a fifth year and finish my Spanish major.”

Vezeau said the high point of her collegiate career was the KU men’s basketball national championship last year.

“That was the coolest experience of my life,” she said. “I went to the Final Four game in San Antonio, but for the final game I came back because I had to take a test. But being in Lawrence was incredible. Everyone ran out of their houses at the same time and filled the streets. It was intense.”

Althought Vezeau was raised in the hometown of KU’s sports archrival, the University of Missouri, she by now has become an avid rooter for the Jayhawks. “Coming to KU has been the best decision of my life,” she said. “Hands down, I’m a Kansas fan.”

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