When Research on the Small Scale Leads to Large-Scale Discoveries

The humble fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, may be small in scale, but it is a rock star in the research worlds of genetics, physiology, microbial pathogenesis and evolution. As of 2017, six Nobel prizes have been awarded for research using Drosophila.

Among the many champions of this tiny but potent organism is Dr. Josefa Steinhauer, associate professor of biology at Yeshiva College and a voluntary associate professor of developmental and molecular biology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Over the past two decades, she has authored or co-authored 15 articles on Drosophila research, many of them published with the trainees in her lab and with collaborators from Einstein, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Cornell University, Columbia University, the University of Oxford and the National Institute of Genetics in Japan, among many others.

She has also given dozens of invited talks and poster presentations and participated in local, national, and international conferences and workshops.

“I am passionate about this research,” she said, “because the paradigms discovered in Drosophila often are evolutionarily conserved in all animals, including humans. We can use the fly to gain insight into the fundamental genetic, cell biological, and molecular mechanisms at play in an organism.  In other words, we are tapping into the essential laws of nature.” In her lab, she and her students use Drosophila to understand metabolism of cell membranes in the context of a whole animal and have uncovered important roles for phospholipid metabolism in both male and female fertility, as well as in the biology of aging.

She began her career in biological research with a B.S. in Biology from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and a summer research internship at Einstein.  She then moved on to graduate work at Columbia University, earning two master’s degrees and a doctorate in biological sciences. She did six years of postdoctoral work in developmental genetics at the NYU Langone Medical Center.

“When I started my research program at Yeshiva University nine years ago, I was investigating how sperm develop, and many of my publications are on that topic,” she noted, “But due to the unpredictable nature of discovery, my scientific path has shifted recently into new territory.”

The most current research in her lab now focuses on neurodegenerative disease. “We have created a Drosophila model of a severe genetic condition in humans that results in neurodegeneration so that we may use the powerful experimental tools of the fly to understand how cells deteriorate in human patients with this condition.” She secured funding from the National Institutes of Health for this project, and student involvement is a key aspect.  “I have redesigned my undergraduate Genetics laboratory course so that students in the class perform novel experiments that move this research forward.  Not only does this contribute to my research program, it also vastly expands the number of students I can mentor.”  So far, the course has run for two consecutive years, with a pause this year due to COVID-19.

As she noted, mentoring students is incredibly important to Dr. Steinhauer, and with her support, her students have gone on to gain significant success themselves. “The Steinhauer lab is powered by undergraduates. I have mentored 28 research students in my lab, about half of whom have contributed to peer-reviewed publications.  Nine of those students wrote Honors theses based on their research, and several of them received research funding for their work.  Almost all are now pursuing medical or doctoral degrees in the sciences.”

Another interesting path that her research and teaching have led her to concerns vaccines, a topic with a special urgency now that several companies have now created viable vaccines for COVID-19 in the midst of a public reluctance to use them.

“Several years ago, while teaching a science for non-scientists course in the Yeshiva College Core Curriculum, my students asked me to talk about vaccines,” she recalled. In putting together that lecture, she happened upon the fascinating 10,000-year history of the first vaccine, which targeted smallpox. She has since shared her interest in and knowledge about vaccines with Planet Money here and here (Planet Money is produced by National Public Radio), Nerd Nite, NBC News, RadioWest, and the New York Times, where she was a consultant for a video about vaccine misinformation.

“When the first formal vaccine was introduced in 1796, it was met with controversy,” she observed. “Despite the spectacular success of vaccines over the following two centuries (or perhaps because of it!), the controversy has not abated.  One hopes that a silver lining of the current pandemic will be a large public relations boost for vaccines.”

While COVID-19 has slowed her research for the moment, she knows that science is ongoing and continuous, and she is excited for her students and herself to see what new knowledge will be uncovered about who we are and how we function. “The classical genetic approaches we use in Drosophila are ideally suited for students of many different levels, and the research provides students with an immersive experience in the scientific process.”