Dr. Greg Engel gets flies drunk for science

Dr. Greg Engel is a new professor at Castleton University in the psychology department. He is a neuroscientist, received his bachelor’s degree from Colby College in Maine, his doctorate degree from the University of Vermont and did a postdoctoral study with Dr. Fred Wolf at the University of California Merced. He specializes on behavioral genetics, and his preferred organism of choice is the fruit fly.

Q: First thing’s first, what do you think of Castleton?

            A: I love it. I have really had a great time here interacting with the students and the faculty. Everyone’s been incredibly friendly, and I guess outgoing in a way that I find myself always failing in. I just think it’s been really excellent, and it’s something for me to strive to as I join the community – to finally become that outgoing person I strive for.

Q: You have been all over the country, it seems. What took you from New Jersey, to Maine, to Vermont, to California, and then back to Vermont?

            A: I find that people from New Jersey do one of two things: they either stay in New Jersey forever, or they move far away. (laughs) I, as a child, took vacations up to Maine. I’ve always loved New England, so when I went to college, I decided to go up to Colby, and I really loved it there, and didn’t really want to leave New England. When I was looking at graduate schools, I came over to UVM, where they had a new and exciting neuroscience graduate program. After that, I knew that a postdoctoral position is temporary, and I should give the rest of the country a try, maybe, so my wife and I decided that it would be fun to go to a far flung location for my postdoctoral. We went to California, which was fun for four years, but I didn’t really want to stay. Vermont has been my favorite place that I’ve lived, and I wanted to move back here.

Q: How does Colby College compare to Castleton?

            A: As a private school, there’s a feeling of… oh gosh, have to think for a moment… There are definite differences. It’s just different. I think that students there are used to getting everything they want out of education and life, and so they are very proactive in making sure that their professors deliver the content that they want. Whereas here, I think students are more open to professors maybe showing them something new and delivering something that they didn’t know would be exciting. I think they’re both quality institutions.

Q: And, aside from the size, your graduate school, UVM, compared to Castleton?

            A: So, UVM and any sort of research institution is going to be much different from a liberal arts campus. The focus of the professors is at least mostly on the research, and producing research, publishing it, and funding it, so I think that it’s a great place for a student who knows they want to go into research, because there are plenty of opportunities to do that. But sometimes the quality of the teaching can be second, or a lower priority. A liberal arts campus like Castleton is a great place to get the personal interaction with professors who are dedicated entirely to your undergraduate education.

Q: Why fruit flies?

            A: Fruit flies have a storied history in science. Some of the first real genetic experiments done were done with fruit flies, and they’re kind of fantastic organisms to work with in the lab because they reproduce quickly, you can keep many of them in a small space, they’re relatively inexpensive to feed and house, and they share a great proportion of the fundamental genes for development with humans. Many of those genes are evolutionary conserved, and so, if we manipulate the fruit flies, there’s a great possibility it will apply as well to humans. In addition, it’s incredibly easy to manipulate their genetics, in part, because we have been doing it for so long, but there are also features of fruit flies, the fact that they lay eggs for example, that makes it easier to manipulate their genetics. A vast number of tools exist for us to use, which is really neat.

Q: I have to ask this, because I’m extremely curious. How do you pickle a fruit fly (get a fruit fly drunk)?

            A: I pass alcohol vapor across them. They breathe it in, and they get drunk that way. We can measure how drunk they get because they show many of the same behaviors humans do. In particular, I get them drunk until they pass out, and it’s very obvious to see that they can’t get up to stand anymore and are passed out. (laughs)

Q: Now, I have to ask this. I’ve talked with a couple of your students. They say you seem to be obsessed with black jelly beans. Why?

            A: Well, okay. (laughs) I would say that obsessed is maybe a little strong. I do like black jelly beans, and I do find it fascinating with how polarizing they are. People seem to like them a lot or not at all. When I was announcing my office hours, I was trying to entice people to come and speak with me, and the only treat I could offer is black jelly beans, which is why I can see… I did mention it in all my classes, but I’d say obsession is a little strong.

Q: What do you like the most about being a professor?

            A: I like the autonomy of being a professor. I like setting goals for myself and having goals of teaching students and having class meet at certain times, and needing to prepare for those. It seems very internally motivated, rather than externally so. I also just really love teaching. I really enjoy that, and I enjoy helping students to understand new topics. I just find it really satisfying when you can see someone ‘get it’- have that moment where they finally understand a concept.

Q: You’re studying drunk fruit flies now. What’s the next big study?

            More drunk fruit flies. (laughs) Honestly, the fruit fly model is really powerful, and it is versatile. Alcohol is good to study because it is something widely abused, so we need to know more of it. Also, it is legal. Nicotine, caffeine, other legal drugs or over the counter medication are things that might be interesting to study in the future using the fruit flies. But I do plan on sticking with fruit flies wherever possible, just because when you focus on one model organism, it allows you just to gain so much in the ways of tools and equipment and expertise in using them that you can use to solve a wide variety of problems.

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