Dr. Ina Anreiter from the University of Toronto was selected as a 2019 Schmidt Science Fellow for her research in behavioural genetics in April in New York.

The Schmidt Science Fellowship is a prestigious program that brings some of the best emerging scientists in the world together, and equips them with new skills to make a positive change in society. Candidates are chosen for their exceptional performance during PhD studies and strong intellectual curiosity to broaden the scope of their future research.

Each fellow, including Anreiter, will complete a year-long postdoctoral placement in a different field than their PhD topic to promote interdisciplinary thinking.

Anreiter’s work as a PhD candidate

Anreiter completed her PhD in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at U of T, and was supervised by Dr. Marla Sokolowski. As part of her studies, Anreiter wanted to understand how genetics and environment could influence behaviours. She studied this by looking at the foraging gene of two strains of fruit flies with distinct foraging behaviours: the rovers and the sitters.

The rovers are more active and are usually willing to travel farther for food, while the sitters are less active and tend to travel shorter distances to forage.

“When the food is in the middle of the arena, you have a trade-off of safety versus getting to the food,” explained Anreiter in an interview with The Varsity. “So you can see this difference in rovers and sitters… It’s a circular arena, food is distributed in the middle, and you can see that sitters tend to hug the edges, while rovers are much more exploratory.”

An earlier paper published in 2017 by Anreiter and her colleagues described how they were able to genetically engineer the foraging gene to transform sitters into rovers.

Challenges along the way

Anreiter had to overcome multiple challenges to accomplish what she has. “The way that our publishing system works is very positive-result-oriented. It’s very hard to publish negative results, and there are many arguments to be made,” she remarked.

“We ended up publishing this really nice story about this one epigenetic regulator that regulates individual differences, but that wasn’t the only regulator that we looked at,” she continued. Epigenetic engineering makes modifications to an organism by altering which genes are expressed, rather than directly changing the DNA sequence itself.

However, her research team looked at many other regulators that did not show a positive result. “So there’s a lot of work that goes into this project that is never published because the results are not positive,” she elaborated.

She further acknowledged the challenges that she experienced as a PhD student, but she advised students to not get discouraged when a project seems to come to a dead end.

“It’s not the end of your PhD; it’s not the end of your research. You just change gears a little bit and continue with something new,” she concluded.

Next steps for future research

Anreiter’s work opens up many possibilities for future research in epigenetics. One of the significant findings in this study was that the effect of epigenetic regulators is dependent on the strain of fruit flies. In other words, “You have an interaction where the epigenetic modification is dependent on a genetic difference, and that’s an interaction which… when I started my PhD, [people] weren’t looking at,” she said.

“And that applies not only to fruit flies, not only to feeding behaviour, but applies broadly to animal research.”

Currently, Anreiter has undertaken a project in computer science, where she aims to develop a new computation mechanism to examine epigenetics modifications in RNA as a required component of the Schmidt Science Fellowship.

Offering advice to undergraduates about graduate studies, “Don’t do grad school because you are just not sure what you want to do, because grad school can be really, really tough,” she remarked. “But it is also really rewarding in my experience.”

“If you are excited about research, if you are excited about science, it is a really cool environment where you can really have the freedom of developing you own interests.”