By Ashley Mooney
Roger Zou, a computer science and math major from Solon, Ohio, is working on creating more efficient ways to study wound-healing in fruit flies. It turns out that the way fruit flies heal actually has implications for how mammals heal too.
The junior is developing computational methods that can more accurately quantify cellular properties of fruit flies. As fruit fly embryos develop, he tracks cells through space and time to learn more about a process called dorsal closure. It’s a developmental stage that is similar to wound healing, where a gap in the embryo’s epithelium—which is like its skin—is closed by the coordinated effort of different types of cells. (see movie below)
“It’s fun to study the morphological forces because it’s not entirely understood how organisms develop,” Zou said.
In his analysis, Zou uses a laser under a microscope to make cuts on areas of the fly embryos. After making cuts, Zou uses computational methods to measure the wound healing.
Beyond collecting such data, Zou is developing a computer program that analyzes images from the microscope more accurately.
Zou has worked in Biology Professor Daniel Kiehart’s lab since his freshman year. His project was originally a component of a graduate student’s dissertation, but after she graduated, he continued some aspects of her research.
His project has been funded by the Dean’s Summer Research Fellowship for two consecutive summers. He also has done several independent study projects. Although Zou is planning on publishing his research this summer, he will likely use the data eventually to do a senior thesis.
Several of Zou’s math and computer science classes have given him a background in the techniques needed to use a computer to analyze large sets of image data, he said.
“My favorite thing about my research is the ability to learn new things independently,” Zou said. “[Kiehart] is very good at leading me in the right direction but allowing me to be very independent and I think because of that I’ve been able to learn a lot more and learn from my mistakes.”
Outside of his research, Zou is a teaching assistant for the computer science class Data Structures and Algorithms. He also tutors Duke students in organic chemistry and middle school children in math through the America Reads*America Counts program. And he also does web development for The Chronicle, Duke University’s independent student newspaper.
After graduating, Zou said he hopes to pursue a PhD in either computational biology or computer science or maybe go for a combined MD-PhD program. No matter which program he chooses, Zou said he wants to continue doing research.