Author Archives: Michael Ong

#summer2017 #science #BSURF #research

Wow. What a summer.

#throwbackthursday to when I was confident I was going to get my M.D. and become a clinical doctor.
#waybackwednesday to when I was going to get an M.D./Ph.D.
#flashbackfriday to when I was going into environmental consulting

As the last few days of BSURF are coming to an end, I’m adding more and more career options to the list and creating more hashtags to reminisce on the times when I thought I knew what I wanted to do. Coming into college, I thought that I was going to be #pre-med and follow the classic route. After working in a research lab freshman year, I was even more confident since I hadn’t enjoyed the laboratory research life that much. Yet for some reason, I’m #loving research life now. Maybe it’s because I have more time to work on my project and actually feeling like I’m accomplishing something. Maybe it’s because I have a new lab work environment. Whatever it is, it’s #enjoyable.

So while my career and academic major plans have changed a #bajillion times, I’m okay with that. As of right now, I think I might want to pursue the #MSTP route and get an M.D./Ph.D.

All I 100% know is that science is changing. Discoveries are made every day. What I knew yesterday is no longer accurate today. There’s always something new to learn, and I’m #blessed to receive funding from BSURF to enable that.

Breakfast Tunes

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, my schedule revolves around my meals. To me, seminars primarily mean the time of day where I drag myself up ten million flights of stairs to French Family and finally get to reenergize with some granola bars, fruit, OJ, and yogurt (thanks for the new yogurt, Jason!)

While I love having seminars because it means getting to eat, there’s an added bonus of going: learning about other research that faculty members are doing. The seminar that struck me the most was Dean Steve Nowicki’s. Steve is my academic advisor, and I’ve heard a lot of his stories including his research. I’m not sure if it’s because I wasn’t eating when I first heard it, but I never fully understood the research he was doing until he came and presented to us — and wow am I glad I finally understand it!

Steve’s research investigates how birds communicate using various biological approaches. After taking genetics and evolution in the Spring, I was able to have the capacity to fully understand his presentation. It was amazing how he was able to connect how birds learn to communicate with humans. One anecdote that he brought up was the inability to hear certain phonemes and growing up bilingual, I completely understood. I remember my parents trying to pronounce Walmart and not being able to enunciate the l’s and the r’s.

Another interesting point he brought up was the difference between songs of birds from Pennsylvania and New York. I asked a question about how this affects mating, and Steve said that birds in Pennsylvania won’t even recognize the songs of birds from New York. This led me to think about how the Biological Species Concept is applied. If females won’t pick up the courtship songs of males, when are the regional birds considered different species?

Does sunlight affect the toxicity of organic contaminants?


Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are ubiquitous contaminants produced from human activity, such as combustion of biofuels, often found in aquatic ecosystems. Embryonic fish have been shown to be significantly sensitive to PAH exposure. Further, PAH toxicity can be modulated by environmental factors such as hypoxia and temperature. This study investigated how sunlight exposure modifies the toxicity of carbazole, a hetereocyclic PAH. Zebrafish embryos were exposed at 6 hours post fertilization (hpf) until 96 hpf using photoactivated and parent carbazole. Photoactivation was induced using a sunlight simulator. Survival rates, deformities, CYP1A activity, and oxidative stress were examined. Additionally, chemical analysis of photoactivated carbazole is under development to identify photoproducts. Exposure to parent carbazole did not cause mortality, but did cause minor embryonic developmental effects. Contrarily, photoactivated carbazole caused significantly higher rates of mortality and deformities at 72 hpf at concentrations of 1000 µg/L and higher. Photoactivated carbazole induced higher CYP1A activity, indicating that photoproducts acted as aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) agonists despite carbazole being a known AHR inhibitor. Such induction may be related to the increased toxicity, which remains to be tested. These results show that sunlight can play a role in modifying the toxicity of certain organic contaminants.


A Match Made in Heaven… Or on a Rotting Pile of Ground Beef

I remember recently reading an article by The Onion (warning: a bit graphic; mildy NSFW) about a flies mating. In summary, it’s about flies mating on a pile of rotting meat and how it enhanced the experience. To humans, this putrid smell may offset the mood. Little did I know that The Onion was sort of scientifically right: smell plays an important role in the courtship of flies.

Rebecca’s chalk talk, The Role of Or47b in Drosophila Courtship Learning Behavior, further explained the science behind smell and mating. For some context, there’s a gene called the fruitless gene (fru for short) that is key to courtship. When a frumutant fly (meaning a mutant fruitless gene fly) is coupled with another fly, it won’t do the courtship behavior; however, it can learn the behavior after being around normal fru flies.

There’s also a type of gene called an orco gene that’s involved in the olfactory, or smell, of the fly. When a fru (no mutation) AND orcomutant (can’t smell) fly is coupled with a normal fly, it also does not court and it can’t learn to court when around normal fru flies.
Rebecca’s research investigates a specific olfactory gene: Or47b. This gene is a more specific subset of the orco gene. Her hypothesis is: a fru AND Or47b mutant will not learn to court and she tests this by watching them mate for a few hours every day!

Maybe she can do another experiment to see if certain smells cause flys to mate sooner or more often (maybe rotting ground beef as The Onion suggests).

Thanks for the insight, Rebecca!

It’s not a phase, Mom. This is who I really am.

Mother, you’ve always wanted me to become a doctor. Sorry to say it, but I kind of sort of like lab life.

I can imagine your expression right now:

new meme. disappointed mom

And while I’ve got your attention to the lab, let me tell you more about my average day in detail so maybe you’ll see why I love what I do.


I like to plan everything around my meals, so my schedule will be laid out that way.Almost every morning, I’ll wake up at 6:30 to go on a run or go to the gym with my friend John Franklin.

Here’s a sweaty photo of us after a 5 mile run.

After this, we usually have a seminar or workshop scheduled through the program from 9-10:15.


After I get out of seminar/workshop and have my breakfast, I’ll head to the lab. My experiment is pretty time sensitive since I have to do screenings at a certain hour post-fertilization (hpf) of the zebrafish embryos. If I’m in the middle of an experiment, I’ll usually screen my embryos right as I get in as this marks the next 24 hpf.

Middle of an experiment
During screening, I take all of my petri dishes and look at them under the microscope. I record how many are alive, dead, have pericardial edema, yolk sac edema, bent notochord, and notes for other observations.
The screening takes about an hour and a half to two hours.

Starting an experiment
If I’m about to start an experiment, I set up breeding colonies the night before and flip the breeders and collect eggs in the morning. Then I have to wait for 6 hpf to start the dosing.
In the meantime, I’ll make some solutions for the dosing. To do this, I do a lot of math and then pipette a lot of liquids into scintillation vials to create my solutions.

Wow my favorite time of the day has arrived!


Middle of experiment
My project doesn’t require a lot of tasks, just a lot of time and waiting. After lunch, I’ll usually analyze some of the data I collected from the screening or run an assay if I’m finishing the experiment.
Assays take a lot of time and are tedious. It requires transferring embryos one by one without collecting any liquid into a well plate. Then, micropipetting solutions into the wells and run an assay. It doesn’t sound bad, but transferring embryos is hard work.

Starting an experiment
Around 3-4 pm marks 6 hpf, the time I’ll start my dosing.
I do a preliminary screen to make sure that the embryos are fertilized and healthy, and then I transfer embryos into petri dishes without collection water (again, this is tedious).
After I do that for over 200 embryos, I pour in the chemical and then I’m done for the day.

Other stuff
After I finish my experiment or have time in between stuff I have to do, I usually help others with their experiments. Most of this is running assays or doing dissections.

I usually get out of lab around 4:30, and everyday I’ll do something fun. Some things I’ll do are go to Eno River, Jordan Lake, or walk into Durham. I’ll usually do this with John Franklin and my roommate Martín.

Wow my other favorite time of day has arrived!

After dinner, I’ll usually just hang out with my friends, watch some movies, or catch up on some personal work.

It’s amazing how after I step out of the lab, I don’t have to worry about anything. During the school year, the evenings are usually the busiest. Meetings and studying take up all of my time, and now I have so much time to do things I want to do.
So Mom, this is who I want am. Sorry.