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Getting into a research lab right away after transferring from Stony Brook University to Cornell helped Michelle Lisboa strive in the new environment.
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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“I’m ambitious, so I emailed the lab’s principal investigator Angela Douglas, and I got an email right back, saying she had a spot to work with Postdoc Caroline Fromont.”
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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Working for two semesters in the lab, so far, Lisboa has designed her own experiments with fruit fly diets, studying the impact of gut bacteria on human health.
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank

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“Our experiment focused on how fruit flies react differently to consuming lactose, or milk sugar, as opposed to their normal glucose-containing diets…fruit flies are a great system to understand fundamental problems, especially biomedical issues.”
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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“I feel like…people come to Cornell thinking, ‘How did I make it here…?’ This was something I struggled a lot with; but after getting the research position, I began to understand that every student has something that makes them deserve their spot here.”
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

Undergraduate Research, an Equalizer

by Molly Karr '18

Brooklyn native Michelle Lisboa ’20, transferred to Cornell University from Stony Brook University in the fall of 2017. While Lisboa had immersed herself in the creative arts at LaGuardia High School in New York City, her main focus—becoming a doctor—is what led to her decision to transfer to Cornell and major in biological sciences.

Many transfer students fear they will be behind at their new university. Lisboa initially felt nervous about being able to keep up, but she quickly found supportive peers. “The transfer community here is really helpful. All of the students are in the same situation, so I felt comfortable and honestly pleased with my experience,” says Lisboa, who is thankful for the support of her new-found Cornell community.

Becoming an Undergraduate Researcher

Lisboa had not considered hands-on research as an option so early in her undergraduate education and was surprised at how quickly she landed a position in a lab. “I’m ambitious, so I emailed the lab’s principal investigator Angela Douglas, and I got an email right back, saying she had a spot to work with Postdoc Caroline Fromont, who was looking for an undergraduate assistant,” says Lisboa on how she became a team member in the Douglas Lab.

Lisboa’s day-to-day work has been rigorous but rewarding. She works in the lab at least three times a week, and her tasks range from preparing fruit fly diets of agar and yeast mixed with different sugar concentrations to tallying adult flies that emerge and compiling data.

First Semester Research: Lactose versus Glucose Diets

“Last semester, our experiment focused on how fruit flies react differently to consuming lactose, or milk sugar, as opposed to their normal glucose-containing diets. We wanted to test whether or not survival rates and development may vary across different concentrations of lactose diets, compared to glucose diets,” says Lisboa, who is particularly interested in how gut bacteria impacts the rest of the human body’s functions.

In the fruit fly experiment, results showed that most fruit flies don’t thrive on lactose as they would glucose, suggesting that lactose may actually be a source of toxicity, according to Lisboa.

Second Semester Research: Adding a Gut Bacteria Angle to the Experiment

During the 2018 spring semester, axenic flies—those without gut bacteria—were tested under the same methods as the prior experiment to see if the lack of gut bacteria has an effect on their ability to thrive on lactose that may differ from the conventional flies. “The results have shown that axenic flies do, in fact, respond differently to lactose compared to conventional flies. The axenic flies are able to grow and develop more efficiently, even on diets of high lactose concentrations,” explains Lisboa.

So, how does studying fruit flies’ reactions to sugars help us understand the impact of gut bacteria on the human body?

“Well, fruit flies are a great system to understand fundamental problems, especially biomedical issues. The growing evidence that gut microbes affect the response of fruit flies to lactose will provide insight into how gut microbes may influence lactose intolerance in people,” says Lisboa.

Working at the Douglas Lab has helped Lisboa understand the functions of bacteria and the importance of nutrition at a hands-on level. “I admire and am fascinated by the huge impact that gut bacteria can have on us—from physical illnesses and lifespan to mental illnesses such as anxiety and stress. Truly, if you think about it, we often forget how significant and influential these little creatures are toward our health,” says Lisboa.

One of Lisboa’s favorite aspects of her research is the sense of independence that it provides her. “I was so surprised that I was accepted so quickly. I had never been in a research lab, much less working on my own project. It was daunting at first, especially considering the Douglas Lab is mainly composed of graduate students and postdoctoral staff. The whole goal is to work on this experiment on my own, make up my own plan, so I’ve experienced a lot of personal growth from doing that,” says Lisboa.

Working in the Douglas Lab is also helping Lisboa to further refine her career goal. She is now considering nutrition as a possible medical path to pursue.

“There is a reason why you are here, and you have to believe in yourself and go after the things that make you different from everyone else.”

Transitioning to Cornell

The transition wasn’t always easy for Lisboa, and she found herself second-guessing her abilities. Her time at the Douglas Lab helped her to see that she did fit in at Cornell.

“I feel like a lot of people come to Cornell thinking, ‘How did I make it here? What is it about me that makes me worthy?’ This was something I struggled a lot with; but after getting the research position, I began to understand that every student has something that makes them deserve their spot here. There is a reason why you are here, and you have to believe in yourself and go after the things that make you different from everyone else.”

Even with a heavy course load and work at the Douglas Lab, Lisboa has managed to keep the arts in her life. “I’m still very arts involved. Last semester I tried belly dancing and started playing the ukulele. I’m looking to join a guitar club, too, once I get a better hold on my classwork,” says Lisboa.