Pitt biologist named Sloan Foundation fellow

By Andrew Shull

Mark Rebeiz spends hours a day studying fruit flies — trying to figure out why they’re fruit… Mark Rebeiz spends hours a day studying fruit flies — trying to figure out why they’re fruit flies.

The award-winning Pitt biology professor works in what he calls the “evo devo” branch of biology, in which researchers try to trace the roots of evolution in various species. Rebeiz’s most recent research focuses on the evolution of fruit flies.

For the professor’s work in molecular biology, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation named Rebeiz a 2011 recipient of its fellowship. The award is given to 100 researchers each year who have earned their doctorates in the past six years and are not yet tenured.

The Alfred P. Sloan foundation is a national nonprofit that distributes research grants and fellowships supporting research in science and technology.

The Sloan Fellowship is a $50,000 award funding U.S. and Canadian research in a variety of fields encompassing mathematics, economics and the sciences.

“I was ecstatic. It was great. It was awesome,” Rebeiz said about receiving the award.

In his old laboratory in Crawford Hall — he has since moved to a lab in the Life Sciences Annex — he explained some of his research on the pigmentation of fruit flies. When a particular gene is expressed in a subject, a dark pigmentation appears on the abdomen of the fruit fly. When the switch doesn’t fire, the fly’s pigmentation stays tan.

“How does this work? How does an old gene get expressed in a new way?” he said, describing the purpose of his research.

The biologist has published papers on the pigmentation of fruit flies since 2008. He received both his undergraduate and masters degrees from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, his doctorate from the University of California San Diego in 2006, and did post-doctorate work at the University of Wisconsin. He came from Wisconsin to Pitt in 2010.

But Rebeiz isn’t solely focused on research. Although he hasn’t started teaching yet, he will this fall. He plans to introduce a more hands-on method for his class and wants to cover genomic sequencing in the classroom. He said that genomic sequencing had become “ubiquitous” and that soon biologists will be able to sequence every individual’s DNA.

In addition to his work in biology, Rebeiz has additional interest in astronomy. He laments the amount of light pollution in Pittsburgh, though.

Another hobby of his is music: He plays the guitar and the harmonica, and although he isn’t in a band now, he’s looking. Rebeiz said he’s a “die-hard fan of Bright Eyes,” and listens to blues, rock and indie music.

During long hours in the “fly room,” Rebeiz plays music, Steven Weiss said. The sophomore biology major works with Rebeiz in the lab. “Music definitely helps,” he said. “Dr. Rebeiz’s love of music really shows through.”

Rachel Young, a third-year graduate student who works in Rebeiz’s lab, said that the work is “fun and scientifically challenging.” She said that Rebeiz motivates her to think critically about her research, and she’s proud to be working with him.

Young’s work in the lab focuses on how the development of different genes affects the appearance of a species — one of the main questions Rebeiz said he will address in his coming research.

Those three-dimensional changes manifest in different ways. The researcher pointed to two species of flies who have only been separate species for 200,000 to 300,000 years, and displayed images of those flies’ genitals.

The shape of one structure that male fruit flies use to grab onto female fruit flies had very significant differences between the species. Rebeiz’s research focuses on how those changes emerge on a genetic level and why they happen.

Weiss, who hopes to one day become a genetic counselor, said that his work with Rebeiz has been a learning experience more valuable for him than much of his course work.

He said that the research was very interesting, and that he was excited about the prospect of working on a research project that could yield such big discoveries.

“The sequence of my genome is going to affect my life,” he said, “And understanding how those changes work is something we’re very bad at.”

He said that understanding how genetic switches work on a very small scale with fruit flies could eventually lead to a much better understanding of how switches work on a much larger scale with human beings. He said that understanding will be beneficial outside of the lab.

Rebeiz said that winning the fellowship will allow him to be more creative in the way he can conduct research. He said that because of the fellowship, he will use a new genomic technique.

“Fellowships like this are supposed to inspire creativity,” he said.