Ana Marija Jakšić: the scientist who trains flies

Trapped on an Adriatic island, the young researcher didn't just breed flies. © DR

Trapped on an Adriatic island, the young researcher didn't just breed flies. © DR

Ana Marija Jakšić, a young researcher in evolutionary neurobiology, joined EPFL on 1 May but has yet to set foot in her lab in Lausanne. With time on her hands, she set about breeding fruit flies the old-school way.

29-year-old Ana Marija Jakšić got the news she’d been waiting for: she’d been awarded an EPFL Life Sciences Early Independent Research Scholar (ELISIR) scholarship. For the former Cornell University postdoc, it was a dream come true. She’d have her own lab, at least three years of funding, a world-class working environment and a unique opportunity to combine her two passions: experimental evolutionary biology and neuroscience. Her contract was due to start on 1 May.

But just as she was getting ready to cross the Atlantic, airlines began canceling flights left, right and center. On 15 March, she managed to book a seat on one of the last outbound flights from Canada to her native Croatia. She paid a visit to her parents at the family’s vacation retreat on a small island in the Adriatic Sea, with a population of 1,000 people and a single grocery store. A few days later, the country went into lockdown and she was unable to leave. All her future plans were thrown up in the air.

A bench on the beach. ©DR

“At first, I kept myself busy by drafting all my outstanding papers,” says Jakšić. “Once I’d finished that, I couldn’t just sit around doing nothing. I had to get started on my research.” She didn’t have much choice, since time was of the essence. She was undeterred by the lack of laboratory equipment and materials – not least the fruit fly lines she needed for her experiments. “I set up some fly traps under an olive tree in my garden, using some banana skins and apple peels,” explains Jakšić, who recounts the events in a Twitter thread where she imagines telling the story to a group of children in the year 2078. “Sure enough after a day there was the first fly, after two days there were two more, and the next day there were 15 more – just like the Rona!”

“A bench on the beach”

“I fashioned tools with whatever objects I could find: makeshift aspirators made of plastic straws and pen tips, taped tinfoil funnels, socks as stoppers, and even an old trivet as a maze,” says Jakšić with a smile. “It was basic, but it worked! I did my experiments in the garden, overlooking the sea. It was my very own bench on the beach. If nothing else, I got to try out a few ideas for my future research.”

Safe trip for the fruit flies. ©DR

“Super-smart” flies

So what exactly will she be working on next? “I’m planning a large-scale experiment to assess how flies think,” she explains, putting on her scientist’s hat. “I want to test their memory and learning abilities and how they evolve. For example, we’ll be using a punishment-and-reward system to train the flies to choose a particular color, then observing how they respond. Longer-term, the idea is to select and breed the “smartest” flies and to understand how intelligence evolves through the generations.” Jakšić’s fundamental research will provide wider insights into the evolution of the brain.

A makeshift lab in her sister's living room in Zagreb. ©DR 

On 20 June, Jakšić was finally able to travel again. She swapped the sparsely populated island for the hustle and bustle of the capital, Zagreb, where she’s set up her makeshift lab in her sister’s living room. “She just confessed she got tired of removing flies from her coffee and just drank them today,” she jokes in another Twitter post. Jakšic’s first and only visit to EPFL came last year when she came to the School for an interview. She’s looking forward to setting foot in her lab for the first time in the coming weeks, once she’s able to cross the border into Switzerland.