Commonly Asking Uncommon Questions

by Susan Shelly

photo of professor and student

Besides her three-year-old son, there are few things that Erin Ventresca, Ph.D., enjoys talking about more than Drosophila melanogaster, more ordinarily known as the common fruit fly.

“Most people don’t like fruit flies, but I think they’re beautiful,” says Ventresca, an assistant professor of biology at Albright. “They sing to each other, you know.”

Because they are genetically similar to humans, fruit flies lend themselves to much of Ventresca’s research, which involves looking at how adult stem cells are affected by various factors, such as diet, and how changes in those stem cells contribute to aging.

Her areas of expertise also include the study of how integrin receptors influence adult stem cell activities and oogenesis, which is the production of an ovum, or egg cell.

Though she often studies common fruit flies, Ventresca relishes thinking about, and getting students to consider, less than common questions. Often, she can be found mentoring undergraduate students who are taking on their own research projects.

In 2017, students Theresa Shafto, Courtney Gehman and Will Holl Jr., worked with Ventresca to study how soy derivatives bind to estrogen-related receptors, which could someday translate into treatments for an aggressive form of breast cancer.

And last year, she worked with junior Mara Trifoi, who — again using Ventresca’s cherished fruit flies — studied whether increased sugar intake causes premature adult stem cell loss, thereby leading to increased aging.

Shafto, Gehman and Trifoi were part of the Albright Creative Research Experience (ACRE), a program that provides students opportunities to conduct research in partnership with faculty mentors. Both Shafto and Trifoi were selected as Hearst Scholars, in recognition of outstanding research work.

It is a joy for her, Ventresca says, to work with students who are anxious to learn.

“I love including undergraduates in research,” she says. “They are just filled with the wonder of discovery.”

Asking a question and conducting research to discover the answer is of great benefit to anyone, Ventresca says, but particularly to budding scientists.

“Participating in a program like ACRE is invaluable to your future as a scientist,” she says. “One of the things that attracted me to Albright in the first place was the ACRE program.”

She encourages students to conduct their research as independently as possible, offering advice and encouragement, as needed.

Ventresca began asking questions as a child, and decided that biology was a field that could help her find the answers to her questions.

“It seemed like a field that would offer a lot of questions, and also one where you could work to get to the answers to those questions,” she says. “That was very appealing to me.”

Armed with good questions, Ventresca went on to earn degrees from Ursinus College and Temple University. Prior to returning to academics and Albright’s biology laboratory, she researched cancer at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Her goal now, she says, is to convince students that they are capable of identifying the problems they wish to solve.

She sometimes will hand students a sea urchin and challenge them to come up with an experiment and follow through on it.

“Getting them to realize that they can ask their own questions is hard,” she says. “Helping them to answer those questions is the easy part.”

Ventresca’s main sense of accomplishment as a teacher and fellow researcher comes when her excited students are successful in discovering answers to
their own, important questions.

“The look on their faces when they experience that ‘a-ha’ moment just feeds your soul,” she explains. “That’s the reason that we show up here.”