The Fly: Behind the scenes

Drosophila melanogaster. Credit: Anne Weston, LRI, CRUK, Wellcome Images.

I published two features – well, one pair of linked features – about fruit flies this week. The pieces were in many ways an experiment, and in other ways an indulgence.

The experiment first: we are moving towards more longform feature writing at work and it is probably important that we play with what that might mean in order to learn what we want it to mean or what we are capable of meaning it to mean. The buzzword is ‘explanatory’ writing, but not in the textbook vein: rather, focused on narrative and letting the ‘science’ come through more ‘palatable’ stories of people and their lives. The length is necessary to go into any level of detail; the form is what carries the reader through the detail – and the length.

My features this week did not really tell stories. I mean, the first one related the history of fruit flies over 100 years and more of research, with a little bit of fly physiology thrown in, before focusing on one lab in Manchester where they use fruit flies to learn about cells and how they work. The head of that lab was very keen on extolling the virtues of fly research, so I let his ‘evangelism’ carry the second half. But it was more of a snapshot, a profile, a portrait, if you will.

In the second feature, I again focused on one lab and its head, but the simple narrative was more about me going to visit and spending time there and getting to see some of the processes and techniques that are used in their research, which uses fruit fly larvae to understand more about nerve cells and their role both in development and in conditions like epilepsy. I found it fascinating being there, and I really hoped that readers would get a sense of that, if not their own fascination.

So often when writing about science, the bulk of the methodology is left undescribed, perhaps because no one asks the scientists about it, perhaps because they find their everyday tasks mundane, perhaps because we all assume readers will find them boring. But I wanted to see if there was any appetite for going into the detail of important (if no longer novel) techniques.

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