Biologist Carolyn Elya will join MCB as a junior faculty member starting in January. Her research centers on a fungus called Entomophthora that infects flies and turns them into “zombies” that can exhibit complex behaviors, such as climbing up to high vantage points before the fungal spores explode out of their bodies. Elya’s initial goals as she starts up her lab will include figuring out what compounds cause Entomophthora’s victims to climb or “summit” and developing new techniques for working with the parasitic fungus.
“I’m delighted that Carolyn has joined MCB!” says MCB Chair Rachelle Gaudet. “In establishing the zombie fly system, she demonstrated her keen eye for leveraging unexpected observations and her drive to pursue unconventional biological systems that could transform how we think of host-pathogen interactions. Her research program will both benefit from and enhance our research environment, and I’m excited to see what emerges from it in the coming years!”
“I cannot wait to have a group of people that’s just going to be focused on zombies all the time,” Elya says. “I think it’s going to be so fun.”
Growing up in Danville, California, Elya was interested in nature as a young child but drifted away from the sciences during her high school years. By the time she started her undergraduate studies at University of California San Diego, she was reluctant to take even one chemistry class to fulfill her course requirements. “I remember being really upset that I had to take this chemistry class and being ready to just hate the heck out of it,” she says. “Then I got to the class, and right from the first lecture, I thought it was really cool and made a lot of sense.” The chemistry class reignited Elya’s interest in science.
Elya’s curiosity motivated her to transfer to Reed College, a small liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon. “Maybe I’m just a consummate nerd, but I decided that I wanted to go to a school that was more focused on learning for the sake of learning and would be a happy place for people like me who want to be nerds all the time,” she says. “Reed ticked all those boxes.”
Moving to a smaller college allowed Elya to get more hands-on time in the lab and to work independently while still receiving one-on-one mentorship. “The kind of mentorship I got, the really close connections and the sort of lab environments I experienced at Reed really set the tone for what I expect a lab to be like and what I want my lab to be like,” she says.
Elya graduated from college directly into the 2008-2009 recession. She recalls everyone scrambling to find jobs. Rather continuing to grad school, she took a position as a research technician at Scott Landfear’s lab at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU). That research introduced her to the world of parasites, such as Leishmania.
After two years at OHSU, she began graduate school at University of California, Berkeley. She joined Michael Eisen’s lab, where researchers were looking into how microbes can influence larger host organisms’ behavior. At the time, gut microbiomes were a hot topic, so Elya’s graduate thesis work largely focused on microbes that she found in flies.
However, many of the transcriptomic analyses Elya performed on flies yielded weak correlations between the microbes in flies’ guts and behavioral outcomes. Hoping to gain more insight into what a fly gut microbiome looks like, she started trapping flies from her backyard, grinding them up, and sequencing the microbes from these wild flies. On one fateful day, she left her fruit fly bait out in the yard before going away to volunteer at a Girl Scout camp for a week. “I came back from Girl Scout camp the next weekend and I was like, ‘Oh, I really need to clean up this bait. This is gross. The neighbors are going to start to complain,’” Elya recalls.
While cleaning, she noticed dead flies in the trap. “They were a little odd in that they had their wings up, which is not atypical for dead desiccated flies, but they had some schmutz on their back that looked an awful like the remnants of these fungal structures called conidiophores that I knew were made by Entomophthora muscae,” she says.
She knew of Entomophthora because one of her graduate school colleagues had been interested in the fungus, but Elya hadn’t expected to find it in wild flies in her own backyard. One of the major obstacles her colleague had encountered was difficulty infecting new flies in a laboratory setting. “Entomophthora only kills flies once per day,” Elya explains. “It produces all these beautiful spores that can infect other flies, but these spores are incredibly transient. So you have to collect these freshly killed flies at a certain time of day and then cohouse them with the flies you want to get sick in order to pass the infection on.”
Fascinated, Elya threw herself into trapping more Entomophthora-infested flies. “This set off about two months of me relentlessly aspirating every fly I could get my hands on from my backyard every morning, putting them into vials, and then every night, very impatiently checking them to see if anyone died,” she recalls. But all of her early attempts to spread the infection to new flies in vials met with failure, until a colleague reminded her that the standard fly food used in labs contains an antifungal compound. When Elya tried replacing the typical fly food with organic bananas, the fungus was finally able to spread itself within the context of a lab vial.
Elya’s fly-catching frenzy occurred in the last few years of her stint in graduate school. She remembers constantly working with flies (both in the lab and in her living room) and stashing vials in her home freezer. Fortunately, her then-boyfriend and now husband was also in the Berkeley graduate program and understood. By this time, her colleague who was initially looking into Entomophthora had quit the program due to personal setbacks. Elya wanted to continue working on Entomophthora and making inquiries about postdoctoral positions was the next logical step.
Reaching out to Harvard OEB professor Benjamin De Bivort paid off. Elya joined the De Bivort Lab under the auspices of a Hanna Gray Fellowship from HHMI. “What I didn’t realize when I first got the award is that one of the huge benefits of the award is to be connected with this community of scientists [who are also Hanna Grey Fellows],” Elya says. “So I get to hang out and get to know and hear the science done by these amazing people around the country who are absolutely incredible, and they’ve been a huge part of my postdoc here. Being a postdoc can be pretty lonely, you don’t really have a cohort, and they’ve been my people.”
Elya adds that her colleagues in OEB have been wonderful to work with and that she has learned a lot through her time as a postdoc. Her accomplishments from her postdoc include developing a behavioral assay for the “summiting disease” that infected flies undergo.
Developing improved experimental access to the fungus will be a top priority for Elya’s lab when it opens early next year. She also plans to zero in on the compound or compounds the fungus produces that manipulates the fly’s locomotion and to analyze the fungus’s morphology at various stages of the infection.
“If you’re curious and ready to work hard, I don’t subscribe to the notion that you have to have your whole Ph.D. mapped out in order for you to succeed,” Elya says. “My job is to help you get there, and I think the most important assets you can bring are your curiosity, your creativity, and your willingness to dive in and learn new things.”
Outside of the lab, Elya spends most of her time with her family, which includes her husband, two dogs, a cat, and a toddler son named Arthur. Their hobbies include hiking and doing crossword puzzles.
Elya is looking forward to working with her neighbors. Her lab is currently under construction on the second floor of BioLabs. Although her appointment doesn’t officially start until January 2024, she can already be found on the third floor of BioLabs near senior MCB faculty Richard Losick´s office and between the Bellono Lab and the Nett Lab. All of her neighbors are looking forward to interactions with Elya and her lab. “We, on paper, could not be more different in terms of what we study, but I think there’s such a huge overlap in how we think about the problems we’re interested in, and I’m so excited to see how my science is impacted by being around people who are thinking about all of these different problems,” she says.
“I’m super excited Carolyn is moving in next door,” says MCB faculty Nick Bellono. “She brings an exciting and unusual system that is poised to reveal fascinating insights from molecular to organismal levels, consistent with MCB’s broad approach that spans tiers of biology. From already sharing group meetings and other interactions, it’s obvious that she brings an infectious curiosity that will undoubtedly lead to interesting discoveries and enhance our overall training environment.”
“I’m thrilled to have Carolyn as a new colleague!” adds MCB faculty Ryan Nett. “Her research on fungal infection and manipulation of insects brings an exciting new perspective to MCB and has the potential to provide unique insight into the complexities of both fungal biology and animal neurobiology. Just as importantly, I’m really looking forward to having Carolyn as a neighbor in Biolabs. Her excitement for science and creativity in research is already obvious from our joint group meetings, and I think that sharing an environment with her will positively impact how me and my group think about our own research directions.”
The MCB community is enthusiastic about Elya’s arrival. “When Carolyn Elya applied for a faculty position in MCB, members of the search committee were mesmerized by her amazing science and highly creative projects on zombie flies,” says MCB faculty Catherine Dulac, who led the search committee. “I am really looking forward to interact with her as a colleague and to follow what I predict will be many fascinating new discoveries on how parasites and host organisms interact with each other.”
“I want to give a humongous thank you to everybody that’s been part of my scientific career,” Elya adds. “There’s absolutely no way I could have gotten here without everyone’s support [and] encouragement..The people along the way make all the difference.”