Friday, 7 June 2013

What is your work anyway Bloom?

My 'real' job has taken me away from blogging lately. I thought I'd tell you about it as I've precious little else to show you! Prepare yourself - it is a little weird. My youngest daughter said to me the other day, "Mum, why can't you get a normal job? My friends ask me what you do and I don't know what to say!" 

My University training, many moons ago, was in Plant Biochemistry. I completed a PhD in Agricultural Chemistry at the University of Sydney. The next choice for me professionally was to travel overseas to pursue post doctoral studies. However, being in my late twenties at the time, I forewent this opportunity and chose to stay in Australia, move to the country and start a family. Bang went the career! But I would make the same decision again for my precious kids.

These days, I do some casual laboratory work with the Department of Primary Industries, a State Government department. There have been significant job cuts in the Department this year, so I am lucky to have any work at all.

A thousand points to anyone who knows what these are! I am working in Entomology at the moment. Our section monitors populations of fruit fly in New South Wales. And these are fruit fly pupae (not poopies as my daughter would have you think)!

For the last few weeks, we have been busy running a small research project. This is an unusual opportunity for us, and my inner science geek has come to the fore again, getting excited about setting up trials and measuring stuff! Love it!


Fruit fly is a major pest to fruit and vegetable production worldwide. There are many different varieties and it is important from a quarantine perspective, and for export markets, to monitor distributions, and control numbers where possible. 

One of the ways fruit flies are controlled on a large scale is by sterile fly release. This is a biological control where sterile flies are released into the wild population. The sterile flies mate with wild flies, and the eggs produced are infertile.

OK Bloom, that's all very well, but how on earth do you sterilise a fruit fly? With a very small scalpel?! Ah no. Unleash your inner geek for this bit.


Fruit flies are bred in enormous numbers in a dedicated fruit fly factory (I kid you not)! The factory supplies up to 20 million sterile Queensland fruit flies per week for release. When the flies are at pupal stage in their life cycle, just before emergence as adult flies, they are sent to ANSTO (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation) at Lucas Heights where they are exposed to a cobalt-60 gamma radiation source. It's true! The level of radiation is sufficient to sterilise the flies. The irradiated flies are not radioactive, and pose no threat to humans.

Our research project has been investigating the level of radiation required to sufficiently sterilise Queensland fruit flies, while ensuring they can still fly and mate.


Most of the action happens in this room, which is kept at constant temperature (25 degrees Celsius) and humidity. Fruit fly pupae that have been irradiated at different levels are reared to adults in here.

We have been measuring emergence (how many reach adulthood), longevity (how long they live for), and flightability (how well they fly). 

Much of this work is done under a microscope. Yep, that's me in all my geekiness :)


We are also breeding successive generations of flies in these tubs. We sort flies by sex, rear them to maturity and then mix the guys and gals back together to breed. It's just one big party in there!

Hang on a minute there Bloom? You sex fruit flies?! A little tricky perhaps keeping them still while you scrutinise their privates? Awkward!

So glad you asked! The first step is to slow the little creatures down. This is done by putting them in a refrigerated cold room for 15 minutes. Closely followed by putting us in the cold room, clad in snow gear if possible. The flies are immobilised by the cold, just slightly more that we are. Using featherlight tweezers, we gently pick them up and scrutinise. 

For the females, we are looking for an ovipositor, which is a pointy egg laying structure, at the end of the abdomen. It is usually quite obvious.

The men are a little more coy. They are distinguished by sets of cute little 'eyelash-like' hairs on their abdomen.

So that is a little glimpse of how I've been spending my days. You can see why my daughter might have trouble telling her friends! 

This is just one of my paid jobs, the one closest to my original training, although still far removed. I moonlight as a designer (my favourite job!) and manage our small farm too. But of course, all of these things come second to the most important job, the one I'm least qualified for, pays the least and I worry about the most - I am mother to my three children!

Have a great weekend everyone, a nice long one for the Australians! 
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