Research

Throughout my career I have been interested in how sensory information guides motor decisions. Despite their seeming simplicity, invertebrates are capable of complex behaviors. As with higher vertebrates, behavioral complexity depends on the brain. My thesis work focused specifically on the central complex, a region of the insect brain composed of multiple sub-regions. My work showed that each of these sub-regions had its own function in governing particular complex behaviors. Ultimately, my work has helped to illuminate how encoded sensory information passes from structure to structure eventually becoming transformed into motor commands. At the cellular level, how does sensory information morph into motor commands? This question led me to study the leech-- a system which has been used to identify neural circuits underlying many behaviors at the level of individual cells. Some of the best studied circuits are involved in controlling rhythmic behaviors such as swimming and crawling. Why would a leech choose one behavior over another? In my research, I found that during predatory behavior, leeches are biased toward crawling, and crawling makes them better able to localize pretty. In contrast, another study showed that when presented with UV light, a noxious stimulus, leeches swim away from its source. Armed with these robust behavioral responses and a suite of anatomical and physiological tools, I aim to examine, at the level of the neural network, how sensory information such as this is encoded and used to guide context-dependent locomotor decisions.