Nicholas Strausfeld Elected Fellow of the Royal Society

May 20, 2002
Nicholas Strausfeld, 2002 Fellow of the Royal Society (Photo: Camilla Strausfeld)
Nicholas Strausfeld, 2002 Fellow of the Royal Society (Photo: Camilla Strausfeld)

by Paul Muhlrad

An expert on the brains of flies, cockroaches, and crayfish last week garnered one of the highest honors available to scientists from the United Kingdom. University of Arizona Regents' Professor Nicholas J. Strausfeld is one of 42 scientists worldwide elected this year to the Fellowship of the Royal Society. In its May 13 announcement, the society cited Strausfeld, born and educated in England, as "one of the world's leading neuro-anatomists."

The Royal Society, founded in 1660, each year elects new Fellows "for their contributions to science, both in fundamental research resulting in greater understanding, and also in leading and directing scientific and technological progress in industry and research establishments." There are currently about 1300 Fellows and Foreign Members around the world. Roger Angel, Regents' Professor in astronomy and optical sciences, is the only other active UA faculty member who is a Royal Society Fellow.

John Hildebrand, director of the Arizona Research Laboratories Division of Neurobiology (ARLDN), where Strausfeld conducts his research, said of the honor, "It's absolutely splendid for everyone concerned. He is a very distinguished investigator in his field, and this is an honor for Dr. Strausfeld, our department, and the entire field. Often, meritorious people aren't justly rewarded, so it's great when such an honor comes to someone who deserves it as much as Nick Strausfeld."

Strausfeld's scientific interests started in botany. He was intrigued with botanical minutiae, such as the liverworts inhabiting English woods. But he quickly lost interest in plants: "Nothing moves."

Movement and art held a special fascination from early childhood when, he says he still remembers vividly, he quietly watched his mother, a weaver, at her loom, marching the array of foot pedals up and down, coaxing beautiful patterns and pictures from the apparent tangle of warp and woof.

For his doctoral studies at University College, London, Strausfeld left plants behind. He joined a lab that studied the nervous system of moths, taking instantly to invertebrate neuroanatomy, a field in which he has been blazing trails ever since.

Insect brains may be miniscule, but "they are not simple," Strausfeld explains. A honeybee's hippocampus, the part of the brain where learning and memory take place, contains 400,000 neurons, packaged twice as densely as in humans. It takes real brainwork to seek out a nectar haven, remember where it is, and report news of the find back to the hive.

The deeper Strausfeld and his colleagues peer into the brains of invertebrates, the more they have come to realize just how striking the similarities are between these miniature brains and our own brains. Learning how insect brains work can help neurobiologists understand the workings of out own brains, Strausfeld says.

In addition to his work on brain anatomy, Strausfeld studies the evolution of the visual system in invertebrates. By examining many individual anatomical features in different species and applying computer programs to track which species have each feature, Strausfeld is able to sort out the evolutionary relationships between the visual system architectures of different species.

The Royal Society Fellowship is not the first major distinction for Strausfeld. He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1994 and a "genius award" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1995 for his pioneering studies on invertebrate neuroanatomy and evolution.

"I'm very honored by (induction into the Royal Society," Strausfeld says."I'm honored personally, but also for the fact that the field of invertebrate neuroanatomy is so recognized."

Strausfeld is quick to give credit to many of the people around him, such as the group of "super post-docs and students" in his lab, and the colleagues in his department. "I have found an incredibly good home for my work in the ARLDN, and couldn't wish for anything better." He credits his wife, Camilla, as "one of the major causalities of my success. She has been incredibly supportive all the way through."

Strausfeld's talents and interests go beyond science. In addition to his faculty appointments in the ARLDN and the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, he is an adjunct professor in the art department, where he has taught courses on vision and art. He is an accomplished illustrator, a trait surely passed to him from both his mother and his father, a graphical artist. He does his own anatomical illustrations for research publications. Many of his illustrations and micrographs are available on the web at Flybrain http://flybrain.neurobio.arizona.edu/ , a database and atlas of the fruitfly nervous system. Strausfeld develops and leads the Flybrain Project.

Strausfeld says he thoroughly enjoys studying the intricacies of the nervous system: "Every day in the microscope I see something new and beautiful." As his mother did years ago, Nick Strausfeld spends his days patiently coaxing beautiful pictures from tangles of warp and woof.