Equally comfortable with a geologist's hammer and a microscope: Nicholas Strausfeld in his lab in the UA's Department of Neuroscience.
Equally comfortable with a geologist's hammer and a microscope: Nicholas Strausfeld in his lab in the UA's Department of Neuroscience.

Speaker Series to Feature 'Genius Grant' Winners

For the first time, five MacArthur Fellows at the UA will come together to highlight intriguing questions and innovative research in areas ranging from neuroscience to astronomy.
Jan. 28, 2015
MacArthur Fellows Speaker Series
5:30-6:30 p.m. on Jan. 29, Feb. 26, March 12, March 26 and April 30
Cesar E. Chavez Building, Room 111, 1110 East James E. Rogers Way

Exceptional creativity, significant accomplishment, boundless potential — the University of Arizona’s MacArthur Fellows exemplify all three. From neuroscience and astronomy to linguistics, ethnobotany and anthropology, these scholars are changing the world. For the first time, a dedicated speaker series will explore and celebrate the innovation and impact of the MacArthur Fellows' work.

The series features all of the MacArthur Fellows currently at the UA, with the exception of Roger Angel, Regents' Professor of astronomy and optical sciences, who is unable to participate. The others are Nicholas Strausfeld (Department of Neuroscience), Olivier Guyon (Department of Astronomy and College of Optical Sciences), Gary Nabhan (UA Southwest Center), Ofelia Zepeda (Department of Linguistics and Department of American Indian Studies) and Brackette Williams (School of Anthropology). 

The speaker series is hosted by the UA Graduate Center, a new unit of the Graduate College, which provides professional development opportunities for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and fosters interdisciplinary collaboration and networking. 

Each year, the MacArthur Foundation awards $625,000 to each of 21 exceptionally creative individuals "with a track record of achievement and the potential for significant contributions in the future." Commonly referred to as "genius grants," the fellowships cover a five-year period and come with no strings attached.

Strausfeld, a Regents' Professor in the UA's Department of Neuroscience, will give the first talk in the series on Thursday. His work has been vital in understanding how flies see and maneuver, and how their head movements are related to their flight behavior during steering. His research focuses on the analysis of higher brain centers in insects and employs structural features of the brains of invertebrates for investigating their phylogenetic relationships. His studies of insect neuroanatomy have implications for basic and biomedical research.

UANews asked Strausfeld for a preview of his presentation and for insight into how the MacArthur Fellowship has influenced his work. 

What are some of the main topics you will address in your talk?

When I was asked to present a talk for this series, it was suggested that some in the audience might like to know how one applied for a MacArthur Fellowship. That one cannot actually do so deserves an explanation about how fellowships occur. The MacArthur Foundation receives suggestions about possible candidates who their peers consider are differently creative. Each year, the foundation announces 20 or so recipients. These include poets, people working in theater or dance, artists, historians, social workers, the occasional scientist, environmentalists — indeed, people from all manner of professions and pursuits. 

I will recount how the fellowship impelled research that I now do for about half my time, which is the study of brain evolution. One of the challenging questions in biology is whether brains evolved once and from thereon evolved divergently to become variously elaborated in structure and size; or, whether brains originated numerous times independently in different animal lineages. If the first is true, whereby brains across phyla share genealogically corresponding organization, then research on the brain of a fly must have direct relevance to our understanding of homologous circuits, systems and even pathologies that pertain to the brain of a mouse or a human. If the second — convergent evolution — is true, then the question arises why is it that a mouse, bird or fish appear to have certain circuits in their brains that are, in specific details, similar to circuits in the brain of a beetle, crustacean or marine worm? In short, is there evidence for genealogical correspondence of brains? If not, what might have their driven convergent evolution? I will discuss these issues with special reference to what neuroanatomical, paleontological and molecular genetics can tell us about brain evolution, and I will propose that all brains, with possibly one exception, may have evolved from one ancestral brain in deep time.

How did the MacArthur Fellowship influence your career?

About a year after I received the fellowship, I was asked the same question by someone doing a survey for the MacArthur Foundation. My reply was that the fellowship gave me "narrenfreiheit," a German expression meaning "court jester’s freedom." In medieval times, the court jester could say just about anything at court and not get the chop for doing so. After the MacArthur Foundation telephoned me with the astonishing news, I felt that I was from then on unconstrained with regard to what research I could pursue. And I received the clear message from John Hildebrand, who was the director of the Division of Neurobiology as it was then, that this attitude was quite all right as far as he and his colleagues were concerned. It was good to be told that. Anyway, my wife and I were happy here in Tucson and at the UA, and the MacArthur Fellowship simply made it all that much nicer. An unintended consequence of the fellowship had to do with gustation. A while back, the opinion among neurobiologists was that people working on invertebrates should at least once publically devour their experimental animal. Having done most of my research up to then on blowfly visual systems, the novel inclusion of crustaceans was eminently satisfying, both intellectually and gastronomically. However, even though I began a huge program of neuroanatomical studies on all manner of arthropods and wormy things, I continued funded (and funding) research on the functional organization of the blowfly visual system.

Can you tell us a little about the "big questions" in neuroscience and how your current research might relate to them?

What for many may be seen as the "Big Question" might for others be quite a small question, even one that is quite irrelevant. Speaking for myself, I have no affinity for the gargantuan Human Brain Project being undertaken here and in Europe, which for many is the hottest "Big Thing" in neuroscience. Despite some of the intellects involved in that venture, I see these projects more as expressions of human arrogance than practical propositions, and a terrible drain of resources that should be better spent on research and education about the extraordinary richness of nature and how it came to be.

The current estimate by people in the game is that it’s going to take another 10 years, using the most sophisticated methods and millions of dollars, to reconstruct the entire brain of the tiny fruitfly, and then one would have do more of the same to resolve pathologies and mutations. Imagine the money required to feed the black hole of trying to work out every connection in the human brain, and then some. How much will be left for scholastic and basic research, endeavors that that many younger scientists find rather quaint and anachronistic? Scholarship and basic research are, however, cultural necessities and we neglect both at our peril. Those are my own particular biases, but they reflect my predilection for smaller individualistic projects that come up with delightful and amazing observations, such as the entertaining study by Ron Hoy and colleagues at Cornell University on visual discrimination by jumping spiders, where recordings from their tiny brains tell us a lot about what they see.

What drives my own research is a fascination with animal behavior and the evolution of circuits underlying them. I want to know more about when brains originated, what kinds of behaviors those early brains might have supported, and how brains have since evolved. What are common to brains across species, even phyla? In what manner do the brains of different species reflect the ecologies in which they operate? What aspects of behaviors suggest underlying principles of central nervous system organization and function? For example, are brain centers that mediate learning and memory fundamentally similar in all brains? Did they originate in a common ancestor over half a billion years ago? The latest research by my graduate student Gabriella Wolff shows compelling evidence that this may indeed have happened. Right now I am pursuing studies of a centipede’s visual system that may have changed little from an ancestral morphology that likely existed 518 million years ago.

Can you say something about the environment here at the UA, and how it is conducive to address the looming questions in your field? For example, through interdisciplinary initiatives such as the UA Center for Insect Science?

When I joined the UA in 1987, there was this palpably gung-ho attitude about basic research and multidisciplinary collaboration. The perspective was that it could and should be done! This enthusiasm was generated by the shared belief that basic, intellect-driven research was what made good science, of which the UA could be proud. A manifestation of this disposition was that the Departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Entomology, Biochemistry, and the Division of Neurobiology, were pivotal in the creation of the Center for Insect Science.

The impetus was the idealistic rationale that such a center would engender multidisciplinary research using insects, thus "insect science" as distinct from entomology. Along with Margaret Kidwell, other distinguished professors such as John Law, John Hildebrand, Mike Wells and Bill Bowers were the movers that wrote the grant enabling initial funding of the center by the National Science Foundation. The Center for Insect Science has fulfilled those original expectations, and it continues to do so by virtue of funding by successive vice presidents for research. As the center’s present director, I am thrilled by its national and international resonance, such as in generating the renowned International Symposia in Insect Molecular Science. Within the University, the center supports thrice-yearly symposia called the Hexapodia; it provides travel scholarships for graduates in the Entomology and Insect Science Interdisciplinary Program; it sets up international partnerships; and, crucially, it administrates a program of competitive seed grants allocated for novel interdisciplinary research with the understanding that a principal investigator will, within a year, submit a full proposal to a federal agency based on the data generated. This program has been hugely successful, generating since 2008 the very decent return of $22 for every dollar awarded. This translates into more than $5 million of research funds and indirect costs for the UA generated by the center.

The Center for Insect Science is also the home of the highly competitive NIH minorities training grant for Postdoctoral Excellence in Research and Teaching — PERT for short. This program, which began in 2000 and is poised to begin its fourth five-year cycle, is currently directed by me with the invaluable assistance of Teresa Kudrna, the center’s senior program coordinator. PERT funds 14 to 17 postdoctoral fellows each year for three years, who in addition to doing first-class research contribute to teaching at our partner institution, Pima Community College. And the program provides material support for PCC’s molecular biology courses. These successes make me optimistic, at least for the immediate future. For, despite perennial budget cuts, it is gratifying to read that the present UA administration is unequivocal about its support of interdisciplinary collaboration.