Tell us about your career so far
I have always been fascinated by the aesthetics of biology, from flora and fauna catalogues to medical illustrations. This interest drove me to pursue bachelor’s degrees in both art and biology at the University of Notre Dame in the US.
I appreciated the hands-on nature of studio art and how it effortlessly instilled learning by doing. I found many parallels to this experience in research. I first joined Kevin Vaughan’s group at the University of Notre Dame, where I studied mitosis and fell in love with microscopy.
I pursued my PhD at Northwestern University, working with Vladimir Gelfand, studying how microtubule rearrangement helps generate the many neuronal morphologies seen in the nervous system. This inevitably led to my interest in how these morphologies facilitate brain connectivity and how this wiring underlies behaviour.
I next joined Marta Zlatic’s group at HHMI Janelia Research Campus as a postdoc. Using a volume electron microscopy dataset, I reconstructed the first synapse-resolution map of an entire insect brain. This connectome will serve as the foundation for my group’s work going forward. By comparing this brain map to future ones generated at the Crick, we aim to uncover how social isolation or genetic perturbation disrupts brain wiring, and how these changes perturb social behaviours.
Where were you before joining the Crick?
After my first few years as a postdoc at Janelia, I moved to the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge and was also affiliated with the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. I had the pleasure of working with Marta Zlatic and Albert Cardona and, during that time, established key collaborations with Carey Priebe and Joshua Vogelstein at Johns Hopkins University.
What attracted you to the Crick?
The combination of technical expertise from the core facilities, internal funding, and collaborative environment are hard to match. I am also sure that the breath of scientific interests at the Crick will result in many fruitful collaborations.
What will your lab be working on?
Nearly every animal engages in some form of social behaviour. But the neural circuit mechanisms in the brain that underlie these behaviours are unclear. Complex social behaviours use many brain regions, so to understand them we need to study the brain as a whole: both its synapse-resolution wiring and neural activity.
To make this problem more manageable, my group will focus on the larva of the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster). This animal displays social behaviours like cooperative foraging, while maintaining a compact nervous system. This compactness facilitates synapse-resolution brain mapping by electron microscopy, which can be combined with powerful genetic tools to test the roles of individual neurons in behaviour.
My group will study how animals decide between cooperative or competitive behaviours, the roles of nature and nurture in brain wiring early in life, and how differences between animals affect group dynamics in social settings. We hope to determine how social isolation and genes related to neuropsychiatric disorders disrupt brain wiring, and we aim to restore normal social behaviours using optogenetic activation of affected neuronal circuits.
How are you settling in to life at the Crick?
Everyone has been very welcoming and helpful. Because I live in Cambridge, my proximity to the Crick has allowed me to visit often in the months before my starting date, and I am already starting to feel at home at the Crick.
How have you found setting up your lab?
I have felt very supported at all levels at the Crick. The science technology platform leads have been particularly proactive in helping me acquire and design custom equipment required for my group’s research. The group leaders at the Crick are very friendly and have been happy to share advice and their experiences starting their own groups.
Who are you looking forward to working with at the Crick?
I am excited to work with the many fly and neuroscience groups at the Crick and have already begun brainstorming with Lucia Prieto-Godino to come up with a joint project. I am looking forward to meeting all my new colleagues at the Crick and pursuing new and exciting research directions.
And finally - in an alternate universe where you weren’t a researcher, what would you be doing?
In an alternate universe, I would pursue my interest in the arts, either as an oil painter, pianist, or digital artist.