Studies of invertebrate animals have long been used to increase our knowledge of how our own nervous system works. The reason such studies are useful is that the way nerve cells work is similar right across the animal kingdom, from invertebrates to humans. Invertebrates have many advantages for scientific study: they are cheap and easy to keep in the lab; their life cycle is usually short, enabling rapid genetic crossing work and studies of different developmental stages; and their simplicity - in terms of the total numbers of cells involved - makes their nervous systems much easier to study. One of the least understood of our senses is the sense of smell. In one study, we are using the simple ‘nose’ of the fruit fly larva (maggot) to study how a small number of sense cells can identify a large number of different odours. The larva’s nose has only 21 sense cells and we have studied each of these to find out which odours it can detect. We are currently investigating how the 21 nerve cells together ‘code’ for different odours. This includes building a computer model which mimics the coding of information that occurs in the nose.
I obtained my first degree in Natural Sciences (Zoology) at the University of Cambridge followed by a doctorate in invertebrate neurobiology at the University of Sussex. My first appointment was as lecturer in the Department of Zoology at the University of Manchester and I am currently Professor in Comparative Neurobiology in the Faculty of Life Sciences. The underlying theme of my research is neuronal coding and plasticity in motor and sensory systems of invertebrates and lower vertebrates. I have spent three periods of sabbatical leave at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studying neural correlates of motivational state in molluscs.
From 2007-2011 I was Associate Dean for Postgraduate Research in the Faculty of Life Sciences. This was followed by a 2-year appointment as Associate Dean for Teaching, Learning and Students, with responsibility for undergraduate and taught masters programs in Life Sciences. I am currently Academic Director of the University College for Interdisciplinary Learning.
I am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology.