Research

Photo by Tayla Jeffs on Unsplash.

I’m broadly interested in understanding how the nervous system controls animal behaviors.

My undergraduate Honors Thesis investigated the mechanisms underlying the evolution of foot-flagging behavior in some species of frogs. Most frogs call to attract mates, but some species, like the one below, wave their feet in the air. This strange behavior is thought to have evolved to attract mates because foot-flagging frogs live near noisy waterfalls that drown out their vocalizations. My hypothesis was that testosterone receptors in the spinal cord were concentrated near the feet to allow for the evolution of this behavior.

A tiny male frog “foot-flagging” to attract a mate.

My graduate thesis used a songbird, the zebra finch, to understand how the brain regulates motor variability. Variability is crucial during zebra finch development for learning song, just like human baby “babbling” during speech learning. After hatching, chicks listen to and memorize their dad’s song. During learning, songs are highly variable while the zebra finches “babble”. They then use auditory feedback to evaluate and change their songs until song becomes stereotyped. My work aimed to expand our current understanding of the role of the basal ganglia, a part of the brain important for the coordination of movement, in regulating motor variability. I specifically focused on the role of one chemical messenger in the brain, acetylcholine, in regulating song variability in the zebra finch basal ganglia.

Visual depiction of a zebra finch birdsong. As adults, zebra finches sing the same sequence of notes over and over again, called a “motif”.
Schematic of zebra finch brain from the side. The basal ganglia (red) sends signals to motor areas (black) that allow for singing.