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Smart Young Minds
by Lindsey Pujanauski
University of Colorado student Chelsea Trengrove worked with Loren Looger to improve imaging of neural activity in the brain.
A summer training program, initiated by a handful of motivated undergraduates, is making a home at Janelia Farm.
Nineteen-year-old Jonathan Yoke, surrounded by pliers, resistors, and small vials teeming with flies, proudly showed off the machine he was building to determine how flies respond to gravity. The device encloses them in a tube mounted on a wheel that will turn—effectively changing which way is "up"—according to a computer's instructions. A camera will spin with the wheel to record the flies' reactions.
Yoke's creation is the brainchild of Janelia Farm fellow Michael Reiser, who studies how fruit flies gather multisensory information and make choices as they interpret the world. Yoke is one of four undergraduates who conducted research at HHMI's northern Virginia research campus during summer 2007, finding their way to Janelia Farm on their own initiative. Each contacted Janelia's associate director for science and training to inquire about opportunities.
Reiser says he appreciates the contributions of undergraduates like Yoke because, "many of them possess impressive courage—a certain fearlessness—that allows them to tackle a challenging project." A computer-engineering major at the University of Virginia, Yoke has more experience in building robots than in biology. But his technical skills combined with his interest in neuroscience make him a good fit for Janelia, where interdisciplinary approaches are especially valued in addressing difficult questions about the brain.
Yoke became interested in signals in the brain as a Boy Scout participating in an annual wheelchair walk with paralyzed veterans. "Their brains worked fine, but they couldn't control their limbs," he recalls. "It seemed like there should be some way to fix that."
On the same floor as Yoke and his machine-in-progress, University of Toronto student Arjun Bharioke worked in the lab of Janelia group leader Karel Svoboda. Though only 20 years old, Bharioke speaks about neuroscience like an old pro. His project aimed to understand how the brain gets rewired during learning. He used a new technique for activating specific neurons: injecting a light-sensitive protein into the brains of mice, followed by a pulse of light. First, he trained the mice to push a lever in response to a puff of air on their whiskers in exchange for a drink of water. Then, he aimed the light pulse at neurons believed to be involved in whisker movement. If the mice went for the water—even though the whiskers were not actually deflected by a puff of air—that would confirm an important role for the targeted neural circuitry.
Bharioke says one of the best aspects of working at Janelia was access to the scientists. Livia Zarnescu, a math major at the University of Arizona, agrees. "Everybody is so smart and enthusiastic about what they do. Most hours of the day, you'll find someone here working. You can go in and ask someone about their work and they'll be happy to show you." She worked with group leaders Julie Simpson and Eugene Myers, who have taken on the ambitious task of mapping the fruit fly's neural circuitry for motor activity.
Photo: Paul Fetters