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Roian Egnor to Deliver Public Talk at Janelia Farm

Summary

On May 26, Egnor will give a free public lecture titled, "Whistling in the Dark: What Can Mouse Vocalizations Tell Us about the Brain?"

Roian Egnor, a fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus, will deliver a public lecture titled “Whistling in the Dark: What Can Mouse Vocalizations Tell Us about the Brain?” at Janelia Farm in Ashburn, VA.

Egnor will deliver the lecture on Wednesday, May 26, 2010, at 7 PM. The event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required for admission. Directions for obtaining the tickets are available on the HHMI web site at www.hhmi.org/janelia/events.html. Seating is limited to 250 people.

What animals, or humans, for that matter, say to each other can offer huge insight into what their minds are like—it can give us ideas about what kinds of things they are interested in, and the level of complexity that can be communicated.

S. E. Roian Egnor

The lecture is the sixth in a series called “Dialogues of Discovery at Janelia Farm.” Past speakers in the series have included Thomas R. Cech, former president of HHMI and an HHMI investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder; Ronald M. Evans, an HHMI investigator at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies; Gerald M. Rubin, HHMI vice president and director of the Janelia Farm Research Campus; Huda Y. Zoghbi, an HHMI investigator at Baylor College of Medicine; and Charles S. Zuker, an HHMI investigator at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a senior fellow at the Janelia Farm Research Campus.

Egnor’s presentation will offer an introduction to her research into the neural basis of natural animal behaviors, a field called neuroethology. At Janelia Farm, Egnor is studying mouse vocal and social behavior as a route toward understanding information processing in the nervous system.

“The neural code has evolved to produce behavior in complex and unpredictable environments,” says Egnor. “The space of all possible neural codes is ridiculously large, but the search can be narrowed by using behavior to provide insight into what stimuli are being encoded, at what timescales and with what precision. “

Egnor received a degree in biology with a focus in integrative neuroscience at Bryn Mawr College, where a professor introduced her to the work of Masakazu “Mark” Konishi, a pioneering neuroethologist at the California Institute of Technology.

Two years after graduating from Bryn Mawr—a period that encompassed working in Parisian AIDS clinics, training dolphins to recognize specific frequencies of sound, and tracking monk seals in the remote northwestern Hawaiian Islands—Egnor joined Konishi’s lab, where she became fascinated by neuroethology while contributing to the ongoing study of barn owl sound localization.

Sound localization—the ability to pinpoint where a sound is coming from—is an important problem, but relatively well understood. After working on such a well-established system Egnor became interested in “what we don’t understand about the nervous system—which is most of it.” As she looked around for a difficult but tractable problem in neuroscience, she hit upon vocal communication.

“What animals, or humans, for that matter, say to each other can offer huge insight into what their minds are like—it can give us ideas about what kinds of things they are interested in, and the level of complexity that can be communicated. From the point of view of a neurobiologist, it’s a gold mine.”

Her experiments at Janelia Farm are attempting to record and characterize the vocalizations of 40 or more mice in the same enclosure going about their daily, uncontrolled lives. “Problem number one is just keeping track of all the mice,” she says. “Then, you have to keep track of what they’re paying attention to as they vocalize: Are they thinking about what they smell or are they thinking about what they see or are they thinking about both?”

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