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The Interplay Among Genes, Neural Systems, and Activity in Shaping Behavior

Research Summary

Ron Hoy's research interests are in the area of neural systems and behavior, especially communication behavior and sensory neurobiology. For his 2006 HHMI Professor project, he designed four undergraduate courses in neuroscience and biomedical engineering for science and non-science majors.

Project Summary

Dr. Hoy developed four projects that provided novel and interdisciplinary approaches, as well as teaching materials, for undergraduate courses in neuroscience and biomedical engineering. For the first project, he applied biomimetics (how nature's designs can inspire engineers) to a course for engineering and physical science students. The course, entitled “Mother Nature Wears Engineering Boots,” examined the behavioral and morphological adaptations evolved by animals to survive the rigors of natural selection in nature as sources of inspiration for engineering students looking for novel applications to robotics and material sciences. Dr. Hoy believes that reframing neuroethology in an engineering context will attract these students and provide a new take on the subject for biologists. His target was a lecture (for 15 to 150 students) and lab (for 12 to 20 students) course. The outcome was a multimedia version of the course (CD-ROM) for download to PowerPoint presentations; thus, the course has teaching implications beyond the Cornell University community.

Next was Project Fruitfly, which focused the relationship between genes and behavior through neurogenetic research on Drosophila melanogaster and its many neurobehavioral mutants. It was modeled on Dr. Hoy'’s successful Project Crawdad, a CD-ROM that teaches neurophysiology to students in labs. The Project Fruitfly CD provided resource material for lecture courses as well as novel laboratory exercises and demonstrations. The laboratory part of the course focused on the genetics and neurobiology of Drosophila; the lectures went beyond fruitflies to consider the relationship between genes and behavior in animals and humans. Dr. Hoy’'s target was to develop undergraduate courses in neurobiology, psychology, and genetics as well as workshops for teachers. The outcome was to encourage geneticists to teach neurobehavioral subject matter and neurobiologists to teach about neurogenetics. The CD-ROM has potential for wide distribution in biology curricula, ranging from introductory biology courses to graduate seminars.

Third, Dr. Hoy hoped to bring together biology and engineering undergraduates into research teams, working in a lab course. The teams did experiments on neural systems in which degeneration and regeneration were readily demonstrable. His target was to assemble three or four teams, totaling 18 to 24 students, per summer.

The fourth project considered the challenges of developing human performance measures by using small, nonintrusive, wearable devices as a way to introduce non-science majors to some concepts of exercise and rehabilitation physiology in relation to larger issues of brain, mind, and behavior. Dr. Hoy took advantage of technology that is now available or rapidly being developed to monitor the state of healthy humans with noninvasive sensors and to relay the information wirelessly by telemetry to PDAs, such as Palm Pilots, to teach human physiology, anatomy, physical education, biology, and human biology. His target was to produce lecture and lab materials for nonmajors as well as preprofessional students in biology, physiology, nursing, pre-med and preveterinary, and biomedical engineering. Adjustments in course design were made for differences in academic backgrounds and goals. The outcome was to develop multimedia (CD-ROM) lab and lecture materials at all levels, with the aim of disseminating them to as broad an academic audience as possible.

Research Summary

Dr. Hoy's research interests are broad, from developmental and cell biology to behavioral genetics, neuroscience, and evolutionary neurobiology. These are reflected in his work in acoustic communication. He takes a model systems approach by studying communication acts in insects such as crickets and flies to investigate how the act of communication (signal generation, detection, recognition) is controlled by simpler neural systems and how these systems develop and evolve. Dr. Hoy's lab tackles the problem of animal communication at multiple levels of biological organization: (1) the behavioral acts themselves and their adaptive pay-off; (2) the genetic and/or environmental determinants that control the form of the signal and influence its detection and recognition; (3) the neuroethology of communication, including the neurobiological networks that underlie signal production, the neurosensory basis of hearing, the neurophysiology of individual neurons in auditory circuits, and the evolution of the signal mechanism; and (4) the evolution of communication signals. Building on his lab’s discovery that a tiny fly possesses a novel, directionally sensitive “ear,” Dr. Hoy’s engineering collaborators were inspired to make a directionally sensitive, tiny silicon microphone for hearing aids by using nanofabrication technology. This interest in the biology-engineering interface has brought Dr. Hoy into close association with engineering faculty and students in his teaching as well as in his research.

Last updated October 2002

Scientist Profile

HHMI Professor
Cornell University
Experimental Evolutionary Biology