My name is Cindy Harley. I spent my thesis researching cockroaches, and now, as a postdoc, I work with leeches. My friends jokingly call me 'doctor of bugs and slugs'. Sadly, my interest in less popular critters does not make me popular at parties. What most people wonder is:
What is a nice girl like me doing working with such nasty critters?
It is not unusual to use invertebrates or so-called 'simpler' systems to study how brains work. In fact, most people who work with invertebrates will say that the simpler nervous system is an advantage-- there are fewer cells which makes it easier to figure out how they work. To me, that, in and of itself, is what makes them intriguing. How are these animals, with such small brains and such simple sensory systems, capable of such complex behaviors?
Predatory behaviors are perhaps the most intriguing of these. How does an animal sense live prey, move to intercept it, and do so without the prey figuring it out? This, coupled with an additional desire to delve into the neural networks responsible for coordinating such acts led me to the leech nervous system. This system not only allowed me to learn techniques for recording from single cells as well as populations, but also to examine how these cells responded to behaviorally relevant stimuli. An added benefit of this system is that prey localization behaviors are very targeted making it easier to investigate their underlying control than obstacle negotiation behaviors which, by comparison, are highly variable.
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