Each year the L'Oréal USA For Women in Science fellowship program grants five $60,000 awards "to cultivate a postdoctoral community of women, empowering them to persist in their research, attain leadership roles, and become inspirational mentors for the generations of women and girls that will follow in their path."
This year Jessleen (Jess) Kanwal, a postdoctoral scholar research associate in the laboratory of Joe Parker, assistant professor of biology and biological engineering and Chen Scholar, received this grant for her work with rove beetles and her plans to generate interest in STEM fields among teenagers through workshops on dance and neuroscience. We recently had a conversation with Kanwal about her research at Caltech and how she plans to use her award.
What is the research you will be supporting through your L'Oréal For Women in Science grant?
I'm interested in how organisms combine cues across sensory modalities to distinguish friend from foe from food. How do they detect what's a threat and then make rapid decisions about whether to defend themselves or flee? To answer these questions, I am working with tiny little insects called rove beetles. They're only about 2.5 millimeters in length and half a millimeter wide. Ultimately, I want to know how their nervous system integrates different sensory cues from the organisms they interact with, transforms this into information about what type of animal they are facing—whether it be predator, prey, or another rove beetle—and then decides how best to respond.
How did you get interested in this work?
I've been fascinated by both bugs and brains ever since participating in a fun summer research experience as an undergraduate. I find it amazing how insects perceive and navigate through the world, the many ways they interact with each other, and the behaviors they are capable of performing. The world looks, smells, and feels very different to them than it does to us. Even though they are so small and experience the environment at a completely different scale from us, they are experts at finding food, avoiding danger, and communicating with each other. I enjoyed observing this firsthand during one of my undergraduate research experiences, where I had the opportunity to watch honeybees dance. This is how they tell their hive mates where the best food is located. Seeing insects perform complex behaviors like the honeybee waggle dance, made me wonder how their tiny brains detect, combine, and represent all the sensory information they need to survive.
Do rove beetles have any special abilities like that?
Yes. They have an amazing chemical defense gland in their abdomen. Whenever they are attacked by predators, they flex their abdomen and smear the contents of this gland onto the threat. The gland releases toxic chemicals that deter predators from killing them.
That would be a great talent to bring to a nightclub! Is this trait of rove beetles the reason that you're interested in working with them?
Yes, partly. No one has ever looked into the brains of these beetles. We're exploring their nervous system for the first time, and we think that this new system is going to be really insightful for understanding the neuroscience of how insects interact with other species. Another reason these beetles are so fascinating to study is that we have the potential to explore how their nervous system has evolved to enable new behavioral interactions between species.
How do you learn how a rove beetle's brain interprets its environment?
Currently, we are examining this question in two ways. First, we can learn a lot about the brain of a rove beetle through behavioral observations combined with genetic manipulation of neural cell types. We first develop special arenas in the lab to quantify beetle behavior. For example, in one arena beetles are tethered on a floating ball—it's like walking on a treadmill—and we gradually present a predatory ant to them and watch what happens. With multiple cameras surrounding the beetle, these types of experiments allow us a very high-resolution, stereotyped, and quantifiable method to examine beetle behavior during interactions with other species. We have also built arenas where rove beetles and other insects are able to freely roam in a 3D environment, and we watch how they interact. A lot of my time in the lab is spent watching an action-packed beetle reality TV show. It's filled with mystery about what's going to happen when the beetle encounters another organism and what cues from the environment are essential to trigger its response. We then use genetic tools to silence certain neurons, like those required for the beetle to smell, and observe how this alters their ability to distinguish and interact with other species.
The second way we are probing the beetle brain is by mapping out the architecture of their nervous system. It must be done under a microscope, of course, because they're so tiny. On dissection days we stay away from coffee or tea because even the slightest bit of jittery hands can ruin these dissections. But by doing this we can look inside their brain and their spinal cord equivalent to identify the structure of key regions that may detect and process sensory cues from the organisms they interact with. We especially want to map out the smell and taste areas of their brain because we suspect that these regions are really important for their detection of predators and prey. Ultimately, we plan to use genetic tools and fluorescence indicators to read out the activity of beetle brain neurons in response to sensory cues from other species. This will enable us to see what cues are most salient and how the brain encodes information about other organisms.
Why did you want to come to Caltech as a postdoc?
I was intrigued by the beetles and attracted to the science happening in Joe's lab. After spending graduate school studying how fruit fly larvae use smell and taste to find food, I was excited to explore how these cues enable organisms to interact with one another: basically, how the brain coordinates complex behavioral interactions. Also, the prospect of working in a new system where I could study the animal's behavior in its ecological context was very exciting.
Actually, given how my postdoc began, my interest in studying behavior turned out to be very convenient. I started at Caltech in February 2020 and only had a few weeks in the lab before the pandemic shut us down. About a month into lockdown, I started going out and collecting insects. I got a camera and a small stage, and a box of rove beetles from the lab. Then I spent much of the pandemic recording 20-minute videos of insect interactions on my kitchen table. I used machine-vision software to track their behaviors and started to see what a day in the life of these beetles was like. Beetles spent very little time interacting with potentially harmful species, choosing to flex their abdomen, or flee during close encounters. Meanwhile, the beetles spent a lot more time investigating the species that did not pose a threat, using their antennae to sense the organisms. So how do the beetles distinguish between these different species? Is it because they smell different, look different, move different from predators, or some combination of these? Clearly making this distinction is critical to their survival, and the beetles have to be selective about when to deploy their chemicals against potential predators as they have a limited supply at any given moment.
The L'Oréal award supports your research but is also intended to enable outreach to girls and women in STEM. How will you be working toward this goal?
I'm really excited to use this award to develop outreach workshops at the intersection of science and the performing arts. I've started to collaborate with some local dance groups in the LA area, and we're designing workshops on the neuroscience of dance that will target underserved communities in Pasadena and the greater Los Angeles area. Our goal is to use dance as a way to get middle and high school students interested in and excited to learn about the brain and how it senses the world and coordinates creative movement. I will also be using the funds to hire and support a young female research technician to work alongside me on my research projects in the lab. I hope to provide her with the mentorship and career support needed to successfully transition to graduate school and a fulfilling career in science.