Research

I am a neuroethologist interested in the sensory worlds experienced by animal nervous systems, and how sensory perception relates to decision making and innate behaviour. I have investigated how environmental toxins, like pesticides, affect invertebrate nervous systems, and my research has provided insight into visual motion detection circuits and taste perception in locusts, honeybees and bumble bees. I am also interested in the applications of AI in science, and the concepts of internal world models in animal brains and AI.

I am based at the University of Oxford in the Department of Biology.

Using AI to study insect behaviour

There is a critical need to investigate how environmental change affects pollinator behaviour so that steps can be taken to mitigate economic and ecological risk. Sound is a typically overlooked component of behaviour despite most animals producing sounds, including insects during flight. The sound of mosquito flight has been shown to be an excellent marker for species identification, however it is not known whether sound can be used to classify insect behaviour. I am developing a tool for integrating computer vision and sound to automatically track the behaviour of insects, with application in the risk assessment of environmental stressors, including pesticides and the high temperatures associated with climate change.

Funding: Eric & Wendy Schmidt AI in Science Fellowship (Schmidt Futures)

Taste perception and foraging decisions

It is paramount to an animal’s survival to be able to select nutritious food and avoid toxicity. Decisions about whether to reject or consume depends primarily on the sense of taste. Animals also need to be able to assess the relative value of different food sources, and this can be achieved using the sense of taste, but also largely using post-ingestive feedback that can enhance the association of a taste with positive or negative physiological effects, and can also function in the absence of taste cues. I am interested in how insects like bumblebees and honeybees interact with potential food sources and make decisions regarding the relative value of these foods using taste and post-ingestive mechanisms.

Funding: Royal Society Newton International Fellowship, NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship

Insecticides and insect vision

Insecticides are designed to kill insects, usually by acting as neurotoxicants. Unfortunately, non-target and beneficial insects are exposed during this process, with varying degrees of consequence. It is crucial to determine whether insecticides pose undue risk for commercial use. The most widely used class of insecticides are the neonicotinoids, which affect neural transmission via action on the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor present throughout the invertebrate central nervous system. Vision is a crucial sense for flying insects especially, required for foraging, navigation, and maintaining steady flight mechanics. I am interested in visual motion detection arising from object or self-motion, and how visual perception shapes behaviour. Through the lens of neuroethology, I have contributed to the understanding of how insecticides alter insect visual motion detection.

Funding: Grass Fellowship in Neuroscience; NSERC PGS-D; Margaret MacKay Scholarship