“One of the most remarkable things about the brain is that it can generate behaviors that unfold over a wide range of different timescales,” said Flavell, Lister Brothers Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT.
To tackle such a big, complex and universal question about animal behavior, Flavell is working with a small-scale model organism: the tiny roundworm C. elegans.
“C. elegans is an attractive system for these studies because its nervous system consists of just 302 neurons,” he said. “A full understanding of how neural circuits give rise to behavior requires detailed knowledge across many scales of analysis: from molecular events in single neurons to large-scale patterns of neural activity to emergent animal behaviors.”
Using newly developed imaging tools and other cutting-edge methods, Flavell’s lab will be able to observe mechanisms and activity at all of these scales and experimentally manipulate them, producing the big and small picture of how the worm’s nervous system produces and sustains states like sleep and wakefulness. Those findings can then inform studies of more complex animals where these questions are currently much more difficult to study.
The five-year, $762,000 award begins April 1. The CAREER award is the NSF’s most prestigious award given out annually to early-stage faculty.