Kids are captivated with bugs. They dig around in their back yards finding worms and slugs, making themselves dirty and grossing out their siblings. Biologist and bioengineer Michael Dickinson didn't have a back yard when he was a kid. Most kids grow out of their "bug phase" as they get older, but as Dickinson got older, he began growing into his.
"My fascination with insects came pretty late, when I was in college and grad school and became first interested in neuroscience," Dickinson said. "A lot of people get sucked into neuroscience because of the mysteries of the human brain, but I very quickly became convinced that insects were just more interesting than humans. Human brains are interesting and they do a lot of things. Insect brains are very small, but they also do a lot of things," he added.
Insects were the first animals to evolve active flight and they remain unsurpassed in many aspects of aerial endurance and agility.
"By exploiting cutting-edge experimental methods and modern genetics, my lab is attempting to identify the neurobiological and biomechanical specializations that underlie the flight capabilities of flies and other insects," he said. "Principles garnered from flies provide insight into how miniature brains can accurately process information, and are being used in current attempts to engineer small autonomous flying vehicles."
Dickinson is a multiple award-winning professor of biology and bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology. His accolades include the Larry Sandler Award from the Genetics Society of America and the Bartholomew Award for Comparative Physiology from the American Society of Zoologists. He was also named a MacArthur Genius Fellow in 2001.
He has devoted himself to understanding the complexities of flies, how their brains work, the intricacies of their respiratory systems, and the way their bodies are constructed. What may seem like a simple creature to the layperson is wrought with mystery for Dickinson.
"You can't separate the software that runs the thing from the mechanics of the thing itself," Dickinson said. "I think this is very much true of insects - and humans, for that matter. It's really impossible to understand a brain without understanding the machinery that it runs, and it's impossible to understand the machinery unless you understand the software that runs it."
On Thursday, Feb. 16 at 7 p.m., University and community audiences will hear all about Dickinson's intriguing research when the College of Science welcomes him as part of their Discover Science Lecture Series. Previous scientific luminaries to speak in the series include astrophysicists Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic. Dickinson is thrilled to join their ranks and take advantage of a unique forum to present his work to the public.
"I like giving public lectures as opposed to the more detailed lectures given to research colleagues," Dickinson said. "I think outreach is important. It's unfortunate that the public doesn't have the opportunity to listen to scientists talk about their research in a less ‘entertainment based' way. All the science shows on TV, they've dumbed things down to the point of being almost meaningless."
That is not to say that Dickinson's lecture will not be entertaining.
"My lectures tend to be pretty high energy," he said. "I tell a lot of jokes." He also enthralls audiences with his use of high-speed video of insect behaviors. "I can just show an image of a hummingbird flapping its wings, or a bee or a fly, and it doesn't need any narration. High speed video has done to time what electron microscopy has done to space. It allows humans to extend a dimension to see things that they couldn't see before. I mean, the behaviors we are studying in fruit flies are literally taking place in the fraction of a human eye blink."
Beyond entertainment, Dickinson is very serious about the reasons for his work, and what that work means.
"I think the world is interesting. I think that cultures that are curious about their world are healthy cultures, and much more likely to take care of their world," Dickinson said. "And I view myself and the work that my colleagues do as exploration. It happens to be an animal that you can find flying around your kitchen, but it doesn't mean that it is any less exotic than something you would find flying around in the rainforest."
By speaking passionately about his work and its importance, by sharing it with audiences, Dickinson hopes that those who attend his lecture will take away at least some of his worldview.
"I think they'll learn a lot. I think they'll see a lot of cool things," Dickinson said. "I hope they'll learn that the world around them is a lot more interesting than they may think."
Dickinson's lecture will be held in the Redfield Auditorium in the Davidson Mathematics and Science Center on the University campus. Free parking for the event will be available at the top level of the Brian J. Whalen Parking Complex on North Virginia Street, next to the new E.L. Wiegand Fitness Center. Admission is free.