Episode 7- Some Super Summer Seminars

Having all these seminars this summer has really made me appreciate the huge variety of faculty at Duke and how amazing many of the people here are. The fact that I can contact many of them and have a discussion is even more extraordinary. As a result, I find it difficult to select just one presentation that I found the most fascinating, and instead I wanted to focus on my two favorites and how the ideas they presented have overlapped in my mind.

First was Dr. Mohamed Noor’s research on the sister species of Drosophila, D. simulans and D. pseudoobscura, and how they have very similar songs that are slightly modified to avoid interbreeding between the species. This got me rather curious about fruit fly songs and so I took a cursory look around at what had been published. I was really surprised to learn that fruit flies aren’t born knowing what song to sing, but instead they learn it from other flies around them (link). Yes, you know those small things that, no matter how many times you swat them away, will return time and again to annoy you while trying to enjoy your lunch? Apparently, they actually can learn and they’re just terribly rude. But in all seriousness, flies can learn! Something that appears so simple and lacking anything beyond what its genetics programmed for it is actually notably more sophisticated. Perhaps I was just underestimating other animals, but when one is often thinking of organisms at the cellular and genetic level and functioning more as biological machines, sometimes one forgets about the complexities and capabilities of the whole creature.

Secondly, there was Dr. Steve Nowicki’s research on bird song and what it reveals about animal communication and behavior. In particular, I was fascinated by this idea that behavioral responses were caused by stimuli that are sorted into categories as opposed to a linear relationship between the stimulus and the behavior. Like the above, it’s something that I hadn’t ever considered since it always just seemed logical for behavioral responses to be linear. However, reflecting on this new insight, it actually makes sense for it to be categorical since the brain often cut corners where it can and categorization would be an easier system for it to implement compared to having a wide array of responses to a spectrum of intensity of a certain stimulus.

Now, how do those to come together? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about how categorization may occur in intraspecies interactions besides in birds and humans. Then I thought back to Dr. Noor’s seminar and began wondering if there was categorization occurring in the sister fly species and if changing the duration, frequency, and order of the “notes” in the flys’ songs could change the females likelihood of accepting or rejecting the male, and if the change would look like the categorization that Dr. Nowicki was seeing or if would be more linear. Whether or not that’s an idea worth looking at, I don’t know, but I find it kind of interesting.

Overall, I really enjoyed all the seminars over this summer, though I must admit that I found myself most interested when our speakers were discussing the work they had done or are currently working on. However, the seminars have gotten me to really consider the idea of pursuing a PhD, and there are a few words of wisdom that were shared that I expect to be keeping in mind as I go through my future career.

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