Darshna Anigol ’19, is passionate about understanding how the human brain works. Studying the mechanics and neural circuitry of the fruit fly, drosophila, she focuses on biolocomotion, which involves the nervous system mechanisms that maintain a fly’s flight.
Anigol—who’s majoring in biological sciences—joined the Itai Cohen lab, Physics, as a sophomore in 2017. The Cohen lab studies matter in motion, including colloidal particles, fly neurons, and even the movement of individuals at a concert. Anigol was excited about this interdisciplinary approach to research.
“The Cohen lab is at the intersection of many topics: neurobiology, physics, genetics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering,” Anigol says. “Through my coursework in physics, I realized how fundamental physics is to understanding and enhancing my knowledge of the different subjects that I was studying. Now, my research has shown me how important physics is in understanding neurobiology.”
Studying Flies in Flight, Using Optogenetics
Looking at the role neurons play in the free-flight pathways of flies, Anigol uses genetic tools to activate or silence genes. She breeds colonies of drosophila that have the genetically modified CsChrimson gene, which allows researchers to activate their neural pathways, using red light. Similarly, she can shine green light on a fly to silence certain neurons through the expression of the GTACR1 transgene. “I shoot light at flies and watch them fall out of the air. That is how I like to describe my research,” Anigol explains.
“The Cohen lab is at the intersection of many topics: neurobiology, physics, genetics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering. Through my coursework in physics, I realized how fundamental physics is to understanding…the different subjects that I was studying."
Anigol’s research is exciting because, unlike previously available technology, the Cohen lab uses newly emerging optogenetic techniques to manipulate and study flies while in flight. In the past, research on flight mechanics was limited by technology that only allowed for the study of flies tethered in place, limiting the range of possible maneuvers.
“Optogenetics is used on genetically modified drosophila to activate or silence neurons mid-flight, which in turn changes the activity of a certain muscle group. This causes a change in the fly's body and wing kinematics, which can be analyzed to understand how the muscle group targeted affects free-flight,” Anigol says.
Anigol uses three high-speed video cameras to record flight maneuvers and to do a three-dimensional reconstruction of the fly. By analyzing the body angle of the fly, she strives to uncover the mechanics for the most precise methods of fly manipulation in order to determine how neurons control wing kinematics.
Anigol describes this, using a mathematical model similar to the controllers in cruise-control systems called the Proportional-Integral (PI) model. She studies three types of flight rotations: around the front-to-back axis, around the side-to-side axis, and around the vertical axis. These maneuvers are termed roll, pitch, and yaw respectively.
“We study fruit flies because, despite having a relatively simple nervous system, it is able to process information really quickly and control a lot of flight maneuvers. Flies also have one of the most complicated joints in the animal kingdom with multiple steering muscles and tendons,” Anigol says. Computational information about complex flight maneuvers in fly neural circuits can eventually be applied in human models to learn more about information processing in human neural circuits.
Anigol’s favorite aspect of her research is the hands-on experience of building the experimental setup and executing the study. Her work in the lab is challenging because, as a biological sciences major who had only taken one physics course, all the techniques used in the lab were new to her. She credits her research with providing her a diverse set of skills—soldering wires, building frameworks for experiments, making circuits, and assembling experimental chambers. Similarly, she anticipates having to integrate theoretical knowledge into practice in medicine.
“I’m interested in medicine and my main source of interest in research is trying to understand organisms from different perspectives. My work in the lab is very hands-on and creative. This research is a way for me to apply my theoretical knowledge to do something very practical like fly dissections, which solidified my interest in neurosurgery,” Anigol says.
Anigol plans to become a neurosurgeon as well as do work related to reducing the disparity in access to healthcare in the United States. There are still many gaps of knowledge about the human brain in the field of neurosurgery. Anigol explains that through research, there will be better insight into neural circuits in the human brain. Anigol says, “I chose to concentrate in neurobiology and minor in anthropology so that I could understand how people interact with their culture and environment as well as how anatomical structures in the brain play into the decisions that people make.”
Out and About on Campus
Anigol is involved in student organizations that engage with different social inequality issues. She is the president of Students Against the Sexual Solicitation of Youth (SASSY), which raises awareness about the sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). She is also the service learning chair of Cornell’s alternative spring breaks, which facilitates service learning trips during spring break with organizations that deal with food insecurity, CSEC, and lack of access to healthcare.
As a College of Arts and Sciences peer advisor, Darshna assists freshmen with navigating their first year at Cornell by sharing her knowledge of campus resources. “I decided to do peer mentorship because when I first got to Cornell, I thought the College of Arts and Sciences was difficult. It was just a really big place with a lot of different opportunities,” explains Anigol.