We believe that scientists should invest a fraction of their time to pursue ideas that can have direct impact on human well-being on a global scale.



Our goal is to creatively employ the understanding, experience, scientific tools, and knowledge gained while exploring astrophysical phenomena for humanitarian, medical, and biological applications.

Astrophysics deals with extremely remote and complex phenomena seemingly far removed from the study of insect nervous systems. Nonetheless, we have followed a thread from the technology used in astrophysics to optical shields for malaria-bearing mosquitoes and to the study of fundamental processes in neural systems. These systems process images, recognize patterns in the environment and utilize non-linear decision algorithms to direct the behavior of animals. Analogous detection and analysis systems could often be useful in astrophysical research. Thus, understanding the neural architecture of insects and the design of neuromorphic techniques shall expectedly aid us in solving problems in both biological and physical sciences.
Indeed, we hope that our research on sensors, behavior, and nervous systems will lead us toward better sensing, control, and analysis tools in astrophysics, thus completing the circle of discovery.


NEWS!

Malaria




In Africa malaria kills a child every 45 seconds and the disease can decrease gross domestic product by as much as 1.3 percent in affected countries. Our team is exploring and developing ways to create and deploy light barriers that can avert mosquitoes from their human targets and ultimately reduce malaria transmission.

Building on our initial discovery and proof-of-principle results we are conducting research to examine in detail the mosquito repellent and guidance characteristics of various light barriers and testing the power of select practical approaches for controlling mosquitoes to avert them from human hosts. If successful, these optical barriers could efficiently mitigate malaria transmission when placed in an environment where malaria is widespread and could lead to a novel solution, complementary to traditional malaria defenses.

Behavior




What is the connection between animal behavior and the genetic code? This is one of the fundamental questions of science today.

Deciphering and understanding the neural circuitry that provides animals with the ability to walk in a coordinated manner can provide us with essential tools to better combat maladies affecting and disabling many people today. A better understanding of animal locomotion also has the potential to assist in the design of robotic walking machines.

Footstep Tracking Using Optical Touch-screen Assays for Drosophila melanogaster
Analysis of the locomotion of fruit flies can be used in studying their various attributes, from the fly's genetic makeup to other aspects such as health and memory. We collaborate with Columbia Medical Center colleagues to characterize locomotion through the flies' footprints and walking patterns. Together we have devised a novel microscopic optical touchscreen device, based on frustrated total internal reflection that enables the precise dynamic localization of the feet of fruit flies and other insects in real time.

Project FlyWalker

Light Barrier Experiments with Drosophila melanogaster
Similarly to mosquitoes, many species of flies, including fruit flies are also repelled, stopped and are guided by light barriers. In order to identify the sensors and neural network responsible for the avoidance of the light wall, we take advantage of the power of Drosophila genetics that shall open up new ways to study the precise working of insect neural networks, their connections to the genetic makeup, and sensory signal processing pathways.

Brain




Niemann-Pick disease and Alzheimer disease maim countless people and cause tremendous damage to the society as a whole. Detailed tracking of the disease development in the animal model can lead to better diagnostics in humans and faster and quantitative evaluation of treatment candidates.

We have demonstrated a proof of principle design of a motion analysis idea for mice that can be automated. Identifying, tracking and differentiating different stages of genetic sicknesses and recovery due to treatment can lead to breakthroughs. While the method is generic, we shall develop it aiming at Niemann-Pick disease and Alzheimer disease, in close collaboration with colleagues at the Columbia University Medical Center.

People




Szabolcs Marka
Associate Professor of Physics


Zsuzsa Marka
Associate Research Scientist


Imre Bartos
Graduate Research Assistant


Shasha Fulton
Undergraduate Student


Tristan Gondek-Brown
Undergraduate Student


Dilyana Mihaylova
Student Alumnus


Laboratory




Our biosafety level 1 laboratory space was commissioned in late February of 2009. The laboratory and anteroom is one floor under ground level; it has its dedicated air conditioning and HEPA standard air cleaning system. Additionally it is equipped with Class 4 laser safety features.


A large, double walled humidity and temperature controlled enclosure houses our Anopheles gambiae insectary.


Sponsors


The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation generously supported our proof-of-principle research in the area of application of optical methods for reducing malaria transmission through the Grand Challenges Explorations program, an initiative that encourages bold and unconventional ideas for global health. Based on the success of this research project a next phase of Grand Challenges Explorations grant was awarded to us recently in order to support continued research on developing a way to create light barriers that can avert mosquitoes from finding their human targets and ultimately reduce malaria transmission.


We are also grateful for Columbia University for providing a new state of the art laboratory infrastructure.


Anopheles gambiae eggs (G3, depositor Mark Benedict) for our studies were obtained from Malaria Research and Reference Reagent Resource Center.