Columbia University in the City of New York

Credit: John Abbott

Gwyneth Card, PhD

Associate Professor of Neuroscience; Principal Investigator at Columbia's Zuckerman Institute; Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Our bodies are capable of so many different actions, so how is it that we determine which one to take at any point in time?

For Gwyneth Card, uncovering the cellular details underlying fruit fly movement could also reveal general principles governing how brains orchestrate movement in all animals, including people.

Read more about Gwyneth Card, PhD >


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Life on the Move

From prancing squirrels to fleeing fruit flies to ballroom dancing, the brain is in on it. The question is how.

Gwyneth Card, PhD, credits one of the most transformative moments of her life to teenage boredom. 

She was gazing out of the window one day as her AP Psychology teacher lectured on. The squirrels outside hijacked her attention. Dr. Card was captivated with their running and jumping “in these cute little parabola shapes,” said Dr. Card.

That budding scientific interest as a high school senior in how and why animals move the way they do was turbocharged as an undergraduate at Harvard. There, Dr. Card joined her biomechanics professor on a research expedition to Australia to study the hopping gaits of kangaroos. Now, as a principal investigator at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute, she is putting her lifelong fascination with movement under the microscope: studying the sensory, motor and brain cells that underlie every move an animal makes.

While you won’t find any kangaroos in her lab; you will see vials of fruit flies.

“Fruit flies basically have the same parts that we and other animals do: muscles, tendons, joints, limbs and brains,” said Dr. Card. “But they provide a depth of access to information that would not be possible with something like a human or other mammal.” 

She is researching  fruit flies to uncover universal principles about movement, ones that apply to these insects, but ultimately to people as well. One root of Dr. Card’s embrace of fruit flies and neuroscience took hold while she was earning her master’s degree at the University of Cambridge. There, she learned how to “listen in on” individual fly brain cells, or neurons, with superfine electrodes. In these setups, when a fly neuron fired, an electrode detected the cell’s electrochemical signals, causing a speaker to produce tick sounds. 

“The first time you hear what a neuron sounds like, it’s mind blowing,” said Dr. Card. 

Her expertise with fruit flies deepened as a graduate student at Caltech in Michael Dickinson’s lab, where she studied the insects’ escape behaviors. She learned how to eavesdrop on an entire neurobiological pathway, from an eye’s sensory input, to signal-processing in the brain, to the activity of  neurons that control muscle cells. A subsequent several-year stint at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus availed Dr. Card to the most advanced genetic tools, microscopy techniques and neuroanatomical databases on the planet. 

At the Zuckerman Institute, she is bringing all of this methodological diversity and mastery of research tools to bear as she furthers her quest to identify, in cell-by-cell detail, exactly how flies visually identify threats and orchestrate their legs and wings into escape maneuvers. By doing so, she expects to unveil far more about the neurobiological processes that underlie countless motor behaviors, from the act of grabbing a doorknob to the precision choreography Dr. Card has mastered as a competitive ballroom dancer. 

She hopes her research will also deliver details about how these processes can go awry. 

“Can we use some of the same principles we are learning in our fruit fly studies to identify what might be going wrong in movement-impairing diseases?” said Dr. Card.

With questions like that on her mind, it’s an eagerness for answers — rather than boredom —  that will drive her next moves.