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Science Journey - Nature's Tango: How Insects Dance for Survival

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Jessleen (Jess) Kanwal
Postdoctoral Scholar Research Associate in Biology and Biological Engineering, Chen Scholar

About the Presentation

Insect behavior • Neuroscience

Social interactions shape the everyday lives of all animals. For humans, how we interact with others influences our mental and physical health, decision-making, and overall behavior. For other organisms, social interactions are critical to survival in complex ecosystems. How animals relate to other creatures can affect their ability to escape from dangerous predators or forage for prey. In the insect world, interactions can look like a dance of nature.

Social interactions start in the nervous system, which in humans includes the brain, spinal cord, and nerve cells throughout the body. By detecting and combining sensory information like smell, sound, and touch, the nervous system allows animals to recognize and respond to one another, a key part of successful social interactions.

Despite the importance of social interaction, we still know little about how the brain processes sensory cues representing other living things and enables social behaviors. Jess's research aims to address this question using tiny insects called rove beetles. These beetles are useful in research because they show clear and measurable behaviors while interacting with other species, they have a wide range of social interactions, and we can access their nervous system in the laboratory.

By studying how rove beetles use their senses to interact with other species, Jess hopes to find out more about how their brains work and how they evolved to have these behaviors. One day, this information could help us understand how social behaviors are coordinated in the brains of other animals, including humans. In this talk, Jess will discuss her research and share her personal experience with dance and how it informs her scientific observation skills, problem-solving, and creativity.

About the Speaker

A man and a women performing on stage in green bhangra dress attire

Jess Kanwal is a neurobiologist fascinated by brains, bugs, and behavior. She is a postdoctoral scholar and L'Oreal Women in Science Fellow at Caltech, in the lab of Professor Joe Parker. She currently studies social interactions between beetles and other species, examining how the beetle brain combines sensory information to rapidly distinguish friend from foe. Prior to her postdoctoral work, Jess completed her PhD in neurobiology at Harvard University, studying how the larval fruit fly brain combines smell and taste to perceive flavor. Jess enjoys learning about different animals and in the past has also dabbled in research on honeybee navigation, bug detection in salamander eyes, leech prey sensing, and fruit fly personality.

Jess grew up in northern Virginia and spent most of her time outside of school dancing and reading science fiction or fantasy books. Dance and storytelling continue to be important aspects of her scientific work and life beyond the research lab. Jess is passionate about science outreach and recently collaborated with performing artists to develop a series of workshops at the intersection of neuroscience and dance. She enjoys observing and practicing the ways in which the sciences and arts weave together to improve our understanding of the world. In addition to dancing to the bhangra beat, Jess enjoys hiking and experiencing new flavors, foods, and cultures.

About the Series

In Science Journeys, Caltech graduate students and postdoctoral scholars share their research to inspire scientific curiosity. Programs are designed for middle and high schoolers.

These programs are made possible through the generosity of the Friends of Beckman Auditorium.

If you have questions, please email Mary Herrera at

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