Decoding flies’ motor control with acrobat-scientist Eugenia Chiappe

The tiny performers steal the show in Chiappe’s sensorimotor-integration lab in Lisbon, Portugal.

Photograph of Eugenia Chiappe jumping inside a glass hallway.
Choreographed circuits: Chiappe’s past dancing through hoops informs her present research on the neural paths of motor control.
Photography by Kenton Thatcher

As a former acrobat and circus performer, Eugenia Chiappe is quick to appreciate the performance skills of her research model, Drosophila melanogaster: The fruit flies gracefully pitter-patter atop a tiny stage in her lab and swivel and dive in flight—all signs of a nervous system evolved for just such sophisticated feats of locomotion.

Through this lens of admiration, Chiappe has been studying motor control in the speck-size insects at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal, since 2012. She places the flies in miniature movie theaters under the lights and lasers of microscopes to trace the layered circuitry that powers their acrobatics.

Chiappe’s love of movement and dance is what inspired her to study neuroscience in the first place. She performed in circus troupes in her hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and then in New York City during graduate school at Rockefeller University. These days, she no longer performs but still infuses movement into her daily life, flipping into a handstand to pose for a group photo with her lab, for example.

The Transmitter spoke with Chiappe about her big-top past, her current work, and how her curiosity continues to sustain her scientific career.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Transmitter: How did your past in acrobatics lead you to study motor control? 

Eugenia Chiappe: Dancers and acrobats have this sort of “body intelligence.” Body intelligence can have a conscious component, but also an unconscious one. I was working with this company called LAVA [in Brooklyn, New York] that has a lot of performances through hoops. These are circus hoops that you put one on top of another, and the exercise is about how you dance through the hoops. There is a lot of jumping and turning as you pass through the hoops. That’s a very characteristic moment where this body intelligence is on its full display. Many times, we initiate this movement with completely different initial conditions, and yet the body knows what to do about it. But also, most importantly, it knows when you did it wrong.

That really drove my search for what I wanted to do after my Ph.D. I was really interested in, at that time, something called active sensing, which means the process of sensing sensory stimuli in the context of your movements and making sense of your sensory world through your movements. Then that evolved into looking at self-motion computations and movement control, which is the topic of my lab right now.

Eugenia Chiappe stands in front of a whiteboard featuring large insects made out of paper.
Fly on the wall: Chiappe is trying to understand the hierarchical organization of movement control by leveraging Drosophila’s compact central nervous system.

TT: Why do you study movement control in the fruit fly? 

EC: I love to work with them because they’re acrobats. They have the best performance in terms of locomotive behaviors—they don’t compare at all with us. The physics of their movement through air is incredibly hard. If you have a little fly and someone like you or me is trying to kill it, it will all of a sudden take off, even before adjusting its body. In a few wing beats, it will manage to avoid and escape our swatting.

TT: What neuroscience question are you trying to answer in the fly?

EC: We’re trying to leverage the compact central nervous system that she is endowed with to tackle a question that is still very open in the field, which is the hierarchical organization of the control of movement. There’s continuous control of the ongoing movements that we’re doing. Planning a movement, deciding what to do next, those are considered to be at the higher-order function of control. We’re starting to see more clearly that there are a lot of interdependencies.

TT: Your team posted a preprint that looks at optic flow processing in the flies. How does that tie in to movement control?

EC: Optic flow is this particular kind of visual information that is generated by your own movements—movements of your eyes, your head, your body. We have this neuron called H2 that is very sensitive to visual motion. When the fly turns, this neuron is going to be receiving information about vision, consequence of the turn, information about that proprioceptive consequence of the turn, and potentially also copies of those motor commands that made that fly turn. We monitor exactly how the fly moves the leg, but we also analyze the trajectory, the path that the fly takes. Those are two different levels of the hierarchy: Where the fly goes is the goal of the fly, but what the fly is doing continuously is that continuous control.

Close-up photograph of a researcher's hands while they work at the bench.
Curiosity uncorked: Research questions about the fly’s motor control system have no limits, Chiappe says, other than having the money to do the work.

TT: Will you ever run out of research questions to ask about the motor control system? 

EC: That is curiosity-driven science—no. For as difficult as it is and as challenging as it is, the beauty of it is there’s no limits to your creativity and curiosity. The only limit is, well, money to do the work. And creating an environment that allows for creativity and curiosity. The well-being of people is very important for that.

TT: Does your management style reflect your past as a circus performer? 

EC: I’m pretty sure that influences the way I’m leading the group. It’s kind of a triangle: huge responsibility, amazing opportunity of discovery, and fun—we have to create fun. The projects in my lab are really difficult; it does require a lot of commitment from people. And so it’s always important to balance that with fun.

The place where I’m working, the Champalimaud neuroscience program, also has that philosophy. I think having fun together is also the spirit of the place.

TT: What do you want others to learn from your path from performer to professor? 

EC: I’m very interested in using my story to encourage people who probably feel that they don’t have that conventional career path. Academia can be very stringent, and sometimes, I think, there is a misconception that there are these very rigid steps.

TT: Do you still perform or do acrobatics?

EC: No, no, no. I don’t have the time for training—that’s very demanding. When I moved to Lisbon, I finally disconnected fully. I also became a mom as well—so, just too much.

Eugenia Chiappe sits in front of technical equipment in her lab.
On stage: Chiappe places flies in miniature movie theaters under the lights and lasers of microscopes to trace the layered circuitry that powers their acrobatics.
How has your life outside of research influenced what you study? Leave a comment below.

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