PNI faculty Bradley Dickerson, 2 former PNI affiliates, win prestigious early career award

Bradley Dickerson, one of PNI’s newest faculty members, and two former PNI postdocs, Christine Constantinople currently of NYU, and Kanaka Rajan of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, have been awarded the prestigious McKnight Scholarship. The award, which supports young neuroscientists in the early stages of setting up an independent research career, provides $75,000 in funding yearly for three years. It is awarded yearly to up to 10 recipients.

Dickerson joined PNI in the winter of 2022, after two years as an assistant professor at UNC Chapel Hill. The move to PNI was a bit of a homecoming, says Dickerson, who grew up in nearby Lawrence, NJ and went to elementary and high school in the town of Princeton. “I live 5 miles from where I grew up. It’s very weird,” says Dickerson, referring to his return to Princeton. “I used to hang out with my friends on Nassau Street, and go to Chuck’s on Spring Street. I never thought this would happen. I always have this weird sense of deja vu.”

Like many neuroscientists, Dickerson’s research is multifaceted, and his path to defining it was equally rich. “I feel like I’m constantly getting my feet wet in new areas,” says Dickerson. Following undergraduate research experiences at the University of Washington (UW) in marine ecology and as a research technician at UNC studying moth flight, Dickerson applied to UW to pursue his PhD. “I really wanted to study insect flight,” says Dickerson. “It seemed to have the combination of things I was interested in, in terms of thinking about problems at the intersection of physics and biology, thinking about neuroscience wrapped into that, and also thinking about broader evolutionary questions.” After completing his PhD studying moth flight, Dickerson was a postdoctoral researcher at Caltech, where he switched to studying fruit flies. “As a grad student, I felt like there were all these questions that I was nibbling at the edge at,” says Dickerson. “I needed to move into flies because I felt like I would be missing out.” 

Starting as faculty at UNC and now at PNI, Dickerson continues to refine his research vision. “It takes a lot of self-reflection to understand who you are as a scientist,” says Dickerson. “When I got my first faculty position at UNC, I thought of myself as a person with a biomechanics background with a hint of neuroscience. Over the course of grad school, to postdoc, to faculty member, my identity has shifted, to being much more a neuroscientist with a hint of biomechanics.”

His lab at PNI brings all of his previous experiences together, to study the critical role timing has in movement and sensation. The importance of precision timing in various animal behaviors has been long studied, but in a piecemeal fashion. Dickerson’s approach is unique in that he seeks to study timing from sensation to movement, in a single model organism. “Flies are zipping around, dodging things all the time. Thinking about how they rapidly integrate sensory information and turn it into motor commands is a really fascinating problem. They only have 12 muscles to control their steering maneuvers, and each one is active for less time than it took me to snap my fingers. So how is it that an animal, with such a small number of control elements, can have such a broad range of flight behaviors?”

The critical role that timing has in almost all animal behavior additionally allows Dickerson to consider cross-species and evolutionary questions. Central to his work is the study of the haltere, a club-shaped organ present on many flying insects, including flies, that is critical for flight. Halteres evolved from hindwings, the back set of wings present in many other flying insects, such as dragonflies. By comparing the different functions of halteres and hindwings, and specifically their role in timed behaviors necessary for flight, Dickerson hopes to discover the evolutionary pressures that led to the emergence of halteres in the first place. 

Dickerson was thrilled to be selected as a McKnight Scholar. “It allowed me to think about expanding my research program, to try and relate some of the problems that I’ve been thinking about to a more engineering context,” says Dickerson. In addition to receiving research funds, McKnight scholars attend a yearly meeting where all funded scholars, past and present, gather to share ideas. “For me, that's going to be extremely valuable,” says Dickerson. “I feel like I’m still relatively new to neuroscience, as a field. So it's a way for me to learn from other people and to learn new ways to think about my problem that will influence my research program and what directions I think are interesting.” 

Considering his return to Princeton, Dickerson is likewise thrilled to be here. “The community of people at every level—from students, staff, faculty—it's been a really warm and welcoming environment,” says Dickerson. “I feel really appreciative, every day, that I get to be here.”

Constantinople and Rajan, two former PNI affiliates who also won the award, have since started their own labs. Constantinople was a postdoc with David Tank and Carlos Brody from 2013 to 2018. Her lab at NYU studies the synaptic and neural circuit basis of value-based decision making.

Rajan was a Biophysics Theory Fellow at Princeton from 2009 to 2017 where she worked with Bill Bialek and David Tank. Rajan’s lab at Mt. Sinai uses multiscale neural network models and machine learning to develop a mechanistic understanding of how cognitive behaviors emerge from neural systems. 

Congratulations Bradley, Christine, and Kanaka!

by Brian DePasquale