Dr. Kristin Scott: Discovering How the Brain Perceives the Sensory World
2003 - Dr. Kristin Scott is studying the fly brain to understand how flies are attracted to sweet substances, avoid bitter substances, and really seem to like alcohol—in short, how the fly brain knows what the fly is tasting. “I’m looking at sensory perception in the fly because it’s a very simple system,” Dr. Scott explains. “The idea is that if you understand how a simple system works, your understanding will have more general application.”
Kristin Scott's research on taste perception in the common housefly is designed to understand how sensory perception works in the brain.Dr. Scott, a 2002 BWF Career Awardee in the Biomedical Sciences, says she chose taste perception to study first, “because ligands [chemical substances] are well defined. We can take the sophisticated approaches that have been developed and use them to study brain function and behavior.”
In her research, Dr. Scott says she has discovered that the fly has about 60 candidate taste receptors, the molecules that recognize ligands. “There were a much greater number of receptors than we expected,” she adds. “Then we learned that each taste neuron expresses only one taste receptor gene. The fly has a large number of different taste neurons and each one is likely to recognize only a small subset of taste cues.”
Her discovery means that the fly does discriminate between tastes. It also means, she says, that the different taste neurons are molecularly distinct, which enables her and her colleagues to label the neurons with different colors and see how tastes are mapped higher in the brain.
“This research is designed to answer a basic question: how does sensory perception work?” Dr. Scott explains. This will tell us something about how brains in general work.” It might also have some future application to insect pest control, she adds.
As a graduate student at the University of California-San Diego, Dr. Scott says she was interested in cellular signaling. When she took up her postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University, she decided to investigate intercellular communication—how neurons interact with each other. “The taste system seemed like a simple system to begin to look at that,” she says.
It was her brother’s chemistry set that first sparked Dr. Scott’s interest in science, she recalls. Then, when she was 12, she read James Watson’s Double Helix. “I really liked the idea that there was an interactive community of scientists who would test models,” she relates. “It sounded like a great life.” But it wasn’t until she’d graduated from the University of Chicago with a biology degree and began working as a lab technician in San Diego that she thought about having her own lab some day.
Now, after years of study, that dream is a reality. In October 2002, Dr. Scott set up her lab and took up her post as an assistant professor in the department of molecular and cell biology at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California–Berkeley.
Asked why she chose to focus on neuroscience, Dr. Scott replies, “I’m interested in how the brain works. Neuroscience allows you to take a scientific approach to basic philosophical questions such as how the brain sees the outside world,” she says. “Such questions have been debated from the time of the ancient Greeks onward.” She adds that her father, a philosophy professor, may have had something to do with her interest in philosophical issues.
In her first year at Berkeley, Dr. Scott will have no teaching duties and will be able to focus on setting up her lab and continuing her research. “The BWF award has been essential for my beginning phase as a faculty member,” she says. “It frees me to think about scientific problems instead of scientific funding, and it allows me to take on risky projects and turn them into tractable projects. I can focus on the research rather than peripheral things.”
Though she says most of her life revolves around the lab, she does love to read and travel. During her year as a lab technician, Dr. Scott worked for nine months and then took three months off to travel alone in Indonesia and Thailand, which, she says, were spectacular and exotic. Her current choice of reading material includes books on the American Revolution and the Civil War. Her biggest luxury, she says, was reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Looking to the future, Dr. Scott says she hopes to be able to answer more and more complex questions about the fly brain. “Eventually,” she says, “I can imagine building on my taste research to explore how tastes are based on learning, experience and even starvation experience. I want to see how the olfactory sense modifies taste behavior and also look at other systems and complex neural integration.”