Sweta Agrawal, PhD

Function and evolution of proprioceptive circuits

My long-term goal is to gain a complete mechanistic understanding of the function and evolution of our proprioceptive sensory system.

Proprioception, our sense of the position and movement of our bodies, is essential for almost all coordinated movement throughout the animal kingdom. disorders of proprioceptive processing can lead to difficulties with balance, muscle paralysis, and impaired motor coordination and motor learning. However, while comparative work suggests that functionally, proprioceptive systems are largely conserved across a variety of species, animals vary in size, body shape, muscle types, locomotor gaits, and environments, meaning their proprioceptive systems face different challenges. We know little about how such variations impact the function and organization of proprioceptive circuits.

My research program will characterize the neural computations underlying proprioceptive control of movement. In particular, I will focus on the function and evolution of the Drosophila proprioceptive system. Drosophila proprioception is analogous in organization and function to that of vertebrates, but more experimentally tractable. Additionally, Drosophila use two different modes of locomoting (flight and walking), which operate via different muscles controlling different limbs moving at different timescales (<30 steps/s vs. 200 wingbeats/s) and likely evolved independently. As a result, even within a single species, I can compare the neural computations underlying proprioceptive encoding in two different sensorimotor systems to understand how variations in motor systems influence proprioceptive function.

In addition, I will utilize cross-species comparisons of limb shape, circuit organization, and behavior to further extend what I learn in Drosophila to other systems. Such comparative research is critical to generalizing our understanding of proprioceptive encoding beyond examples in a few model systems. My research is cross-disciplinary, spanning neurophysiological dissection of neural circuits, systems neuroscience, quantitative behavioral analysis, computational modeling, and evolution.

I am passionate about being a good teacher who fosters scientific environments that are inclusive to students from diverse backgrounds and learning approaches. As a post-doc I co-authored a study that found that active learning disproportionately benefits under-represented minorities in STEM education. With this research in mind, I have endeavored to improve my teaching by guest lecturing and instructing in both a laboratory and classroom setting and by participating in several journal clubs reading through foundational education research papers.