Complex and intellectually challenging problems can be so commonplace that they escape our attention. Much of the research in my lab focuses on one such everyday phenomenon - the motion of a fly through the air. While the buzz of fly wings is more likely to elicit a sense of annoyance than wonder, insect flight behavior links a series of fundamental processes within both the physical and biological sciences: neuronal signaling within brains, the dynamics of unsteady fluid flow, the structural mechanics of composite materials, and the behavior of complex nonlinear systems. The aim of my research is to elucidate the means by which flies accomplish their aerodynamic feats and other behaviors, focusing primarily on the function of the nervous system. A rigorous mechanistic description of behavior, however, requires an integration of biology, engineering, physics, and mathematics. Students and post-docs fascinated with any aspects of insect behavior, physiology, or evolution are invited to apply to my laboratory. What is more important than an interest in insect behavior, however, is a love of complexity and a commitment to interdisciplinary approaches. Much of our research involves the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, because of the powerful genetic approaches that are uniquely available in this species. We view this organism - not as a convenient laboratory model - but as a successful animal with a complex and varied life history.
Michael Dickinson received a Ph. D. in the Dept. of Zoology at UW in 1989. His dissertation project focused on the physiology of sensory cells on the wings of flies. It was this study of wing sensors that led to an interest in insect aerodynamics and flight control circuitry. He worked briefly at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, and served as an Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Anatomy at the University of Chicago in 1991. He moved to the University of California, Berkeley in 1996 and was appointed as the Williams Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology in 2000. From 2002 to 2010, he was the Esther and Abe Zarem Professor of Bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology. He currently holds the Benjamin Hall Endowed Chair in Basic Life Sciences at UW. Dickinson’s awards include the Larry Sandler Award from the Genetics Society of America, the Bartholemew Award for Comparative Physiology from the American Society of Zoologists, a Packard Foundation Fellowship in Science and Engineering, and the Quantrell award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Chicago. In 2001, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. In 2008, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.