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The Rockefeller University offered up one of its brightest minds late last month, when neurobiologist and Howard Hughes Medical Institute scientist Dr. Cori Bargmann presented her research at the Lunenfeld as part of a trainee-driven annual international symposium series.
The session, entitled “Genes, Neurons and Time: Using fixed circuits to generate flexible behaviours” drew a full-house crowd to the hospital’s auditorium, as the audience learned about Dr. Bargmann’s latest findings on how environment, experience and the biology of the brain interact to shape an animal’s behaviour.
The Bargmann lab is studying the relationships between genes, the nervous system and behaviours in C. elegans. The nematode’s most complex behaviours occur in response to smell, and these are at the heart of the Bargmann lab’s research. In C. elegans, as in other animals, odors are detected by G protein coupled odorant receptors on specialized sensory neurons. Dr. Bargmann is also investigating how much flexibility is present in a simple nervous system.
Dr. Bargmann’s visit to the Lunenfeld was facilitated by Cindy Todoroff, Mei Zhen as well as Louis Barbier, a Master’s student in the Zhen lab. Louis coordinated meetings for Dr. Bargmann with faculty and their students from the Lunenfeld and with other research buildings/departments. He also organized a luncheon where about 20 students had a chance to speak with Dr. Bargmann about their projects, and ask questions ranging from specifics about the seminar, to general scientific queries.
“We held an internal vote between four potential invitees within our lab, and Dr. Bargmann was selected with a majority,” said Louis. “I think our lab selected her because her research is at the top of the field in which we work: nematode neurobiology. However, Dr. Bargmann is also known to be a good communicator with a broad knowledge base in other fields such as cancer biology, which would be more applicable to some other labs in the institute.”
During her graduate studies, Dr. Bargmann cloned one of the first oncogenes, HER2, which is now a primary target for breast cancer treatment via Herceptin. Within the field of nematode neurobiology, she was one of the early researchers, and her work has sprouted many active fields in which her group continues to publish results answering fundamental questions about the neuronal and genetic control of behaviour, and how that control can change in natural populations of animals over evolutionary time.
“This is largely what her seminar was focused on, and based on the attendance and comments afterwards, it was very well received,” said Louis. “There was even a PhD student from Queen's University in attendance just for the lecture, who we subsequently invited to lunch and said he was honoured to meet her.”
Dr. Bargmann received the 2009 Richard Lounsbery Award from the U.S. and French National Academies of Sciences, the 2004 Dargut and Milena Kemali International Prize for Research in the Field of Basic and Clinical Neurosciences and the Charles Judson Herrick Award for comparative neurology in 2000.
Lunenfeld trainees ‘recruit’ an international speaker annually to present their research findings and expertise to the Institute. Past seminars over the past two years have included a presentation on genetic surveillance mechanisms byDr. Andrew Fire(Departments of Pathology and Genetics, Stanford University School of Medicine), as well as Dr. Michael Greenberg(Department of Neurobiology, Harvard Medical School), who presented his research on synapse development and cognitive function.

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