I am a neuroethologist, which is a discipline of neuroscience studying the neural mechanisms of natural animal behaviour. Most of my research focuses on insects, especially honey bees. Honey bees are especially illuminating for behavioural research. They display social structures, communication systems and cognitive abilities that rival those of many mammals and yet their brain is a tiny fraction of the size. Insect brains may be small but they are not simple. The bee brain has a complex modular structure with nearly a million neurons densely packed into it. We have advanced techniques to visualise, manipulate map and record from the insect brain. For these reasons, neuroethologists have made important contributions to our understanding of fundamental behavioural systems such as vision, olfaction, navigation and learning and memory through studies of insects. My research continues this tradition examining what can be learned about the mechanisms of cognition, social behaviour and even consciousness through studies of the remarkable insect brain.
My research is also improving honey bee health and welfare. With my team we are studying how colonies are impacted by pesticide and disease stressors, how we might best intervene to help colonies under stress, and how we might best monitor the health of a bee hive.
At Macquarie University I am Director of the Macquarie Minds and Intelligences Initiative which is a cross-faculty research initiative. By contrasting collective, artificial and natural intelligences we seek a deep comprehension of the mind and apply this knowledge to create smarter systems and better ways of working and learning.
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Research focus: overview
Understanding animal minds
What is it like to be a bee? Are simple animals like insects cognitive and reflective entities, or are they more like robots: simple reflexive stimulus-response entities? I believe studying animal behaviour combined with studies of the mechanisms supporting behavioural capacities will give critical understanding of the nature of animal minds.
The insect brain is a complex cognitive microprocessor. This project combines experimental neuroscience with computational and mathematical modelling to explore the circuits and systems of the insect brain function and generate behaviour.
This is not an easy time to be a bee. Pesticides, diseases, habitat degradation and climate change are all piling stressors onto honey bees. Honey bee colonies are failing at such levels there is concern we may not have enough bees to pollinate our food crops. My research explores how we can best support bee health in the current challenging environment.
Neuroethology is a research strength at Macquarie University. With my colleagues and students we have a large and active research team studying cognition, social behaviour, learning, memory foraging, vision and navigation.
This project creates conceptual and computational models of the insect brain, which, along with electrophysiology and behavioural studies, are used to probe the relationships between brain and behaviour. The work is supported by grants from the Australian Research Council in collaboration with Professor Karin Nordstrom from Flinders University.
I am examining how stress (disease, pesticides and pollution) impacts bees and their colonies so that I can develop better interventions to rescue colonies at risk of failure. I am also exploring new sensor technologies to accurately and easily assess colony health. This work is a collaboration with Dr Théotime Colin and is supported by grants from The Lord Majors Charitable Foundation and Horticulture Innovation.
The Neuroethology Group at Macquarie is a collaborative and connected peer group bound by shared research interests. We examine the mechanisms and evolution of natural behaviour, and use a comparative approach to determine the relationships between brains and behaviour.
My research is highly transdisciplinary and integrative in approach with projects spanning philosophy, neuroscience, cognitive science, ethology and sociobiology and computational and mathematical biology. At Macquarie University I work very closely with my colleagues Ken Cheng, Ajay Narendra, Mariella Herberstein so that students and postdocs are part of a supportive community with collaboration and idea exchange as core practice. We have created a reciprocal network of student co-supervision, postdoc co-mentoring and co-publication and hold joint lab meetings, shared annual research retreats and annual intensive workshops focussed around grand challenges.
International collaboration is a vital aspect of my research. The lab has collaborative links worldwide. Macquarie University supports cotutelle programs for PhD students allowing graduate students to be enrolled in two institutions and jointly supervised. This gives students a far richer PhD experience, and also supports international research collaborations.
Australian and International graduate students interested in studying for a PhD scholarship should contact Andrew Barron for more information.