Berkeley expert on insect flight receives prestigious MacArthur "genius"
24 October 2001
By Robert Sanders, Media Relations
of California, Berkeley, professor whose e-mail moniker is "flyman"
and who has become one of the world's experts on the aerodynamics of
flying insects was named a MacArthur "genius" Fellow today (Oct. 24).
Dickinson, UC Berkeley professor of Integrative Biology and MacArthur
Michael H. Dickinson,
38, professor of integrative biology in UC Berkeley's College of Letters
& Science, was among 23 new fellows announced today by The John
D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Each will receive $500,000
over five years, to spend as they wish.
Fellowships, often called "genius" awards, are awarded each year to
creative individuals "who provide the imagination and fresh ideas that
can improve people's lives and bring about movement on important issues,"
according to Jonathan Fanton, president of the foundation.
the last of the new MacArthur Fellows to be notified of the award. He
was reached over the weekend by a cell phone voice mail while backpacking
along the remote Na Pali coast of Hawaii. He had to scratch the foundation's
phone number in the sand, but the cellphone shorted out in the dampness
before he could call back.
He finally contacted
the foundation yesterday from a pay phone at Kokee State Forest, where
he had gone to see "wild Drosophila (fruit flies) swarming through guava
forests. It's a total blast. Everybody comes up here for the birds,
but all I want to see are the flies."
the award, he said, "It's all kind of surreal. I figure that for the
rest of my career everyone in the lab is going to start each sentence,
if you're such a genius, why can't you ...."
to himself as a neuroethologist. He studies the nerve and muscle connections
that allow flying insects to maneuver so expertly that they are among
the most versatile and sophisticated of all flying animals.
he uncovers are even now being applied to the development of tiny flying
robots that have potential use in search and rescue, environmental monitoring
and remote sensing.
are nature's fighter jets ...They're arguably the most aerodynamically
sophisticated of all flying animals."
are the most accomplished fliers on the planet in terms of aerodynamics,"
Dickinson said. "They can do things no other animal can, like land on
ceilings or inclined surfaces. And they are especially deft at takeoffs
and landings - their skill far exceeds that of any other insect or bird."
To study insect
flight, he has built some amazing contraptions. One is a virtual reality
"flight arena" for flies, in which he displays various moving scenes
to tethered flies and records their wing motions. "Fly-o-rama" is like
a small circus tent in which he records in three dimensions how a fly
moves in response to various stimuli. Variations on these themes include
a "rock-and-roll arena" in which he studies fly responses to mechanical
stimuli, and "smell-o-vision," where visual stimulation is combined
with food odors, such as vinegar.
He also constructed
10-inch long models of fruitfly wings - 100 times normal size - and
immersed them in a vat of mineral oil to study the currents and vortexes
set up by their wing motion.
dubbed Robofly, enabled him to break down flies' rapid wing flapping
into three distinct wing motions that not only allow insects to stay
airborne, but also let them steer and execute amazing acrobatic maneuvers.
These mechanisms, much different from the mechanisms used by birds and
airplanes, seem to be common to most insects, and perhaps even to the
fly enables you to resolve questions about how insects manage to fly
that are impossible to address otherwise," said George Lauder, professor
of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University and an
expert on how fish swim. "Michael is the only one I know who has quantified
the forces on a moving biological appendage."
In other experiments
he and his laboratory colleagues dissect fly flight muscles and nerves
to tease out their interconnections or to record electrical signals
"There is nobody
in the world who has the range of expertise, from neurophysiological
approaches through fluid mechanics, that Michael has," Lauder said.
professor of mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley, leads a team now
building a micromechanical flying insect based on the principles that
Dickinson has discovered.
"It is Michael's
aerodynamic breakthrough that is going to make our micromechanical flying
insect possible," he said.
the multimedia web site "Fly-o-Rama"
produced by UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism student Jason
Spingarn-Koff, hear Michael Dickinson describe his work and see the
ingenious experiments and simulations he has devised in order to understand
and replicate insect flight.
a background in both neurology and zoology. He obtained his bachelor's
degree in neural science from Brown University (1984) and his PhD in
zoology from the University of Washington (1989). Following a series
of postdoctoral appointments he joined the University of Chicago faculty
in 1991, leaving for a tenured position at UC Berkeley in 1996. He became
a full professor in 2000.
Born in Seaford,
Del., he grew up in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Originally intending
to pursue sculpture when he entered Brown University, he switched to
neurobiology because of his fascination with the mechanisms that underlie
His honors include
a graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation (1985), the
Larry Sandler Award from the Genetic Society of America (1990), a Packard
Foundation Fellowship (1992), and the George Bartholomew Award for Physiology
from the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology (1995).
He lives in