Feature Stories

His Research Could Unlock the Mysteries of the Human Brain: Meet Professor Eric Fortune

Professor Eric Fortune records weakly electric fish signals on the Tiputini River in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Here are some things you should know about Eric Fortune, a new biology professor at NJIT.

He does research in the Amazon rainforest, where he travels five hours by canoe to get to his research site. Once there, he sleeps under mosquito nets to keep an endless array of bugs at bay.  He also studies birds that live on the flank of an Ecuadorian volcano and says that doing research on the side of a volcano is a “blast.”

And the intrepid research he's doing could have a huge scientific payoff since : studying animal behavior and how their brains operate -- his area of expertise -- could help unlock the mysteries of the human brain.

"I study how the brains of animals control their behavior," says Fortune, an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences who joined the faculty this fall. "Animals, generally speaking, use the same neural strategies as humans do.  So I hope my research will help us better understand how human brains control our own behavior. "

Fortune has had great success with his research. He has written articles for many peer-reviewed journals and had a paper published in the prominent journal Science.  That paper described the brain of the plain-tailed wren is coded to allow it to sing duets with other wrens.  He has also published papers in the many journals such as the Journal of Neuroscience, PLoS Computational Biology, and the Journal of Experimental Biology.

He also studies weakly electric fish, which of all the vertebrate animals are the best model for studying neural control, he says. “The fish produce an electrical field which is almost a direct one-to-one read out of its central nervous system,” he adds. “If we understand their neural activity it might help us understand neural activity in the human brain.”

He calls upon engineering techniques in his research.  “Teaming up with an engineer and using engineering techniques in my research has been the most transformative thing that has happened to me in the last ten years,” he says. He has also made two videos, Vertebrate Neuroanatomy Part I and Part II, that explain his research techniques in neuroanatomy.

In this interview, Fortune, who is now in Ecuador doing field work, talks about his research, his fascination with animal behavior and his intrepid efforts to understand the brain.

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It sounds like great fun to be out in Ecuador studying animals. Is it as exciting as it sounds?

Yes!  Perhaps it is more exciting than it sounds! The Amazon rainforest is an unpredictable and complex place.  It is constantly changing, and amazing biological phenomena are constantly bombarding you. It is an inspiring place to be. Getting to our field sites is often the biggest part of the adventure.  Our base is in the capital of Ecuador, Quito. To get to one of our sites, we need to either take a 10-hour bus ride or one an hour flight from Quito to a small Amazonian oil town known by locals as El Coca. From there we get on a motorized canoe to take us between two and five hours down the Napo River to the entrance of one of the black water lakes; that’s where we work. One of our research sites is at a fancy rainforest hotel, but other locations have no power and we sleep under tight mosquito nets to keep the seemingly endless array of biting and stinging critters away. 

Can you talk about your field research in Ecuador?

We study two very different groups of animals – we work with weakly electric fish in the Amazon basin in the eastern region of Ecuador, and more recently we’ve been focusing on duetting wrens in the cloud forests that are found on the slopes of the Andes. Our research examines specialized behaviors that these unique animals produce as a guideline for understanding how all brains, including our own, control behavior.

Do students assist you in your field work?

We work with undergraduate students in all aspects of the science.  Since 2002 I’ve brought well over 250 undergraduates from the United States to Ecuador for courses or research. Getting students to Ecuador is costly but I think the experiences that students have while participating in the research and studying in this different culture and habitat is worth it. Thankfully there are grants out there that are specifically designed to support these sorts of undergraduate experiences.

Will you involve NJIT students in your research?

Absolutely!  Having students learn and conduct research with you is one of the most rewarding components of being a professor. I’m new to NJIT, so I’ll need to get a feel for the interests of the students and how these sorts of experiences might fit both into their curriculum and their career goals.  One cornerstone of this effort will be a short winter course between the semesters during which we bring groups of students down to Ecuador. From my perspective, this sort of international, hands-on educational experience is great for students.

What classes will you teach at NJIT?

I have a range of courses that I enjoy teaching in the areas of neuroscience, behavior and evolutionary biology. I plan to teach a laboratory course that combines neuroanatomy, behavior and neurophysiology. The course is a lot of work, but it involves hands-on experiences that both illustrate the concepts and prepares students for a range of career tracks.

What excites you about research?

What is most satisfying for me is working through the intellectual puzzle that you need to solve to produce scientific results. Certainly my work on cooperative singing in plain-tailed wrens has been the most scientifically popular of my projects. And it was amazingly fun doing that research -- conducting neurophysiological experiments using a home-built apparatus on the side of a volcano can’t be anything but a blast!  But some of the results that we’ve had working with the electric fish have led to subtle but deep insights into how the brain works, which has been very satisfying personally. What is most exciting now is that we’ve got several very promising and interesting research questions brewing, so I’m looking forward to the upcoming years at NJIT.

You say animals are smarter than robots.  Can you explain that?

I co-wrote a chapter of a book a couple of years ago with a colleague who is a robotics’ expert and we addressed that question.  Robots can execute repetitive behaviors with extreme precision, generating forces that are beyond the capacity of organisms. Where animals beat robots, though, is that their behavior is flexible and robust. Evolution has built animals to be fault tolerant and to achieve a behavioral outcome using an array of strategies that are only partially pre-determined. Learning how the control systems of animals are built – literally their neural circuits in the context of the whole organism – has and will continue to inspire design features that can improve the flexibility and robustness of engineered systems.

How do you do your research? And will you set up a lab at NJIT? 

Many of the experiments that we run in the lab are directly inspired by observations we make at our field sites. But it is a two-way street, and often results from the lab inform how we examine the animals in the wild. As we speak, NJIT is renovating a space for my lab, so for this semester I necessarily have a greater focus on the field research. But once the lab is set up, we’ll establish a colony of weakly electric fish at NJIT.  The majority of our research happens in the lab, and we have undergraduate and graduate students conduct behavioral experiments and a range of neurophysiological studies of brain function.  In this way, the research that students conduct in the lab and what they learn in class are completely integrated.

By Robert Florida