Eric Fortune, PhD, whose research interests focus on bio-cellular sensing, has been appointed to the faculty of NJIT’s College of Science and Liberal Arts in the Federated Department of Biological Sciences an associate professor. He will join the talents of more than 20 other new faculty members on campus this fall. The newcomers will add momentum to NJIT’s strategic plan for making a major impact on the quality of life in the 21st century. This interdisciplinary initiative is focused on three vital areas: convergent life science and engineering, “digital everyware” — ubiquitous computing — and sustainable systems.The women and men joining NJIT to serve a growing student body bring expertise that spans diverse supporting clusters. These include advanced manufacturing, architecture design and construction, big data, biochemistry, business systems, material science and engineering, and sensing and control.
“NJIT’s academic status and interdisciplinary strategy have attracted people at various stages of their careers, and who offer NJIT both distinctive abilities and new resources,” says Provost Ian Gatley. “Enthusiasm for NJIT’s interdisciplinary commitment was apparent during the search process. Everyone interviewed spoke about how the problems they work on are inherently interdisciplinary, how they like to work on teams, how they look forward to collaborating with colleagues across disciplines.” Donald Sebastian, NJIT’s senior vice president for research and development, emphasizes that connecting with real-world issues is at the heart of expectations for a technological research university. “Academic disciplines are the core of the university and the framework for learning. However, their alignment with industries of the future is not as obvious as with those sectors that have prevailed over the last century. Our strategic research thrusts are designed to make those 21st-century connections explicit.” Convergent life science and engineering, digital everyware and sustainable systems — themes that transcend departments or colleges — shaped NJIT’s hiring plan, he adds.
Animal behavior, from the rolling of dung by dung beetles to the vocal performances of lyrebirds, has always fascinated Fortune. From childhood, he would wonder how such behaviors evolved. A high school vacation with grand-parents to the Galápagos Islands led to his eventual career studying the mechanisms of animal behavior, and has brought him repeatedly back to Ecuador and the Galápagos. He has now escorted some 250 students to the Galápagos, and conducts research at sites in the Amazon basin and cloud forest habitats of eastern Ecuador.
Despite rapid advances in technological prowess, Fortune asserts that researchers neither understand how animals achieve the level of precision in their movements and coordination, nor can they build artificial systems, such as robots, which perform behaviors that are anywhere near as robust and reliable as animals.
In his laboratory, Fortune studies the mechanisms of animal behavior. His studies include careful measurements of natural animal behavior which, when coupled with sophisticated quantitative approaches, can be applied in brain experiments to discover the cellular mechanisms used by the brain to control behavior.
He believes that engineers can, in turn, translate these insights gained from the animal world into improved control systems for use in robots and prosthetic devices.
Fortune’s research was recently revolutionized by exciting results from investigation of the neurophysiological basis of cooperation in a unique species of Andean songbird — the plain-tailed wren. His work, published in Science, demonstrates that a premotor neuronal circuit encodes the cooperative output of a pair of duetting birds rather than each individual’s own, autogenous motor output. The interaction of social behavior and locomotor control in the central nervous system of weakly electric fishes interests him. He examines the cellular and circuit-level mechanisms by which fish cooperate through the control of their electric field and their locations relative to others of the same species nearby.
Fortune received a bachelor’s degree in the biological sciences from the University of Chicago (UC) and a doctorate from the UC Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy.