Sophie Caron, an Assistant Professor of Biology, was recently appointed as the Mario Capecchi Endowed Chair in the Biology Department. The prestigious faculty appointment will allow Caron to launch a highly innovative research program.
Since joining the faculty in 2015, Caron has begun an enormous and long-term research project – understanding how the human brain works – by investigating some of the smallest minds in the business.
“Our study model is the common fruit fly, Drosophila, in particular the mushroom body, which is the center where memories are formed and stored in the insect brain,” says Caron.
The mushroom bodies are clusters of neurons in the insect brain that look like a pair of mushrooms. The number of neurons forming each of the mushroom bodies — called the Kenyon cells — varies across species. In the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, there are about 2,000 Kenyon cells per hemisphere.
“Our lab wants to understand how the brain, and in particular the mushroom body, generates an internal representation of the outside world, how it stores such representations and uses them to generate meaningful behavior.”
Animals have a range of sensory systems that gather information about their environment. This information is processed by the brain and, sometimes, stored as a memory. Animals constantly use memories of past experiences to adjust their behavior. The smell of a nutritious fruit, for instance, will become attractive, while that of a sickening chemical will be avoided.
“We know a great deal about how sensory input is received and processed in the various sensory organs, but we know much less about how it is remembered and used during behavioral decisions,” says Caron.
Caron currently teaches Biology 3240, Cellular Neurobiology. “In this class I teach students about the brain and about current advances in neurobiology. Because these advances are often not covered by the textbook, we read research papers in class and discuss them,” says Caron.
She was attracted to the University of Utah because of its robust scientific community and collegiality. “Much of the research here is driven by curiosity rather than opportunity. I connect with that way of thinking,” says Caron.
Caron grew up in Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu, a small village in Québec, Canada. She studied biochemistry at the Université de Montréal then moved to New York City to pursue her graduate studies at New York University. She completed her postdoctoral work at Columbia University.