Postdoc Haleh Fotowat of the Engert Lab has always split her time between scientific and creative pursuits. “I always grew up with a strong hobby in my life—I always had something other than going to school or working,” Fotowat says. ”I’m not as happy if I do only one or the other. If I didn’t do art, I don’t think I’d be able to do as good science.”
As a child in Tehran, she learned to play an instrument called the qanun and continued performing music through her graduate studies. Today, Fotowat is both a postdoctoral researcher studying escape behavior in larval zebrafish and a visual artist, with her paintings exhibited in galleries.
Fotowat often starts her paintings with spontaneous squiggles on a page. Then she draws or paints around these initial lines. She has used everything from the vibrations of a campus shuttle bus to a freeform dance style called gaga movement to generate these lines. “I’m not directly studying this in science, but I’m really interested in spontaneous movements and how they are generated,” she says. “[In art,] I’m not studying how the brain does that, I just do it, and then see what happens.”
While her art focuses on spontaneous trajectories, her scientific work investigates the neural mechanisms that underlie stimulus-evoked behaviors.
Fotowat cites her mother, accomplished scientist Ziba Jamzad, as a key inspiration for her STEM career. Jamzad helped build the National Botanical Garden of Iran and served as head of Botany Research division in the Research Institute of Forests and Rangelands until her recent retirement. “She’s someone I always look up to, like she’s a superhero,” Fotowat says. Her father worked as an agricultural engineer but passed away when Fotowat was just 11. “It was mainly my mom who raised me and encouraged me, so that’s a credit to my mom,” she says.
Fotowat began her academic career with a keen interest in math and physics and studied electronic engineering as an undergraduate. “I really liked playing with wires and taking electronic things apart and putting them back together,” she recalls. Encouraged by her mother, Fotowat moved to the US for her graduate studies.
In 2002, Fotowat earned a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Houston in Texas. Her next step was to pursue a PhD in Neuroscience and join Fabrizio Gabbiani’s lab at Baylor College of Medicine, which studies locusts.
“Locusts are fantastic model systems for studying sensory-motor transformations,” Fotowat says. “They are champion escapers/jumpers, and their brains contain specialized neurons that are specifically tuned to approaching objects…These ‘looming-sensitive’ neurons can be easily identified in each animal and are easy to record.”
No one knew exactly how these “looming-sensitive” neurons contributed to escape behaviors. Teaming with an engineering lab in University of Utah, they built a miniature wireless telemetry backpack and used it to record the locusts’ neurons. Based on the results, Fotowat and her colleagues proposed a neural model that predicts whether a locust will escape based on activity in the looming-sensitive neurons.
Upon completing her Ph.D. in 2010, Fotowat spent a summer as a Grass Fellow at Woods Hole. Her research proposal was to use the wireless telemetry system from her locust research on a species of “weakly electric” fish called Apteronotus leptorhynchus to characterize natural dynamics of their electrosensory input as they swam freely in a large tank. Fotowat continued this research in Rudiger Krahe’s lab at McGill University before being recruited to University of Ottawa by Leonard Maler to acquire wireless neural recordings in freely swimming electric fish to find out if the fish’s hippocampus contains “place cells” like those found in the mammalian hippocampus.
“These experiments were really challenging,” Fotowat says. ”I had to make these really thin electrodes to implant in the fish brain, connect them to the wireless transmitter system, make sure everything is water-tight, and I had to do perform the surgery under the microscope…I had to anesthetize the fish, open the skull, implant the electrode, close everything, make sure the fish will survive…After that, I would get like 10 neurons [on the recording] from one fish.”
Despite these obstacles Fotowat and her colleagues found that the fish’s hippocampus contains neurons that are linked to spatial navigation and the animal’s “attentional” state.
“Haleh is special because she has been trained in engineering and she has truly impressive quantitative skills,” says MCB faculty Florian Engert. “She can build anything and has demonstrated a lot of creativity in adapting the technology available in the laboratory to her explicit experimental needs. She is also completely fearless in exploring new territory when it comes to selecting novel model organisms and new recording technologies.”
Fotowat had grown interested in understanding whole-brain mechanisms that underlie behavioral variability, so she switched to a more-established model system. That decision led her to the Engert Lab and zebrafish.
In her current project, Fotowat studies habituation learning in larval zebrafish. Her experiments simulate approaching predators as expanding dark shadows. At first, zebrafish try to escape the looming shadow, but, after a few encounters, they learn that the shadow poses no threat and stop responding.
“Specifically, she studies habituation to looming (i.e. threatening) visual stimuli in larval zebrafish,” Engert explains. “This process allows the fish to ignore potentially dangerous stimuli if they turn out to be not harmful and…allows the animal to focus on relevant stuff and not waste energy in escaping unnecessarily. How any animal brain actually implements this process at the neural and mechanistic level is largely unclear, and Haleh’s research will go a long way in clarifying this.”
Using two-photon calcium imaging technique, Fotowat has measured brain activity as the fish habituates to the shadow. She has identified neuronal populations with distinct tuning properties. These distinct neuronal populations also differ in the way they respond to stimulus repetition. One group of neurons is tuned to expansion of the shadow, and these neurons mainly decrease their activity with repeated encounters. Other neurons are tuned to the dimming of the whole visual field, but these dimming-responsive neurons increase their activity across repeated trials. Based on these findings and the animal’s behavior, Fotowat and colleagues propose a realistic circuit model for generation, and habituation of fish’s visually evoked escape behaviors.
“The Engert Lab is just amazing,” Fotowat says. “The lab is fun, and Florian is extremely supportive, inspiring and always available to discuss science. I’ve also learned so much from him about how to deal with different aspects of scientific career and life in general!”
At present, Fotowat is finishing the manuscript detailing these findings and will soon start a new position as a Scientist at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. She will be using her skills in behavioral neuroscience and electrical engineering to develop ways to test the effects of anatomical remodeling and stasis on memory retention. Additionally, in collaboration with the Wyss faculty member Mike Levin, she will study the basic mechanisms underlying ‘primitive cognition’ in synthetic biological robots made out of frog stem cells. Although she plans to continue her art career, science remains her top priority.
Samples of Haleh’s art: