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UC Berkeley expert on insect flight receives prestigious MacArthur "genius" award
24 October 2001

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

BERKELEY — A University 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).

Michael Dickinson
Michael Dickinson, UC Berkeley professor of Integrative Biology and MacArthur Fellow

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.

The MacArthur 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.

Dickinson was 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."

Thrilled by 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 ...."

Dickinson refers 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.

The principles 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.


"Flies are nature's fighter jets ...They're arguably the most aerodynamically sophisticated of all flying animals."

-- Michael Dickinson


"Flies 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.

This model, 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 hummingbird.

"This robotic 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 from them.

"There is nobody in the world who has the range of expertise, from neurophysiological approaches through fluid mechanics, that Michael has," Lauder said.

Ron Fearing, 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.

Fly-o-Rama  In 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.

Dickinson has 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 animal behavior.

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 Berkeley, California.

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