U-M grad student receives national award for research on rewiring the brains of fruit flies

University of Michigan graduate student Maria Ahmed was selected as one of 12 recipients of the Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award for outstanding achievement in graduate studies in the biological sciences.

The award is presented annually by the Basic Sciences Division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.

Ahmed’s research looks at the development of neural circuits responsible for odor perception and learning in fruit flies. Specifically, her work focuses on the mushroom body, a brain region in fruit flies responsible for learning and the perception of smells.

Ahmed was able to "rewire” the brain of fruit flies by changing the connectivity patterns of neurons in the mushroom body. She studied the functional consequences of the rewiring by observing the firing patterns of neurons in response to different smells.

"My research will contribute to our understanding of the developmental principles of wiring in the brain, how the brain develops to form functional circuits and how the brain can make sense of the limitless amount of sensory information around us,” she said.

Her research contributes to the field of sensory perception and learning by providing a deeper understanding of the relationship between circuit organization and function that can be extended to human brain regions.

"Receiving this award is a huge motivating factor for me to continue exploring questions of brain wiring,” Ahmed said. "It tells me that the research that we do in the lab and the findings from my Ph.D. are considered important work for the field of biological sciences.

"I (hope) this news reaches the undergraduate students in Pakistan and other developing countries, especially the female students, who have scientific aspirations and are afraid to take the leap. I hope this shows them that someone coming from a developing country can absolutely make their mark in science.”

Josie Clowney, Ahmed’s mentor and an assistant professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, says that the award "will ensure that more people read her work and recognize her creativity and tenacity in taking a very difficult and novel approach to asking how the brain works.”

Established in 2000, the Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award recognizes exceptional graduate students in the biological sciences from universities across the United States. The award is named after Dr. Harold Weintraub, a renowned molecular biologist and founding member of the Basic Sciences Division at Fred Hutch.

Ahmed and the other recipients will be recognized at an award symposium May 5 at Fred Hutch’s Robert W.