ECR Spotlight is a series of interviews with early-career authors from a selection of papers published in Journal of Experimental Biology and aims to promote not only the diversity of early-career researchers (ECRs) working in experimental biology during our centenary year, but also the huge variety of animals and physiological systems that are essential for the ‘comparative’ approach. Jasmine Nirody is an author on ‘ Flexible locomotion in complex environments: the influence of species, speed and sensory feedback on panarthropod inter-leg coordination’, published in JEB. Jasmine conducted the research described in this article while a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at All Souls College, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK. She is now Assistant Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago, USA, investigating the physical interactions between organisms and their environments, and how these interactions in turn shape organismal form and behavior.

Jasmine Nirody

Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus

I studied Math and Biology as an undergraduate student at NYU. I came to university with the assumption that if you liked science or math, you became a doctor or an engineer; I had no idea that you could make a career in basic science research. But in my first year, I was really lucky to stumble on an undergrad research position in NYU's Applied Math Lab. I studied the biomechanics of snake movement on flat terrain, and I was immediately hooked.

I went on to join Berkeley's Biophysics PhD program, where my dissertation focused on motility in flagellated bacteria (a departure from snakes!). Even though my work was often at the molecular scale, I was inspired by the stellar comparative biomechanics group at Berkeley to think in a more integrative way about every project I took on. By the end of my postdoctoral work at Rockefeller University's Center for Physics and Biology, and the University of Oxford, I was very fortunate to have developed several collaborations and worked on problems across organismal systems and levels of biological organization.

I've always been motivated by exciting questions and wasn't really focused on any particular organism. My current research looks at the physical interactions between motile organisms and their environments. Natural environments are often heterogeneous and can fluctuate with time, and I'm really interested in how these interactions with such complex, variable surroundings shape organismal form and behavior.

How would you explain the main message of your Review to a member of the public, and how would you explain the broader impact of research in this area?

Panarthropods are an incredibly diverse group of organisms that include insects, crustaceans, spiders, centipedes and millipedes, tardigrades and velvet worms. Despite how varied these animals are in size, shape and habitat, there are some pretty remarkable similarities in how they coordinate their leg movements during walking. In this Review, I gathered data from published experiments to look at how a wide range of species sense and respond to mechanical changes in complex environments (for example, how do they deal with moving on shifting ground, like sand or soil?). I really hope this review emphasizes the importance of the ‘comparative’ in comparative biomechanics: I would love to see more experiments in a wider range of species moving through a wider range of (naturalistic) environments.

What do you see as the main value of Review-type articles?

Review articles are really powerful in bringing together parts of the literature that might not be typically accessed by the same reader otherwise. I'm always excited when I see a review that pulls together data from different species or that integrates results across levels of biological organization. In reading a review article, I always hope that I will not only learn something new, but also often gain new perspectives on problems that I might have thought about from a limited scope previously. This feature is highlighted in a field like comparative biomechanics, which spans across disciplines and study systems.

Side view of a tardigrade (Hypsibius exemplaris) walking on agarose gel. Photo credit: Lisset Duran.

Side view of a tardigrade (Hypsibius exemplaris) walking on agarose gel. Photo credit: Lisset Duran.

Are there any important historical papers from your field that have been published in JEB?

A series of papers by Robert Full and Michael Tu in the early 1990s really emphasized how results from biomechanical studies could be thought of more generally. Full and Tu used experiments on the American cockroach Periplanta americana to make some remarkable connections across a wide range of modes of legged locomotion (doi:10.1242/jeb.148.1.129; doi:10.1242/jeb.156.1.215). Their integration of comparative analyses, experiment, and modeling is a wonderful example of how incredibly powerful integrative thinking in biology can be.

What do you think experimental biology will look like 50 years from now?

The impact of the rapid technological advances in the past few years is hard to undersell. I'm curious to see how our understanding of ‘model systems’ evolves with the wider use of gene editing tools, and I'm excited to see wider and wider ranges of species become accessible as study organisms. For comparative biomechanics, I think this access will be significant in facilitating more integrative analyses (e.g. considering results from sensory knockout experiments alongside those from traditional biomechanical experiments).

What changes do you think could improve the lives of early-career researchers

I think early access is so key! When I was an undergraduate, I was totally unaware that research careers even existed, and had no idea where to look (or what to look for) in terms of research opportunities. I was offered my first research position because I did well in one of my freshman physics courses, and I was initially hesitant to accept because I had a full course load and work-study. But my mentors were incredibly supportive and made sure that I was able to apply for funding so that I could have the opportunity.

Now that I'm further along in my career, it is really important to me to do the same for the next batch of researchers (at the undergraduate level, and even earlier). Making sure early career researchers have access to these opportunities at each career stage is beneficial to everyone, because it facilitates a welcoming and collaborative environment (a huge part of why I gravitated towards organismal biology research is that I loved and felt at home within the community).

What's next for you?

I've just started my own lab in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago, where I'm excited to keep working on problems in organismal biophysics and evolutionary biomechanics. For now, we're focusing these questions on two broad organismal systems: flagellated bacteria and walking panarthropods. I say ‘for now’ because I'm so lucky to be surrounded by brilliant and collaborative colleagues working on exciting questions in a ton of different organisms, and I could easily be inspired to take on problems that lead me off the expected path!

Jasmine Nirody's contact details: Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA.

E-mail: jnirody@uchicago.edu

Nirody
,
J. A.
(
2023
).
Flexible locomotion in complex environments: the influence of species, speed and sensory feedback on panarthropod inter-leg coordination
.
J. Exp. Biol.
226
,
jeb245111
.