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PhD Spotlight: Fabian Steinbeck

PhD in Computational Neuroscience

I am interested in how the brain calculates orientation decisions and translates sensory information into movement. To investigate this I study insects, mainly ants, focusing on the Lateral Accessory Lobe (LAL). This part of the brain sends signals to the body of the insect and is vital to their movement. I want to model the translation from orientation decisions into commands which are understood by motor centres (the clusters of neurons which orchestrate the movements of the legs or wings of insects). I plan to approach this from both a behavioural and a physiological perspective. I will then test these models in a robotic platform so the theory can be applied to a real-world scenario, which will be incorporated in the Brains of Board project.

The Brains on Board project is designing autonomous robots with the navigational and learning abilities of insects. The project aims to develop bio-inspired software; translating what we know from insect navigation into algorithms, which allow self-learning vehicles to follow routes without GPS. In the future, we envisage that this could be used in search-and-rescue operations, where GPS may be unavailable. My research may be applied to these autonomous platforms, leading to more efficient ways of computing the navigation decisions of the vehicles and controlling their movements. Scientifically, my work will also improve understanding of how insect brains are organised regarding navigation.

My colleagues at Brains on Board, my supervisor, Prof Paul Graham, and members of his working group, are all very smart and encouraging scientists. They all discuss openly and honestly everyone’s ideas and provide support, where needed. I feel very welcomed in this environment and I am delighted to be part of such a great team!

I also really value the interdisciplinary approach to my work. My research spans biology and computer science and can also be described as Neuroethology. This is a branch of behavioural neuroscience that focuses on the continuous feedback between the nervous system, the body and the environment. However, this has also been challenging – I started my PhD with little knowledge about insect neuroscience, which made me a little insecure in the beginning but with the support of my PI and the Brains on Board team I am now a lot more confident – I have found my own ‘niche’ to work on.

My background is in Biomimetics, which is the imitation of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. I did my bachelors in Biomimetics in Bocholt, Germany. It was a very applied course, where we were encouraged to be inspired by biological mechanisms to invent new technologies or improve existing ones, which is very relevant to the work of Brains on Board. Through my studies I became interested in how the actual science is done, especially regarding the brain, so I went on to study Neuroscience in Bielefled, Germany. 

Given my interest in Biomimetics and Neuroscience, I was fortunate to find my PI Prof Paul Graham who is interested in applying neurobiological findings to develop better software for autonomous agents. Since this research on navigation is very exciting to me and also navigation itself has become more important in the public interest, the University of Sussex is a very good place to be for my PhD.

By: Jessica Gowers
Last updated: Monday, 30 September 2019