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Tech Trek and Fellow Updates

Last Friday, Backyard Brains once again opened our doors (even wider–they’re always open during business hours!) to our fellow and aspiring citizen scientists as a part of this year’s Ann Arbor Tech Trek!  Dozens of local tech companies had their doors open to the public that evening and we, like our friends around town, had people streaming in from open to close! BYB has participated for the last few years, and it is always a hit.

For four hours on Friday afternoon, we were packed with people from all walks of life who were interested in learning about Backyard Brains and neuroscience! It was a day of education, outreach, and new connections. In the office, we demonstrated our classic, the Human to Human Interface, as well as The Claw, and we even helped people control Mario with their eye blinks!

Our Summer Fellows also got in on the action, presenting their work down in the Makerspace at All Hands Active. This was the first chance our fellows got to share their science with the community, letting people in on their secrets and experiment rigs. For example, Silkmoth Fellow Jess was running experiments on a cockroach antenna during Tech Trek: Some kids were watching when she used different odors to try to get a reaction in the antenna, as pictured below:

It was definitely a unique opportunity, full of its own trials. According to Mantis Shrimp Fellow Dan, “I was trying to collect behavioral data with the mantis shrimp while his implants were falling out, and people would come by who obligingly ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the prep and politely listened to my spiel about EMGs and the strike. I’ve never presented about my research while actively conducting it.”

Meet the Fellows, See the Projects

Catch up with our Fellows! Saw a cool project and you want to know more? Check out these posts introducing each Fellowship research track:

First Progress Reports:

If you’ve been dying for an update on what we’ve been researching, fret no more! Feast your eyes on our first batch of updates!

Plant Nanny: If at first you don’t succeed, Try, try, try again

My project, if you remember (see previous post), is to train plants to associate fans with light and hopefully get them to grow in the direction of a fan after they’ve been trained. Radiolab has also done an awesome podcast on this.


How hard can it be to set 48 of these up?

I’ll split it into the plant-growing process, the mechanical building process, and the electronics building process.

Plant-growing process:

Mechanical building process of the bifurcated pot:

Electronics building process (I started out electronically illiterate):

Conclusion: My prototype is set up and my plants are being trained!!

Next steps:

  • Lasercut (once the machine is fixed) and set up final design
  • Collect data


Me in the 5th week:

Becoming a #MothMom

Hello, everyone! Jess here. Lots of exciting things have happened in the last two weeks. First, I have begun to raise a group of silkworms into moths (#mothmom). This involves feeding them Mulberry leaves from my backyard each day, keeping everything extremely clean and crossing my fingers in hopes that I know what I’m doing. If first grade classrooms can keep them alive, so can I, right? In addition to raising silkworms myself, I have been getting shipments of cocoons to ensure I have plenty of moths to work with this summer.


Left: silkworms feeding on mulberry leaves. Middle: silkworm cocoon developing. Right: female silkmoth.

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been working with cockroaches to refine methods until the moths are ready. Rather than looking at pheromones, I have been investigating olfaction with natural attractants and repellents. Unlike silkmoths, cockroaches have multiple pheromones and they cannot be easily ordered. So, I chose something we all know cockroaches love and are able to locate through olfaction: food. Additionally, it is well known that getting rid of cockroaches without the help of a exterminator can be extremely difficult, so why not investigate a variety of repellents I found on a garden blog and see what happens?

The first (and most important) step was to design an experiment to observe the natural cockroach response to these odorants. After going through multiple iterations of a behavioral chamber that involved a lot of laser cutting (and a lot of recutting because measuring a box without parallel sides is hard), I’ve found a design that works well. It’s extremely simple: a large tupperware with a clear top, dixie cups, tape, filter paper and the odorants of your choice.

Experimental set up with shelters for the cockroaches

Initially, I had the idea of setting up a classic choice paradigm. Cockroaches would enter the arena and choose whichever chamber contained the odorant of their preference. I quickly ran into issues because they hate being out in the light, and had no interest in my contrived scent experiment. So, I used their hate for the light to my advantage. I placed shelters (dixie cups) around the arena with different odor filter papers taped inside. This way, they were making a choice of which shelter they preferred. So far this design has been working well, and I will continue to optimize it and run trails throughout the summer.

The second portion of my cockroach experiment has been focused on electrophysiology. I wanted to design a simple, DIY method for recording from cockroach antennas, also known as an electroantennogram (EAG). The type of electrical activity I am looking for is a low frequency summed potential sent from the end of the antenna towards the base. This electrical potential is then transmitted to higher order areas of the cockroach brain where the scent is perceived and a response is initiated.

To do this, I’ve made pad electrodes with sewing pins and solder to lay the antenna across. I then cut off the antenna, put it on the electrodes and apply plenty of electrode gel to prevent it from drying out. Using syringes and aquarium tubing, I blow odorants tested in the behavioral experiment on the antenna and examine the electrical response.


Antenna set up ready for odorant stimulation


Here is a snippet of my data below compared with results previously seen in literature:

EAG recording from cockroach antenna. Red line = control air, Yellow line = ethanol

EAG recordings seen in cockroach literature (Saifullah & Page, 2009)


The signal is similar to what has been published in literature, suggesting this DIY method works (yay!). Further, there are differential signals when ethanol is introduced and when the control is introduced. This suggests the cockroach is capable of sensing ethanol, and the response is not due to the puff of air itself. How this sensation may affect behavior will then be determined in the preference experiment I described earlier.

Now that I have some moths to work with, the cockroach portion of my project will be put on the backburner for a little bit. The silk moths only live for 5-10 days, so I’ve got to work with them while I can. Looking forward to sharing my moth data with you all next post!


For any questions or comments- feel free to contact me at In the mean time, here’s a timelapse video I took of my silkworms spinning a cocoon: