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No Nose, No Mouth, No Problem: the Silkmoth Story

Hi all! I’m Jess. I’m a senior neuroscience major from Westminster College in Salt Lake City, UT. It’s a small, private liberal arts school you’ve probably never heard of, but I promise you it’s the best small, private liberal arts school you’ve probably never heard of (with an awesome neuroscience program). Prior to my academic endeavors, I was a U.S. Ski Team member and competed in the sport of slopestyle, which involves a variety of jumps, spins, and grabs through the terrain park.

Training at Keystone Mountain, CO in December 2015

After four seasons on the ski team, I retired to pursue my degree. I still ski in my free time, but have also picked up a variety of hobbies including, climbing, mountain biking, and canyoneering. So far, the mountain biking in the Ann Arbor area has been amazing, and I look forward to exploring more!


This summer I will be working on Bombyx mori, or the domestic silkworm moth. In addition to producing valuable silk, this species has been well studied due to its interesting mating behavior. As shown below, silkworm moths go through multiple stages of development. Most of their life is spent in a larval stage eating mulberry leaves. Once they are large enough, they spin a silk cocoon around themselves and develop into a moth.

Silkworm moths only live to 5-10 days after emerging from their cocoon because they are incapable of eating or drinking. Their singular goal during this time is to find a mate as quickly as possible and reproduce. Observations from the early 1900s reported that female moths were unable to attract males if they were covered by a glass cup. This suggested that the females were emitting some sort of chemical to attract the males, but how could the male silkmoths sense it without a nose?


It turns out that silkmoths males have extremely sensitive antenna that are capable of detecting pheromones, or chemical substances that cause a change in behavior. Further, female silkmoths release a pheromone called bombykol that attracts males up to 10 kilometers away. Crazy. This discovery initiated a field of research investigating the molecular and neural mechanisms responsible for mating behavior in silkmoths.


Adult male silkmoth with pronounced antennas

This is an accessible insect that has a tractable behavior, so you may ask yourself, “How has Backyard Brains never studied this!?” Well, we have. While significant progress was made in the summer of 2015, the project was never completed. This summer, I will be revamping this project with the goal of producing a lab for the classroom. I will be changing the behavioral task, adding some different stimulants, and investing local field potentials in higher order brain structures in addition to electroantennogram recordings.


I am currently in the midst of ordering materials. The moths are going to take a bit of time to get here and hatch, so in that time I will be trying out my new methods on cockroaches and seeing if they will work. Wish me luck!

BYB in High School!

Backyard Brains always loves hearing about our equipment making its way out into the world and into a classroom, so we were thrilled to hear from Dr. Nancy Cowdin, a Neuroscientist and Science teacher at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School. Dr. Cowdin recently taught an elective course in Neuroscience where seniors at the all-girls high school in Washington, DC had done some research with our SpikerBoxes!

“We were given some start-up funds by a donor to purchase the kits. The students first constructed the DIY spiker boxes (with some difficulties… but it proved to be a great problem-solving activity),” Dr. Nancy Cowdin shared–just what we like to hear!For the research projects, each group selected an experiment of interest from those listed on your Backyard Brains website. They designed a research protocol (modified from your experiments), created an Informed Consent for all human-subject projects, were required to keep a laboratory notebook, recruited and tested subjects, and figured out how to use the recordings to analyze the data.

The culmination of their work was a poster session and a formal presentation to fellow classmates and some faculty members. The students took away each other’s free will with the Human-Human Interface; they examined the difference in muscle fatigue between softball players and pianists with the Muscle SpikerBox; they observed the effects of various substances on the cockroach nervous system with the Neuron SpikerBox (which they built themselves!); they looked at eye action potentials and the mysterious P300 signal with our Heart & Brain SpikerShield.

“All in all, this was a very worthwhile endeavor. I have done research with sleep physiology in past years but your equipment broadened our horizons!” Dr. Cowdin plans to order more Backyard Brain kits in the future and further incorporate the SpikerBox into her class again. Another successful recruit to the Neurorevolution! Thank you, Dr. Cowdin and the senior girls of Georgetown Visitation, and keep spreading the word!


We’d love to hear your success stories. Share them with us at and we may feature your students’ work as well! And, you know, junior publication credits look great on College Applications…



Welcome 2018 Backyard Brains Fellows!

From left: Ben, Anusha, Yifan, Jessica, Aaron, Jess, Greg Gage (not a Fellow), Maria, Dan, Anastasiya, Molly, Ilya


Meet the Fellows, See the Projects

The fellows are off to a great start! This week has been focused on them getting their feet wet with our kits and learning about what we do here at Backyard Brains. Be sure to keep checking back for their blog posts introducing their projects:


As part of the fellowship, our new members will be keeping you updated with a number of blog posts, charting their summer research experiences. These posts are a great window in the world of citizen science! From start to finish, you can follow along with our fellows as they experience the triumphs and pitfalls of scientific inquiry.

You’ll be hearing a lot about our fellows and their projects for the next ten weeks. They’re excited to introduce themselves and their projects to you soon. Keep an eye out here, on our Facebook page, and Twitter for project updates and more!


The team has been working hard to bring their projects to life. Check out these first update blog posts on their rig construction and data collection efforts!