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PhD Award for Harris Kaplan


17 Sep 2019
Harris Kaplan and Lukas Huber

The IMP alumnus who graduated from the lab of Manuel Zimmer was honoured for his doctoral research on neuronal dynamics in C. elegans worms.

Each year, the Austrian Association of Molecular Life Sciences and Biotechnology (ÖGMBT) awards two prizes to young researchers who have submitted an outstanding PhD thesis in the field of life sciences and biotechnology. This year, former Vienna BioCenter PhD-student Harris Kaplan received the award in the category Basic Research for his thesis “Neuronal dynamics governing behavior in Caenorhabditis elegans”.

Harris Kaplan, who earned his doctorate in July 2019, was a member of Manuel Zimmer’s lab at the IMP. In his research, he focused on one of the most fascinating topics in biology: the behaviour of animals. The generation of behavior is widely regarded as a primary function of the nervous system, yet it remains unclear how the brain coordinates movements into appropriate, organised behavior. Kaplan addressed this question by describing the diverse brain dynamics underlying the behavioral repertoire of the nematode C. elegans, an established model system to study locomotion, sensory navigation and decision-making. In its natural habitat, the tiny worm has to react to its environment in order to find food and mating partners, while avoiding threats like predators or toxic atmospheres. 

Recent technological advances, in part developed by IMP researchers, allow the visualisation of the activity of entire brains and even make it possible to trace the activity of nerve-cells in freely moving animals. Harris Kaplan used these techniques to record the neuronal activity in worms during behaviour. The nested neuronal dynamics he was able to describe surprisingly resemble brain dynamics underlying cognition and behavior in more complex brains. His work on C. elegans has therefore helped to establish the worm as a potential model system for neuronal population dynamics, such as those thought to drive behavior in insects and mammals. 

“I am particularly honoured to receive this award for my work on animal behavior in Austria, given its rich history in ethology, which has directly inspired my thesis work", says Harris Kaplan who will continue to work on the neural basis of behavior. From January 2020, he will be a postdoc in the lab of Catherine Dulac at Harvard where he will study social behavior in mice. 

The prize that comes with an endowment of 1000 Euros was awarded on 16 September during the grand Award Ceremony of the 11th ÖGMBT Annual Meeting in Salzburg. The photo shows Harris Kaplan with ÖGMBT president Lukas Huber (Copyright: ÖGMBT).