Postdoc Spotlight: Dr Mark Plitt Investigates Rapid Plasticity Through the World of Fruit Flies

February 24, 2023

Mark Plitt standing with shoreline in background.

Switching the model organisms for his research after seven years was the biggest challenge that Dr. Mark Plitt faced, but it only pulled him closer to his work.

Originally from Texas, Mark is a postdoctoral scholar at the Molecular and Cell Biology department of UCB. After completing his Ph.D. at Stanford, he is one of the few, continuing with academia in neuroscience.

Mark is studying the cellular and systems mechanisms of memory foundation. Through his research, he is trying to understand how the brain forms new memories. In particular, he is looking at how animals use their nervous system to navigate.

His earlier work involved using mice models to understand their spatial navigation. The postdoctoral residency came as a big change, as his focus area shifted from rodents to fruit flies. “In the fruit fly field, a lot more is expected of you, sort of in terms of understanding the mechanism,” said Mark.

According to him, fruit flies are easier to work with because they don’t need to be trained for complicated tasks and he doesn’t have to be tied too hard around their schedules. Nonetheless, researchers are expected to conduct and solve many more experiments.

Mark is currently examining a part of the fruit flies’ central brain, called the ellipsoid body. This little ring in the middle of their brain is important for orienting in space. As the fly rotates through the environment, the ring acts like a compass that tells the fly which direction it's pointing. But the compass is linked to visual landmarks instead of magnetic information and can adapt to different environments. He aims to learn about these adaptations by focusing on the plasticity mechanisms of such a brain structure. 

Moving to Berkeley has been a unique experience for Mark, in terms of finding multiple unique labs which study this field of memory and navigation, using different model organisms. 

Using his existing research as the premise, Mark’s ultimate goal is to figure out how rapid plasticity works in other systems as well. “It’s the drive for the question that pulls you back into the excitement of research,” he added.