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Cynthia Chai

2023 Leon Levy Scholar

Columbia University


Columbia University (Advisor: Dr. Gwyneth M. Card)

Sub-disciplinary Category

Systems, Molecular, and Evolutionary Neuroscience

Previous Positions

  • BA, Mount Holyoke College
  • PhD, California Institute of Technology (Advisor: Dr. Paul W. Sternberg)
  • Postdoctoral Scholar Research Associate, California Institute of Technology (Dr. Paul W. Sternberg)


Dr. Chai is a postdoctoral fellow in the Card Lab at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, where she studies the neurogenetic basis of behavioral evolution. She graduated summa cum laude in Neuroscience with a Mathematics minor from Mount Holyoke College. Her undergraduate thesis with Dr. Kenneth Colodner investigated the role of aminergic signaling in modulating tau protein toxicity, and was awarded departmental highest honors. She then earned her PhD in Neurobiology studying the neurogenetic control of animal development in the Sternberg Lab at Caltech. During her graduate work, she elucidated how metabotropic signaling shapes an adaptive choice over developmental timescales. She also discovered and characterized a novel role for the forkhead transcription factor FKH-7/FOXP in regulating stress-induced developmental plasticity. Previously, Dr. Chai was supported by funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (DAAD), and the Singapore Ministry of Education.

Research Summary

Identifying the neural circuit and genetic elements that undergo the strongest selective pressures to enhance survival through the study of escape responses in closely-related fly species.

Technical Overview

In an ever changing environment, the ability to adapt is essential for promoting survival and increasing fitness in new habitats. It is thus unsurprising that life-preserving behaviors like reproduction or predator evasion would be most susceptible to evolutionary pressures, resulting in speciation, or the process by which new species are formed through the acquisition of new unique characteristics. Despite the growing body of research examining the genetic changes that lead to natural behavioral variation, few have examined the neural substrates affected by these genetic changes. Dr. Cynthia Chai strives to identify the genetic and neural elements that undergo the greatest selective pressures during speciation by combining evolutionary comparative, molecular, and systems neuroscience approaches to investigate the neurogenetic basis of escape behavior diversity in different Drosophila fly species, ultimately aiming to develop a model of escape circuit evolution. Her research program may have significant implications for understanding how adaptive solutions are hardwired into a population over evolutionary timescales as animals navigate new challenges in their natural contexts. As environmental changes driven by climate change are pushing organisms to their behavioral and physiological limits to survive, this research may also enable us to predict and perhaps even engineer organismal resilience to climate change.