Building a Dynamic Nervous System: Dr. Pelin Volkan

Headshot of Dr. Pelin Volkan, woman with short dark hair wearing a black shirt


In this episode of BioGist, Benjamin Asomani, a member of the class of 2024 majoring in Computer Science and Biology, interviews Dr. Pelin Volkan, an Associate Professor in the Biology department at Duke University.

Listen to hear about how Dr. Volkan spends her days using flies to study how the nervous system is built and how those circuits change over time.

To find out more about Dr. Volkan, visit her lab website at , and follow her on Twitter @pelincvolkan.

Listen here




genes, nerve cells, neurobiology, nervous system, flies, duke university, fruit flies, genetics, brain, research, biology, duke


Dr. Pelin Volkan, Benjamin Asomani

Benjamin Asomani  00:01

Welcome to BioGist, where we bring you the gist of biology at Duke University. I'm Benjamin, a freshman at Duke. And today, I'm here with Dr. Volkan.

Dr. Pelin Volkan  00:11


Benjamin Asomani  00:12

Hi, good evening. Today we're here with Dr. Volkan. Dr. Volkan is an Associate Professor of biology and an Assistant Professor in neurobiology, and an investigator in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. Now, I'm sure that most people can kind of glean a broad understanding of what neurobiology is, but I'm sure that you can explain it more in detail.

Dr. Pelin Volkan  00:37

Of course. So one of the things that I think, what I find very easy to kind of associate with is, you're in an environment where you're interacting with things around you, you're encountering, like smells, you're seeing things, and I see the nervous system as a portal for the organism to grasp that information and tell the organism that you are here, in this environment, this is what you're seeing, figure out what's good for you, and do that. So to me, neurobiology, there is like this whole, all those different levels of investigation into how your nervous system receives information, and output some action.

Benjamin Asomani  01:21

And then I know that, you know, your lab studies, neurogenetics, a specialization of neurobiology. So could you just kind of tell me a little bit more about that? Specifically?

Dr. Pelin Volkan  01:33

Yeah, so it's interesting, you know, it means basically the genetic basis of neurobiology. So what are the genes that instruct the development of your nervous system, what genes instruct all these different types of nerve cells in your brain so that you can, you know, taste different things, you can see different colors, you can, can feel certain things you can feel aversions or bliss. And, you know, all of this is like the cumulative action of your, your nerve, your, your nervous system, either on groups of nerve cells firing together in a pattern. So those are all different aspects of the nervous system. So what you're into, what I'm interested in is understanding how that nervous system gets built. But then, at the same time, you know, has this intrinsic capacity to change with environment, with, in response to detecting the environment and responding to it. And then also, what enables those nerve cells to respond to these, you know, you know, activity of those neurons? Yeah. So how do those genes change? So, so we're interested in uncovering those kinds of genetic mechanisms. But it's very difficult these days to only do genetics, we also do genomics. So we do a lot of work with looking at, you know, the overall transcriptome, which genes are made, you know, in different environments, in different nerve cells, in different genetic backgrounds, which genes are required for forming specific regions of your brain in making different neurons, which molecules and genes are responsible for connecting the nerve cells in very specific ways? Because that's very critical. Right? So what are some of the genetic components that regulate that? Right? So those are the kinds of questions that interest me, and I use the fruit flies olfactory system as a model.

Benjamin Asomani  03:31

And what makes fruit fly such good models?

Dr. Pelin Volkan  03:34

When you think about the human brain, it is, it is super complex for me to comprehend. But in a small fruit fly brain, you know, it's it's got similar regions that carry out similar behavioral functions. Similar genes regulate critical developmental and experience dependent changes in the brain. They have very tractable behaviors, you can grow them in big numbers, their genome is out there. So I mean, these are not only things that are happening in flies, these are happening in us as well, right? Like, I mean, it seems like a lot of the genes are conserved, a lot of the, you know, the types of circuits are conserved, circuit patterns are conserved, so, and there are behaviors and how we interact with the environment. There are a lot of things that are very similar that, you know, you would not normally appreciate between fruit flies in us.

Benjamin Asomani 04:26

Then, I guess my last couple of questions, is: flies. I personally am not a very big fan of bugs. But aside from you know, the procreation rate and everything, because I know that's a huge factor in the reason they're used so much for experiments, but are there any personal reasons that you use flies? Or is there anything else that you've maybe thought about using instead of flies for your research?

Dr. Pelin Volkan 04:58

Well, I actually started working on rats and for my Masters I worked on rat. I know [laugh] Yeah. So I know it was not super, I mean, I can't tell you, you know, like, I was not a huge fan of working with rats. And then it was around, I think during my master's, when I was reading these papers, I got very, I mean, I started with, I mean, it was around the time when [indistinct] identified all these genes that regulate the developmental patterning of the embryos, which in fruit flies, but then a lot of those genes are all conserved for us and do the same kind of things in us. And I was reading about fly genetics papers and development papers. And that's what kind of started me as like, okay, this is a, you know, this is a system that I can work with comfortably, and I don't really mind, and we inhaled gnats. You know, it's so I mean, I was, I thought it was a very good, it was a very, it looked like a very attractive genetic system to what I wanted to do. And it seemed like it was very viable, because there's this huge conservation of processes and the genes and their functions. I, I thought it was a very interesting model system to explore. And I started exploring, I loved it, and it was very, I don't regret it at all.

Benjamin Asomani  06:23

And some people may think that research is boring or repetitive. So what do you want us to know about research, and particularly your field of expertise.

Dr. Pelin Volkan  06:33

So it's like really, you know, super vibrant, you know, and super interdisciplinary a field of research. So it becomes very difficult to stick to only staying in genetics. So I do molecular biology, genomics, I do behavioral, you know, behavioral analyses. But I mean, that's why you have to collaborate with people. Science is never one person. And diverse, you can literally look at it at multiple levels. So that's why we have to collaborate with people with overlapping expertise. We're interested in the same type of questions. So there's no way we can really have this level of understanding just by ourselves.

Benjamin Asomani  07:15

All right. Thank you for coming today and kind of talking with me about this.

Dr. Pelin Volkan  07:21

Thank you for inviting me.

Benjamin Asomani  07:25

Thanks for joining us for BioGist. Also, thank you to the Duke University Biology Department for supporting this podcast and Poddington Bear for the music. We'll see you next time.