I am interested in understanding how animals detect, integrate, and process sensory cues in order to make appropriate behavioral decisions, such as where to forage or how to interact with other organisms in their environment. My research uses behavioral, anatomical, physiological, and computational tools to study the neural circuits that underlie behavior, in a range of invertabrate models systems (fruit fly larvae, beetles, and leeches). I have primarily focused on how organisms use the chemosensory cues of olfaction and gustation to inform behavior. Below are some of the recent and ongoing projects I am working on:



Odor perception allows animals to distinguish odors, recognize the same odor across concentrations, and detect changes in concentration. How does the spatial and temporal patterning across the sensory periphery of olfactory receptor neurons (ORNs) encode the detection of a wide variety of odors and odor gradients?  The Drosophila melanogaster larva has only 21 ORNs, making it ideal for studying system wide coding of olfactory information.  We used in vivo calcium imaging and microfluidics to measure the activity pattern of all larval ORNs in response to a broadly sampled panel of odorants at varying concentrations.  Our characterization uncovered features in the response patterns of individual ORNs (common activation functions with different sensitivities) and of the ORN population (a power-law distribution of sensitivities) that may reflect simple strategies for representing odor identity and intensity.
Associated Projects/Papers:
  • Si*, Kanwal* et al., Neuron (Samuel lab, Harvard)
  • Droujinine et al. (in review) (Perrimon and Samuel labs, Harvard)




Interspecies social interactions are prevalent across the animal kingdom, yet we know little about the structural and physiological changes to the nervous system that allow for such interactions to occur. I am taking an integrative, comparative approach to study how molecular and neural properties of the nervous systems of different beetle species have been modified to allow for increasing levels of interspecies social interactions.  My long-term goal is to understand how changes in neural structure and function underlie the evolution of behavior.  Using the rove beetle system, I hope to uncover how novel social interactions between species can evolve from ancestral beginnings.
This work is currently ongoing and evolving in the lab of Dr. Joe Parker at Caltech
see Kanwal & Parker, COIS for more details



Animals intergate information from different sensory modalities in order to enhance detection of external stimuli and respond in the most efficient manner.  How and where multisensory integration occurs, how it modifies the response properties of neurons, and the cellular mechanisms underlying such intergation remain poorly understood.  During my PhD, I examined how the Drosophila melanogaster larva intergates olfactory and gustatory stimuli at the neuronal and behavioral levels. My findings support the idea that multisensory integration occurs at the earliest stages of sensory processing and begin to address how this convergence enhances perception and shapes foraging behavior.  I have also examined visual and mechanical intergation in Hirudo verbana, the medicinal leech, to better understand how a large interneuron intergates these cues so that the leech can orient and locate a food source.
Associated Projects/Papers:
  • Odor-Taste Intergation in the Drosophila Larva (Samuel/de Bivort labs, Harvard)
  • Visual-Mechanosensory Intergation in the Medicinal Leech (Wagenaar lab, Caltech)
  • Multimodal Integration across Spatiotemporal Scales to Guide Invertabrate Locomotion (see Mongeau et al., ICB)


Internal State Fig 1

Our internal state fundamentally alters our perception of the environment and our behavior.  Yet, the functions and structures underlying internal states are often amorphous or undefined. As an interdisciplinary group of scholars spanning five career stages and academic institutions, we came together to explore the question: what are internal states and how are they represented?  We propose a framework of internal state that centers on the dynamic and interconnected communication loops between the body and the brain. Specifically, we focus on recent studies that highlight the importance of body-to-brain interactions via signalling between the endocrine and neural systems.  Together, these ideas reflect the perspective of internal state as a distributed body-brain network that dynamically operates over multiple spatial and temporal scales. This integrative framework of internal state blends paradigms used by neurobiologists, ethologists, physiologists, and endocrinologists. 

see Kanwal*, Coddington* et al., ICB for more details

Research Fellowships

HHW logo
Helen Hay Whitney Research Fellowship (2020-2023): 
Evolving a social specialist: neural mechanisms of interspecies social behavior
NIH Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award Grant, NRSA, F31 (2016-2019):
Neural Mechanisms for Olfactory and Gustatory Integration in the Drosophila Larva
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National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Award, NSF GRFP (2013-2016)