Shannon OlssonNobel Conference 59

Shannon Olsson

Shannon Olsson

Global Director, the echo network; Special Scientific Envoy to India, Danish Academy of Technical Sciences

Fly psychology 101

Flies have wings and at least 200,000 times fewer neurons than humans. Ants have antennae and are about 750 times shorter. Insects have four more legs than we do and two large compound eyes composed of many tiny eyes. How can we humans possibly understand beings so different from us? Many scientists study insects to learn about their bodies, behaviors, and environments. In their desire to produce objective and aperspectival findings, however, the knowledge they develop is often rooted in humans’ experience and understanding of the world. 

How else could we possibly learn about these tiny creatures that not only differ from humans so dramatically in physiology, but also outnumber us by the millions, if not billions? One way: through the methods employed by chemical ecologist and sustainability researcher Shannon Olsson.

Olsson uses an interdisciplinary, empathetic approach to understand insects’ perspective and what drives their behavior. Whether in the laboratory or out in the environments in which insects actually live, Olsson is mindful that insects might not utilize and value sensory information in the same ways humans do. She uses this awareness to generate questions and to develop methods of study that are sensitive to those differences. In one representative study, Olsson recorded fly movements as they navigated through a virtual reality environment in order to learn more about how flies navigate and make decisions in response to what they see, smell, and feel. For another study, she planted carefully designed artificial flowers to better understand pollinators’ behavior in their own environment, especially as it changes in response to pollution, climate change, and other environmental impacts. 

As Olsson explores the intersection of insect and human ecosystems, she also advocates for their preservation and sustainability in a changing world. To that end, she founded the echo network, an international group of public and private organizations that use social innovation to share knowledge, generate ideas, and employ strategies to realize sustainability goals.She currently serves as the organization’s global director. 

Shannon Olsson is Global Director, the echo network and Special Scientific Envoy to India, Danish Academy of Technical Sciences. She received her PhD in neurobiology and behavior from Cornell University.

Her talk: Insects exist in nearly every known ecosystem, and we couldn’t exist without them. For over two decades, I have walked in the footsteps of these tiny, six-legged “animal people” across three continents. I am fascinated by how their tiny brains perceive their world. My group has taken field trips, recorded neurons, generated models, and even built virtual worlds to understand how insects have evolved to detect their environment and make decisions. Our work has traversed Himalayan meadows, ecologically sustainable agriculture in the Western Ghats, and pollution in Bangalore. Conducting these experiments in our world’s most populous country has also revealed the profound impact humans and insects have on each other. In my pursuit to see the world through their many eyes, I've found myself gaining deeper insights into my own role in this shared existence, and how intertwined our future is to theirs. This is a story of my personal journey, as my mentor once advised, to “think like a fly”.