Dr. Sander Liessem (Postdoc)

Locomotion needs to be adjusted to ever-changing environmental and internal demands. For example, animals need to respond to obstacles or conspecifics in their path and integrate a range of sensory information to navigate them, for instance by walking around the obstacle or waiting for the conspecific to pass. To this end, information from diverse and distinct sensory modalities, such as vision or mechanosensation, is integrated by brain circuits, and converges onto a relatively small population of descending neurons. These “output neurons” of the brain communicate with motor centers in the ventral nerve cord, where they control various behaviors, such as curve walking or stopping, an thus adapt motor programs to cope with changes in the environment. To deliver insights into fundamental principles facilitating this sensorimotor flexibility, Sander is combining various techniques such as whole-cell patch clamp recordings, optogenetics, and behavioral analysis.

After finishing his Bachelor’s thesis at the Max Planck Institute for Neurological Research, Sander pursued his postgraduate studies at the University of Cologne where he qualified for the Fast-Track Masters/Doctoral program. He earned his PhD in neurobiology in Ansgar Büschges’ and Reinhard Predel’s Labs. His thesis focused on the identification and role of neuropeptides in insect motor control.

Rituja Bisen (PhD Student)

Rituja has always been intrigued by the complexity of the brain: How does the state of mind affect our behavior? What are the neural mechanisms underlying decision making? What is the role of the environment in shaping our behavior? To answer some of these questions in her PhD project, Rituja is investigating how sensory inputs and internal states are integrated to shape the activity of neuronal networks in the Drosophila brain. Currently, she is spending most of her time befriending fruit flies and convincing them that it makes absolute sense to expose their brains to her, so that she can access their neurons and perform patch-clamp recordings.

Rituja holds a B.Sc in Biochemistry, Genetics and Biotechnology from Bangalore University, India and an MRes in Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine from the University of Manchester, UK. Later, she moved to Germany to pursue her postgraduate studies and obtained a Masters in Molecular and Developmental Stem Cell Biology from Ruhr University Bochum. She carried out her master‘s thesis titled, “Effect of BAP1 mutations on DNA methylation pattern in human iPSCs” in Dr. Steenpaß’s lab at the Institute of Human Genetics, Essen.

Dr. Jan M. Ache (PI)

To ensure survival in an ever-changing, complex world, animal behavior needs to be flexible and adaptive. Nervous systems have evolved to enable behavioral responses to a wide variety of sensory stimuli, but the adequate behavioral response to a given stimulus is highly context-dependent, and behavioral or internal states accordingly affect sensorimotor processing. For example, locomotion modulates responses of visual neurons, and hunger increases food-searching behavior and shifts taste preferences. Despite their ubiquitous importance, the neural mechanisms enabling context-dependent sensorimotor flexibility are not well understood. The Ache Lab for Sensorimotor Flexibility aims to discover fundamental principles of motor control, in particular with regard to sensorimotor flexibility, by leveraging the power of neurogenetics, electron microscopy-based circuit reconstruction, and in-vivo patch-clamp recordings in behaving Drosophila.

Photorealistic painting of Jan by the talented (Mar)Tina Held.

Dr. Martina Held (Postdoc)

To initiate and control adaptive, context-dependent behavior instantaneously the brain needs to process and integrate a barrage of inputs from various sources with extremely high speed and accuracy. These inputs include complex, multimodal sensory cues from the environment, such as the visual scenery, or an odor plume, as well as intrinsic feedback about the animal’s state. Intrinsic feedback is mediated, for example, by ascending neurons which provide information about the state of the locomotor system. In order to generate appropriate behavioral responses to all this information impinging on the brain simultaneously, a relatively small number of descending neurons, which elicit and control locomotion responses, receives input from numerous sensory processing neurons. So far, the neuronal pathways underlying this process and their connectivity patterns remain largely unknown.

Therefore, Martina’s main research interest lies in the neuronal translation of sensory input to behavioral output, in particular in internal feedback loops that enable state-dependent responses of the system. By combining visual stimulation with two-photon calcium imaging in behaving fruit flies and optogenetic manipulation techniques, Martina is investigating the neuronal processes in populations of neurons that are involved in multimodal integration. In addition to imaging populations of neurons, she acquires data on the single cell level via patch clamp recordings. Comparing findings from single cells to population data will help us understand the neuronal processes underlying context-dependent action selection. 

Martina holds a BSc. in Biology and an MSc. in Organismic Biology from the University of Marburg. As a PhD student, she moved to Würzburg with the lab of Keram Pfeiffer, where she worked in the Department for neuroethology. During her PhD, Martina spent 10 months at HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus as a visiting scientist. She earned her PhD in neurobiology from the University of Marburg with her thesis focusing on anatomical and physiological investigations of the sky-compass system in honeybees and desert locusts.

Dr. Alex S. Chockley (Postdoc)


Alex’s main research interests lie in how animals select behaviors and movements from the entire repertoire available to them at any time. The neural pathways for all behaviors that an animal can perform are always present, yet the nervous system successfully and reliably “selects” those that are most appropriate given the context. This involves an intricate interplay between sensory information, originating both externally and internally, and the state of the animal. Alex is curious to find which of these myriad, dynamic sensory and state signals are most relevant for the elicitation of certain behaviors and how these signals influence the underlying neuronal circuitry.

A native of the United States, Alex moved to Germany to pursue his graduate education in Neuroscience after receiving his B.S. in Zoology from Michigan State University.  He earned an M.Sc. in neurosciences from the University of Bonn, after which he moved on to do a Ph.D. at the University of Cologne. His dissertation work in the Büschges Lab focused on sensorimotor integration between leg proprioceptive signals and locomotor networks. 

BSc Students and interns

Hannah Soyka (BSc Student)
Hannah is working closely with Sander on characterizing the integration of sensory stimuli by modulatory neurons using patch-clamp recordings.

Nicole Enslinger (BSc Student)
Nicole is working closely with Tina on characterizing modulatory neurons in the fly brain by combining calcium imaging experiments with optogenetic stimulation.

Federico C. Milani (Intern)
Federico is combining theoretical modeling approaches with patch-clamp recordings and is working on a Hodgkin-Huxley model of modulatory neurons in Drosophila. For our modeling efforts, we are collaboring with Sabine Fischer (CCTB, Würzburg) and Lorenzo Fontolan (HHMI, Janelia Research Campus).