EEB's Ina Anreiter wins prestigious Schmidt Science Fellowship for probing nature vs. nurture


Ina Anreiter Schmidt Science fellow
EEB's Ina Anreiter, Eric and Wendy Schmidt at the ceremony announcing the Schmidt Science Fellows.
(
Photo: Schmidt Science Fellowship; Schmidt Futures).

As Ina Anreiter and her colleagues observed their test subjects, they witnessed a distinct contrast in the creatures’ foraging behaviour. Members of one group kept to the relative safety of the water’s edge despite the absence of food there. But members of another group ventured from the water into open territory where their risky, roaming behaviour was rewarded with the discovery of food.

That the animals hunting for food were fruit flies didn’t make the scenario any less fascinating to Anreiter. Nor that the experiment was being conducted in an 18-centimetre Plexiglas dish, the “prey” were tiny drops of sugar-solution near the centre of the dish, and the water was a ring around the outer edge to keep the flies from crawling out.

Anreiter is a behavioural geneticist and postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB) in U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science. “In my research,” she says, “I’m trying to understand where, at a molecular and genetic level, individual differences in behaviour like foraging for food come from.

fruit fly landing on a yellow substance
A member of the Drosophila melanogaster species commonly known as a fruit fly or vinegar fly.
Photo: Amy Wong

“It’s more than nature versus nurture. The behaviour of individuals is part genetic and part environment — but it’s also how those two factors interact.”

For this work, Anreiter has won a prestigious Schmidt Fellowship, a program of Schmidt Futures in partnership with the Rhodes Trust. The fellowship comes with a stipend of $100,000 and is designed to support exceptional, early-career researchers taking their work in a new direction.

Anreiter is one of 20 recipients who were honoured at an event in New York City earlier this year. “Our mission at Schmidt Futures is to bet early on talented people who hold the promise of making the world a better place,” said Eric Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Futures.

Wendy Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Futures and the Schmidt Ocean Institute and president of the Schmidt Family Foundation, said, “They are truly exceptional in their insight, intellect and eagerness to work across scientific disciplines and pursue discovery in unprecedented ways. We cannot wait to see what they will accomplish in the years to come.”

“I am so excited to be a Schmidt Fellow,” says Anreiter. “It’s an opportunity to continue my work, but it also provides me with support as I learn different things and different skills. It’s an opportunity to work in a way that’s different from a regular postdoc position — where you tend to do what you know.”

Anreiter’s supervisor is Marla Sokolowski, a University Professor in EEB who is also co-director of the Child & Brain Development program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and a CIFAR Weston Fellow.

“Ina is a phenomenal young scientist,” says Sokolowski. “The depth and clarity of thought that she brings to her work is unsurpassed. Her PhD in behavioural genetics used a highly interdisciplinary perspective to investigate how genes and environmental factors combine to regulate the expression of genes that guide how individuals behave.”

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