Joshua Russell | Humidity Sensation


Explaining my Research

All forms of life on Earth need water. Because life arose in water many life processes are customized to work only in water. Later, when plants and animals began to live on dry land they had to carry this needed water with them as body fluid. For instance, humans lungs are made up of 90% water and our brains are 95% water! It is important for us to keep the right amount of water. If we lose as little as 1/50th of our water we start to become dizzy and have trouble thinking. When you feel thirsty that is your body telling you to find water because it has noticed a very small change in your water level. Because the precise level of water is so important for survival it is not surprising that many animals have evolved ways to find it. For instance, some insects locate water by sensing how much water is in the air ("humidity"). This behavior is called "hygrotaxis." "Hygro-" means moisture and "-taxis" means directed movement. Even though scientists know many animals have this ability to sense moisture they don't have any idea how. Is there a special molecule that detects moisture? How could it work? Does it work similar to our other senses such as vision, taste and smell?

Russell with fellow graduate students
Josh Russell with fellow graduate students that participate in the project.
Photo by Marsha Miller.

I have discovered that C. elegans worms sense humidity with specialized nerve cells which look very much like the nerves humans have just beneath their skin. The sensor molecules the worms needs to feel humidity are also in these human nerves! My thesis provides the first insights into this previously uncharacterized sense.

How did you become involved with “Present your PhD Thesis to a 12 year-old” project?

I became interested in developing this project after presenting my PhD thesis to middle school students at the Texas School for the Deaf. Their ability to understand the basic principles of my thesis as conveyed through sign-language inspired me to present at other middle schools.

What is your goal introducing such a project/topic to young students?

The goal is to show the middle school students that they are capable of understanding the ideas behind any PhD thesis.

Josh Russell

About the Ph.D. Thesis

FORMAL NAME Uncovering the molecular and cellular basis for hygrosensation with C. elegans.

How do we sense humidity?

overview of the Present your PhD thesis to a 12-year-old Science outreach project

Josh Russell presents his PhD thesis on humidity sensation to middle school students

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