Vanessa Ruta, a 2019 MacArthur Fellow, is a pioneering neuroscientist whose work is helping to explain how behavior is shaped by the interplay of instinct, experience, and memory. As a gateway to understanding the complexities of the brain, the Ruta laboratory studies behaviors such as courtship and mate selection in the fly Drosophila, which represent some of the most sophisticated and robust behaviors these animals perform. Dr. Ruta’s experiments have produced many groundbreaking discoveries. She and her colleagues have uncovered neural circuits that process sensory information deep in the brain that are shaped by evolution in different species of flies. Her lab has also shown that the brain can alter its anticipatory predictions of events based on the timing of sensory cues. Dr. Ruta is one of the few neuroscientists to take her research from the level of neural circuitry to molecular analysis of neurosensory systems. In 2018, her group used cryo-electron microscopy to solve the atomic structure of an insect odorant receptor—a scientific first. Dr. Ruta’s contributions are leading to new strategies to prevent transmission of infectious diseases by controlling the behavior of mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus, the malaria parasite, and other pathogens.
Raised in New York City and Santa Fe, Vanessa Ruta studied classical ballet for several years before choosing a career in science. A Rockefeller graduate, she returned to the University as a head of lab in 2011 and was promoted to associate professor in 2017. In addition to the MacArthur Fellowship (colloquially known as the “genius” award), she has also been a New York Stem Cell Foundation-Robertson Neuroscience Investigator and a recipient of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award.