Professor Barry Dickson elected Fellow of the Royal Society

16 May 2024

The University of Queensland’s Professor Barry Dickson has been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his contribution to science over 30 years.

Professor Dickson, a neurobiologist with the Queensland Brain Institute (UQ), joins the ranks of the world’s most eminent scientists, elected by the UK’s national academy of sciences.

He is particularly known for his studies of fruit fly mating behaviour, which are helping to uncover how the brain processes information and makes decisions.

An enduring feature of our work has been the neurobiology of instinctive behaviours,” Professor Dickson said.

“Male and female fruit flies have essentially the same genome and very similar brains, yet they instinctively perform very different roles in mating. We wanted to find out why.”

His lab was the first to manipulate a gene that can induce profound changes in the sexual behaviour of fruit flies, causing females to behave like males and vice versa. This genetic insight led them on to the specific neurons and circuits in the fly brain that underpin the male and female mating instincts.

Professor Dickson’s current research focuses on the question of how females choose one male over another to mate.

“This is a cognitively challenging problem,” he said.

“The female has to assess how good each male is – which she does by evaluating his courtship song – and then compare the quality of any suitor against others she might reasonably expect in the future.

“Those future expectations are based on her prior experience – encounters with other males she has heard but not mated with.

“It’s just like we often have to choose the best of the options available to us, often foregoing one good choice in anticipation of a better one in the future.

“A neuroscientist today is a little like an engineer who knows how computer chips work and knows a good algorithm for playing chess, but can’t build a chess playing machine.

“We know how neurons work, and we know some of the strategies brains use to solve problems, but we can’t explain how those strategies are actually implemented in neural circuits of the brain.

“In the fly, we know the complete wiring diagram of its brain and we have tools to measure the activities of individual neurons and to turn them on or off at will.

“This is exactly what you need to figure out how this particular computer works – how the fly’s brain solves difficult problems like choosing a mate or navigating its environment. Human brains are vastly more complex but will surely use the same principles.”

QBI Executive Director, Professor Pankaj Sah, congratulated Professor Dickson for his contribution to the field of neuroscience which has pushed the boundaries of human knowledge about the brain.

“Barry is an outstanding researcher and widely respected for his research on understanding how animal instincts are programmed into their brain during development,” Professor Sah said.

“His research opens new avenues for understanding the intricate interplay between genes, environment, and behaviour, with potential implications for broader fields ranging from evolutionary biology to neurobiology.”

Professor Dickson is one of 90 Fellows announced today and joins five UQ academics previously elected to the Royal Society – Emeritus Professor Gerard Milburn, Professor Peter Visscher, Emeritus Professor Ian Frazer, Emeritus Professor Mandyam (Srini) Srinivasan and Professor David Craik.

Media: QBI Communications,, Merrett Pye +61 422 096 049