Skip to main content


Cynthia Chai, PhD

2023 Leon Levy Scholar

Columbia University


Columbia University (Advisor: Dr. Peter Andolfatto)

Sub-disciplinary Category

Systems, Molecular, and Evolutionary Neuroscience

Previous Positions

  • BA, Mount Holyoke College
  • PhD, California Institute of Technology (Advisor: Dr. Paul W. Sternberg)
  • Postdoctoral Scholar Research Associate, California Institute of Technology (Dr. Paul W. Sternberg)


Dr. Cynthia Chai is a postdoctoral fellow in the Andolfatto Lab at Columbia University, where she studies the neurogenetic basis of speciation. Originally from Sarawak, Malaysian-Borneo, she graduated summa cum laude in Neuroscience with a Mathematics minor from Mount Holyoke College. Her undergraduate thesis with Dr. Kenneth Colodner investigated the role of aminergic signaling in modulating tau protein toxicity, and was awarded departmental highest honors. She then earned her PhD in Neurobiology studying the neurogenetic control of animal development and behavior at the California Institute of Technology. During her graduate work, she elucidated how metabotropic signaling shapes an adaptive choice over developmental timescales and led comparative work examining the evolution of neuropeptide signaling pathways controlling behavior. She also discovered and characterized a novel role for the forkhead transcription factor FKH-7/FOXP in regulating stress-induced developmental plasticity. She completed a short postdoctoral training in systems neuroscience at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. Previously, Dr. Chai was supported by funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (DAAD), and the Singapore Ministry of Education.

Research Summary

The neurogenetic mechanisms underlying phenotypic divergence during speciation

Technical Overview

The acquisition of novel traits during species diversification enables organisms to maximize their fitness in new ecological niches. Closely related sibling species offer the opportunity to perform deep comparative genomic analyses to reveal genetic characteristics that have diverged to confer species-specific traits. Subsequent expression analysis of these genetic elements can then lead to the discovery of cellular sites of evolutionary innovation. Dr. Cynthia Chai will apply a genes to neurons to phenotype approach in an evolutionary comparative context using closely related Drosophila species to study how nervous systems are adapted at the molecular and cellular levels giving rise to emergent properties that enable animals to thrive in a dynamic biosphere. Her research program may have significant implications for understanding how adaptive solutions are hardwired into a population over evolutionary timescales as animals navigate new challenges in their natural contexts. As environmental changes driven by anthropogenic climate change are pushing organisms to their behavioral and physiological limits to survive, this research may also enable us to predict and perhaps even engineer organismal resilience to climate change.