Dr Sumner-Rooney’s research combines a range of techniques to study the function and evolution of sensory and nervous systems in invertebrates. These systems are staggeringly diverse, and they form the interface between organisms and their environment, having profound behavioural, ecological and evolutionary impacts. Her current research focusses on the parallel changes to eyes and brains in animals inhabiting different light environments, from eagle-eyed hunters to blind cave species.
This involves both reconstructing past evolutionary trajectories and predicting future changes, for example under increasing anthropogenic light. Another main interest is how organisms without eyes navigate using light information, particularly in marine molluscs and echinoderms. Using high-resolution microscopy and tomography, comparative morphology, behavioural experiments, transcriptomics and developmental biology, she aims to disentangle how and why complex structures such as eyes and brains evolved, and what they can reveal about the history of animal life.