Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas
Undergraduate from the University of Cambridge
Ph.D. from the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, London
Postdoc at the California Institute of Technology
This new feature aims to connect Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) supporters and constituents to its Hearing Restoration Project (HRP) consortium researchers. Spotlight On provides an opportunity to get to know the life and work of the leading researchers working collaboratively in pursuit of a cure for hearing loss and tinnitus.
What is your area of focus?
I am a developmental biologist who uses the ear as a model system to understand the general problem of embryonic development—how do you form something very complicated from very simple beginnings. The inner ear is a tissue that receives extremely precise instructions to form just the right number of cells in the right place at the right time. My lab studies where the ear comes from embryonically, how the cochlea acquires its exquisite pattern, and why sensory hair cells are not replaced in mammals after damage.
Why did you decide to get in to scientific research?
I always enjoyed biology and chemistry as a kid and thought it would be more fun than studying medicine. I had a very enthusiastic high school biology teacher who loaned me books on biology and evolution, which made an enormous impression. When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, I was lucky to have two professors who both won Nobel Prizes, and during my senior year I had the opportunity to do research with one of them. After that, scientific research seemed like the only game in town….
Why hearing research?
I started to study ear development as a postdoctoral fellow in the 1990s because it had received very little attention for decades. The ear appeals to my love of extremes in biology: It has one of the most elaborate three-dimensional structures of any organ; it possesses cells of astonishing mechanical sensitivity; and it can detect sounds over a trillion-fold power range. It is also remarkable to think that our entire auditory experience—conversation, music, the natural world—is captured by just a few thousand sensory cells in each ear!
What is the most exciting part of your research?
Experiments can take months or years to carry out. But every now and then you find something new, and the thrill of realizing that you have found out something that no one else in the world knows about is quite addictive.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not in the lab?
I am a huge music fan and have a large CD collection. Right now my playlist includes Beethoven sonatas played on a fortepiano, some rare Miles Davis live concerts from 1965, and Howlin’ Wolf albums. As a grad student, I sang at Cambridge and with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I also love reading. Despite living in the U.S. for over two decades, I know very little about its history, so I have been trying to educate myself about the Civil War Era. I just finished reading “The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward Baptist.
What is a memorable moment from your career?
For me, it is the “firsts”—seeing students or postdocs publish their first paper or when someone in my lab gets their first academic position. The nature of science means that most of what is discovered will become obsolete or surpassed, but the achievements and careers of the people who have come through the lab will hopefully last for much longer.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you have done?
To be honest, I never had a “plan B.” I love teaching, and so if I had to give up research, it might be nice to teach biology to undergraduates.
Hearing Restoration Project
What has been a highlight from the HRP consortium collaboration?
The biggest help has been having collaborators on hand to do experiments that are outside the scope of my own lab. We recently published a paper with another HRP researcher, Stefan Heller, Ph.D., at Stanford, where he helped us analyze gene expression of single cells in the cochlea. We showed that blocking the Notch pathway could cause new hair cells to form in very young animals, but that this approach stops working as animals get older. The explosion of new technology and techniques means it is harder to do all the experiments you want in your own lab—so collaboration is key.
What do you hope to have happen with the HRP over the next year, two years, five years?
I hope we can begin a large-scale testing of candidate drugs or gene manipulations in the next two years. This initial screening will likely be in cell culture systems or in the zebrafish system that some members of the HRP helped to pioneer. In five years, I hope we have lead compounds that have been validated independently in several HRP labs.
What is needed to help make HRP goals happen?
Frankly, funding to keep our research moving forward. A postdoctoral fellow with five to six years of training starts out on a modest salary of about $45,000, plus $12,000 in benefits. So that’s $57,000 before they even pick up a test tube in the lab. Each person will typically use between $15,000-$20,000 a year in supplies and chemicals. Simply maintaining a single cage of mice for one year costs $210, and my lab can use between 300-500 cages of mice for our experiments! HHF and its donors have been extremely generous in their support, however with additional funding the output from the consortium could be significantly greater and accelerate the pace to a cure.
Which scientist or mentor was the most inspirational?
My two postdoctoral mentors at Caltech, David Anderson and Marianne Bronner, were both instrumental in making me the scientist I am today. As I was moving into the ear field, I was also lucky to meet Ed Rubel while he was on a sabbatical at Caltech and now as a fellow member of the HRP. More broadly, my two scientific heroes are Seymour Benzer and Francis Crick. Both were gifted scientists who laid the foundations of modern biology and were able to make seminal contributions to every field they worked in, from developmental and molecular biology to the study of aging, behavior, and consciousness.