Current Institution: Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU)
Education: Reed College, B.A.; University of Washington, Ph.D.; University of California, San Francisco, and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Postdoctoral Fellowships
What is your area of focus?
My lab focuses on understanding the molecular basis of hair cell mechanotransduction and hair bundle assembly. Hair cells use their cluster of stereocilia—the hair bundle—to detect sound; the conversion of sound into electrical signals in the cell is called
Mechanotransduction distinguishes these cells from all others, and without it there is no hearing. We want to understand how this process works at a molecular level—which proteins come together in the cell to make the machine that allows the mechanical-to-electrical conversion. We’re interested in these molecules as many of them are encoded by essential deafness genes, but also because the mechanotransduction process is intrinsically interesting.
Why hearing research?
As an undergraduate I became interested in sensory transduction, the conversion of a sensory stimulus that is external to the body to a signal that is internal, and worked on visual transduction as a graduate student. For my postdoctoral degree, I wanted to work on a problem that was wide open, and the molecular characterization of hair cell transduction certainly fit the bill. Understanding how hair cells work at a molecular level is immensely challenging yet exceptionally interesting—something worthy of spending a career investigating, as I’ve done.
What is the most exciting part of your research?
Our knowledge of how things work develops slowly through the hit-or-miss nature of everyday experiments. Sometimes there are amazing results that push us forward quickly, but more often it’s the grind of experiments—some that work, most that don’t—that slowly allows a picture of the biological process in question to be revealed. I enjoy the gradual reveal as much as the “aha!” moments.
Describe a typical day.
As a part-time administrator at OHSU, I spend a substantial fraction of my day in front of the computer or in meetings. For my research program, I am often analyzing data, while also preparing figures and writing text for papers and grants, tasks I find enjoyable. It’s not enough to just do the science—it needs to be communicated well to have an impact.
If you had not become a researcher what would you have done?
Believe it or not, a mountain climbing guide! I worked as a guide for three summers in the 1970s, and in 1980 faced a career-defining decision—take a summer fellowship from the American Heart Association to work in a lab at OHSU, or take a climbing guide job in Washington’s North Cascades. I decided to work at OHSU and that project led to my senior thesis. I got hooked on science.
What has been a highlight/memorable moment of your career?
In 1994, I was awarded a Pew Scholar fellowship as a young assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University. Not only did this award provide my lab with much-needed unrestricted funds just as we were getting started, it also supported travel to a yearly meeting that exposed me to outstanding science with some of the brightest young researchers in the country.
What has been a highlight or something valuable you’ve gotten from the HRP consortium collaboration thus far?
As the scientific director, I have a different relationship with the consortium than the other members have with one another. I am responsible for ensuing progress is being made and advising the HRP scientists on their experiments and their research direction. It is gratifying to witness the collaborative spirit of the HRP, which inspires me to be similarly collaborative in my own lab.
What do you hope for HRP over the next few years?
While basic knowledge of how hair cells and supporting cells develop and regenerate has expanded, in order to achieve our goal of a finding a therapy for hearing restoration, there is far more that we need to learn. The consortium’s focus on a smaller number of more central projects is a good step in the right direction, but we need much more basic research in our area if we are going to have a real impact. I’m not referring just to the HRP, but to the whole hearing restoration field as a whole—we are woefully underfunded. With increased basic science research I am hopeful that the consortium will be able to connect the dots and understand how to restore hearing through hair cell regeneration.
What is needed to help make HRP goals happen?
More dollars for research, to better support the labs and research efforts of the HRP consortium scientists. The HRP consortium of 13 talented researchers finds their time fragmented as they have multiple funders they are accountable to. Should HHF become each of these scientists’ largest funder, which is currently not the case, the consortium would be able to devote a greater amount of their time, energy, and expertise toward developing a biological therapy to restore human hearing through hair cell regeneration. Recent pressures on the National Institutes of Health budget has impacted the HRP’s research advancements; the NIH funds a large portion of each consortium member’s lab, and the increased difficulty in obtaining NIH grants has slowed down progress toward hair cell regeneration as well. Your support can help us acheive our shared goal, faster.