Current Institution: Imperial College, London
Education: University of Edinburgh, B.Sc.; Imperial College, London, Ph.D.; University of California, San Francisco, Postdoctoral Fellow
What is your area of focus?
My research is focused on deriving a genetic “wiring diagram” of the inner ear; by understanding the interactions between genes and gene networks in the inner ear, we will be able to design therapies for multiple ear disorders. My lab applies cutting-edge genomic technologies to derive and interpret large datasets so we can compare hearing loss in multiple animal models. Essentially, my lab and I are looking for the most important genetic switches with the goal of figuring out how they all fit into a genetic “circuit board” to define a particular cell type. These key switches can then be targeted to implement potential therapies.
Why did you decide to get in to scientific research?
The majority of my family, going back several generations, have been either scientists or engineers. I have always loved taking apart and reconstructing complex machinery, trying to understand how it works. So it was a natural fit for me from the start to be either an engineer or a molecular biologist. I chose the latter.
Why hearing research?
Unlike many of my colleagues, I came to hearing research quite late. The majority of my training and research accomplishments are in the human genome project and human genetics. I gravitated to hearing research because I wanted to apply the power of genomic technologies to an organ system that was clinically important, complex in structure, and challengingly small. I wanted to make a difference in a field that needed these approaches.
Hearing research has not disappointed me in any of those aspects. I initially approached this transition by discussing my ideas with Jeff Corwin, Ph.D. when I moved to Washington University in St. Louis (Wash U.). He very kindly directed me to a former postdoc of his, now a fellow HRP consortium member, Mark Warchol, Ph.D. He had just moved to a faculty position at Wash U., which initiated a highly productive collaboration between Mark’s lab and mine nearly two decades long.
What is the most exciting part of your research?
Deriving brand new data and discussion with my colleagues has been the most exciting and pleasurable part of my work. I love the novel questions new data raise and the insights that scientists from diverse backgrounds can bring to their interpretation. Most of what we are doing has never been pursued before, so there’s rarely a dull moment.
Tell us about something you that enjoy doing when you are not in the lab or
presenting your research.
I have three major passions outside the lab. I love to cook, especially South and East Asian food. This can lead to some competitions at home, since my wife and children are all very accomplished cooks. I am a fairly good fly fisherman, having learned from a young age while growing up in the borders of Scotland. Finally, I love to fly. I have a private pilot’s license and try to make time for some flying. I find piloting very restorative since it requires a focus and attention to detail that really clears one’s thinking.
What has been a highlight/memorable moment of your career?
My major highlights to date have come from my contributions to genomics and human genetics where I developed technologies that helped a large number of people reach their goals. It is hugely rewarding to realize that all of that effort in the lab had a significant impact on many colleagues’ work.
What has been a highlight or something valuable you’ve gotten from the HRP consortium collaboration thus far?
The HRP’s biannual face-to-face meetings are very valuable for thinking strategically and with a broadened vision. They help in prioritizing, in building new collaborations, and in critically evaluating progress. My colleagues in the HRP consortium are among the most insightful in the field and it’s always stimulating to hear their views.
What do you hope for the HRP over the next few years?
I am a big believer in using multiple model organisms to study the genomics and epigenetics of hearing loss. Comparative genomics is a very powerful tool for identifying high-priority candidate genes/small molecules for testing and I hope we shall see a continued focus on this. In the next few years I hope that the HRP will move more fully to high-throughput functional testing and screening for new therapeutic interventions in hearing and balance disorders.
What is needed to help make HRP goals happen?
I am very grateful for the support provided to me and fellow HRP consortium members thus far from HHF and its donors; it has resulted in many notable and important discoveries as well as opportunities to collaborate to push the needle further, faster. So, increased funding is the simple answer—with continued support from HHF and its generous donors, the HRP will be able to explore interesting new targets or strategies with strong potential rewards.