Current Institution: University of Washington School of Medicine
Education: Skidmore College, B.A. in Biology and Studio Art Boston University School of Medicine, Ph.D. in Anatomy and Neurobiology
What is your area of focus?
The major goal of our research is to develop a biological therapy for hearing and balance deficits through hair cell regeneration, using two approaches: First, we study chickens, which are able to replace all of the hair cells in the inner ear after damage and regain hearing and balance functions. Then, we study adult mice, which can replace about one in five hair cells in their balance organs. Using these approaches, we are identifying signals that direct the formation of new hair cells in mature birds and rodents. Some signals may ultimately be effective in promoting hair cell regeneration and restoring hearing in humans.
If you had not become a researcher what would you have done?
At one point, I wanted to be a dentist, like my father. I worked with him in high school, and I loved spending time with patients and watching him work. I also love architecture—a great blend of art and science. In some ways what I am doing blends both interests: helping people and learning how the architecture of the human body is regenerated after damage.
Why did you decide to get into scientific research?
In college, I was a studio art major, drawn to the beauty of nature and the human form. Along the way, I was encouraged to explore biology because it is aesthetically appealing and has many secrets to unlock. After college, I spent two years doing neuroscience research at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, and this experience pushed me to become a scientist.
Why hearing research? What is the most exciting part of your research?
A few things drew me to the inner ear. One was the intricacy and beauty of hair cells, the sensory receptor cells used for hearing and balance. Second, I met my graduate studies mentor, Douglas Cotanche, Ph.D., at Boston University School of Medicine. At that time and along with a few other scientists, Doug had recently discovered hair cell regeneration in birds. It wasn’t until I wrote my first application for funding that I began to appreciate how many people are affected by hearing and balance disabilities. A lack of media attention has meant a general unawareness about these disorders. As for the most exciting—it’s hard to choose! It’s thrilling when, after a long period of trying
to solve a technical or conceptual problem, the solution emerges and it is unexpected! I also
love to watch young scientists fall in love with research and begin to form their own ideas
and make discoveries.
What has been a highlight of your career?
I was honored to receive the Burt Evans Young Investigator Award from the National Organization for Hearing Research when I became an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. This award boosted my confidence, and I have since pushed myself even harder to be an effective researcher.
How has the collaborative effort helped your research?
Working with the HRP has “upped my game,” as I have learned so much from my colleagues about applying new techniques to my research, as well as mentoring and presenting work publicly. By collaborating with HRP investigators who have expertise different from mine—such as Neil Segil, Ph.D., and Mike Lovett, Ph.D.—my lab has more effectively utilized genomics to identify and
study signaling pathways that promote hair cell regeneration, allowing us to refine experiments and accelerate our pace toward discoveries.
What do you hope to have happen with the HRP over the next few years?
I am excited to see how the public release of HRP’s Phase I data will spur investigators around the world to take their research on hair cell regeneration in new directions. I anticipate HRP members will identify one or more drugs that can promote hair cell regeneration in mice, an important step toward stimulating regeneration in humans.
What is needed to help make HRP goals happen?
Scientists in the consortium must remain committed to working extremely hard toward figuring out mammalian hair cell regeneration, and they must receive continuous funding for these efforts. Research is not effective when it happens in fits and starts. It is going to take several years of hard work to find a safe and effective way to promote the lasting recovery of hearing in humans. I am so grateful to HHF and its donors for their continued generosity and support of my and the HRP’s research efforts. With additional funding at the same—and hopefully increased—levels, our research efforts can be accelerated significantly and ultimately lead us faster to better treatments for hearing loss and tinnitus.