MEET THE RESEARCHER

WINTER 2015 HEARING HEALTH MAGAZINE: WEB EXTRA: FULL INTERVIEW

Cynthia Grimsley-Myers, Ph.D. Emory University

NAME: Cynthia Grimsley-Myers, Ph.D., Emory University

BIO:

Grimsley-Myers received her Ph.D. in pharmacology at the University of Virginia, where she then conducted postdoctoral research in the signaling mechanisms underlying inner ear development and hair cell polarization. She is currently a research instructor at Emory University in Atlanta, investigating cochlear development. Grimsley-Myers is funded by Hearing Health Foundation’s National Junior Board.

 

IN HER OWN WORDS:

I study how specialized cells in the inner ear, termed hair cells, form during development. Hair cells are located within the cochlea and are responsible for our ability to hear. These cells have a unique apparatus on their surface, called a hair bundle, which is composed of tiny fingerlike protrusions resembling hairs. These hairs are highly organized into a specific structure and decrease in length across the hair cell surface. The hair bundle is deflected in a directional fashion toward the longer hairs by sound waves within the ear, leading the hair cell to send a signal to the brain.

The proper formation and maintenance of this hair bundle is critical for proper sound detection. Abnormalities in this hair bundle structure or its orientation often results in hearing loss, for example in the hereditary disorder Usher syndrome. Although advances have been made recently in understanding how the auditory hair bundle is formed during development, the molecules and mechanisms within hair cells that build the polarized structure of individual hair bundles remain poorly understood.

My research focuses on the role of a previously uncharacterized protein, URB, in formation of the auditory hair bundle and cochlea duct. Our preliminary data using mouse models indicates that URB is required for early hair bundle formation and cellular patterning during cochlear formation. We predict that these observed defects lead to significant hearing loss. We are currently testing this hypothesis. We are also investigating the network of proteins that URB interacts with to mediate hair bundle formation, including possible links between URB and the Usher syndrome network of proteins.

Our work aims to identify and characterize the roles of specific genes and signaling pathways in hair cell development. The long-term goal of my research is to understand the specific cellular and molecular functions of URB in hair bundle formation and protein signaling and how mutations in URB/PCP signaling contribute to hearing loss. We hope that defining these roles for URB in bundle morphogenesis will help in the design of rational therapies for the treatment of Usher syndrome and other forms of hereditary hearing loss in the future.

I was always attracted to science as a child. I liked learning how things work. My dad is a psychology professor who teaches neuroanatomy and he definitely had an influence on my early love of biology. I also worked at a nursing home for a while in college. Seeing many of the patients struggle with various medical conditions motivated me to go into biomedical research. I wanted to find a way to help others.

In school, I always enjoyed my biology classes. I especially enjoyed my anatomy and zoology classes. My zoology professor in college was particularly inspiring. Every class he led us to really look at an animal and think about why it possessed certain features.

It always amazed me to learn how living things have adapted to survive in their environments. When I was a child, I was curious about how various factors affected plant growth. I decided to test how centrifugal force affect the rate and angle of growth by putting bean plants on a record player and spinning them around for weeks while they grew. I spun them until the motor burned out!

I chose to study the inner ear because I was fascinated with the intricate design of the organ of Corti. The first images I saw of the hair bundles were beautiful, with their precisely coordinated shape, polarity, and length. I was fascinated to learn how these hair bundles functioned to transmit a sound signal to the brain, and how important their precise design is to our ability to hear. Even slight deviations in the structure of the hair bundle can lead to hearing impairment. The organ of Corti is a complex organ and we still have much to learn about it.

I have had a few acquaintances and friends with partial hearing loss. While I could see how challenging it was for them, I also thought it was remarkable how well they adapted and overcame these challenges. Watching them deal with these challenges did ultimately help steer me into inner ear research.   

I was born and educated in Charlotte, North Carolina. I try to return several times a year to visit family. My family is what I miss most. I am thankful that I have family that is not too far away from Atlanta. It is particularly important for my children to know their grandparents, who still live there. I have a newborn daughter and a 2-year-old daughter. The grandparents are doing their best to try to spoil them!

I don’t do too much relaxing these days, with two young children to take care of after work. I spend virtually all of my free time with them. Before I got pregnant, I studied martial arts and enjoyed hiking and other types of exercise. Both my husband and I are in the biomedical research field—he studies neuronal development—so now we stay pretty busy with work, however. We are usually either working or taking care of our children. They are a joy to be around.

 

—Tine Aakerlund Pollard