Helping humans hear
What do fish, amphibians and birds have in common?
Photo by Jack Mellott.
Victoria Chiou (Human Biology ’06), Mark Ranck (Biology ’03) and Andrew Breithaupt (College ’06) are learning why the inner ear cells of fish, frogs and flycatchers may be better than their own.
As members of the research team in professor Jeff Corwin’s neuroscience lab at U.Va., they’re trying to figure out why mammals aren’t able to repair damaged ear cells — but fish, amphibians and birds can. Hearing loss has long been viewed as an almost inevitable — and irreversible — part of growing older, but Corwin and his cadre of researchers are making gains in learning how doctors might one day treat human hearing and balance problems by stimulating sensory cells to repair themselves.
Chiou, Ranck and Breithaupt have all benefited from summer research fellowships offered by the Lions Club of Virginia to undergraduates interested in auditory regeneration.
“The Lions of Virginia have been wonderfully generous,” said Corwin. “It’s pretty well known how they have helped out with vision programs, but less well known how much they have aided in the research, training and clinical aspects of hearing loss. I know they’ve been active here since before I arrived 15 years ago.”
Chiou, 19, is a Richmond native with a premed curriculum. She worked on Corwin’s team during the summer between her first and second years after hearing about the Lions fellowships through her extracurricular work with the Undergraduate Research Network.
“Research is so different than classroom learning,” said Chiou. “Having the opportunity to observe a real research team as they teach, and doing microsurgery and microscopy — it’s a whole new level of experience. I was treated like a graduate student. Being part of that team and working in that kind of dynamic environment — I’d never experienced anything like that before.”
Ranck graduated in 2003 but deferred his spot in VCU’s med school until this summer to complete a year of full-time research in Corwin’s lab; like Chiou, he began as a Lions fellow. While Ranck hopes to go into clinical practice, being exposed to lab work helped him make that choice. “Working full-time for 10 weeks in the summer instead of just eight or nine hours a week makes for a totally different experience. Being in the lab every day is so much better than part-time. And it prepared me for the kind of side projects that doctors often do, too.” Breithauf, who has been working part-time during the school year, will soon benefit from the same kind of intensive experience as this summer’s recipient of the $4,000 Lions Club stipend.
Corwin typically has a mixture of a half dozen or more undergrad, graduate or post-doc members on his research team at any one time. While undergraduate fellowships are helpful in solidifying students’ career goals, he said, those students also “make important contributions intellectually. They present results at our team meetings and participate in our group analysis, the collective discussions of what we’re finding. Oftentimes they ask some of the best questions.”
Chou asks plenty of her own. “There’s so many ways to tackle the problem —What’s stopping it [sensory cell regeneration]? What’s starting it?” she said. “You have to break the problem into pieces.” Her study of chicken cells involves the tiniest of pieces, including “pieces of tissue smaller than the tip of your pen.” Dissecting them by microscope, she said, is “like cutting specks of dust with diamond scalpels.”
“Undergrads are open, fresh, and ask the sort of questions that someone not fully integrated in the studies can think of,” Corwin said. “Those questions sometimes turn out to be critical.” The clearly visible joy of making scientific discoveries for the first time — as happens with students brand new to lab work — “livens up” the environment, he said, adding, “It makes it fresh again for all of us.”