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Hear Ye, Hear Ye

Symposium recognizes Professor Peter Dallos and his work on the inner workings of the ear

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September 27, 2010 | by Erin White
Professor Peter Dallos has spent nearly five decades studying the inner workings of the ear.
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern Professor Peter Dallos, who has the mind of a scientist and the heart of an artist, didn’t set out to spend nearly five decades studying the inner workings of the ear. But, through a twist of fate he found a niche in the field of hearing science.

Friends, colleagues and the “who’s who” of inner ear and hair cell researchers will celebrate Dallos, the John Evans Professor of Neuroscience, and his nearly 50-year career at Northwestern at a day-long symposium and gala dinner Oct. 8 at the Hilton Orrington Hotel in Evanston. Dallos holds a joint appointment in the School of Communication and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Dallos, whose passion was painting in high school, ended up at Northwestern as a Ph.D. student. He took a position in the audiology department the year after graduation so that he could be with his then wife who was a Northwestern senior completing her studies. At the time, audiology wasn’t a field Dallos was familiar with.

“When I walked in the door, I told Dr. Carhart, who is the father of the field, ‘Look, I know absolutely nothing about the ear or hearing,’” Dallos said. “Dr. Carhart said, ‘That’s okay, go to the library. I don’t want to see you until you come up with something interesting.’”

About that time, it was discovered that the ear’s inner hair cells provided virtually all information to the central nervous system, so Dallos took on the challenge of studying why we have outer hair cells. Ever since he has been making a name for himself by advancing our understanding of outer hair cells and the mammalian hearing organ known as the cochlea.

“Outer hair cells have clearly shown what makes the mammalian ear so wonderful,” Dallos said. “It turns out that they are local mechanical amplifiers. They feed mechanical energy back onto the vibrating substrate upon which they’re located and boost its amplitude so that we hear better and hear more sharply.”

During his long career of scientific research, Dallos never abandoned his love of art. Erin White, broadcast editor at Northwestern, talks with him about his career in hearing science and plans for a second career as a sculptor.

How did you find your way to Northwestern more than 50 years ago?

When I was a teenager I was all set to become a painter. But then I saw the light. Starving artist and all that, so I decided to become an engineer.

I came to Chicago from Hungary in 1956, after the Hungarian revolution. I was at that time a senior in college in Budapest. I finished my engineering undergraduate degree at the Illinois Institute of Technology. I decided then to get an advanced degree. Northwestern gave me a full ride, and I got my master’s degree in a year and my Ph.D. in another three.

You obviously found something interesting to study!

Through my work in the audiology department, I did get into physiology, studying electrical properties of the auditory system and the electrical potentials that are produced by the auditory system. We gradually made some discoveries. Eventually, my research zeroed in on one of the a central problems in hearing, which is related to the roles of two kinds of sensitive receptor cells in the auditory system of the mammal---inner hair cells and outer hair cells.

When it was discovered that inner hair cells were providing virtually all the information to the central nervous system, the questions were: Why do we have outer hair cells? What do they do? How do they influence hearing, if they do, and what is their role? How do they do whatever it is they do? There was absolutely no information.

So, that is when outer hair cells became a focus of your research?

Yes. With a variety of a lot of primitive techniques in the beginning, we were able to kill outer hair cells while maintaining inner hair cells to study animal behavior, physiology and more.

By looking at how animals heard in the absence of outer hair cells, we discovered that outer hair cells were essential for hearing. In their absence, we suffer a very significant hearing loss, and our ability to discriminate between different frequencies disappears.

You and your research team also discovered the gene that makes the motor protein prestin.

Yes, prestin is the electro-motile molecule in outer hair cells. It’s a unique motor protein. Nothing like it exists in all of biology, because it is a direct electrical voltage-to-force converter. And it is incredibly fast. It functions on the microsecond scale. All other biological motors function more on the fractional-second scale. We discovered this molecule and published about it in the year 2000. This discovery produced a whole industry.

What will you do when you eventually retire?

About 10 or so years ago, my wife gave me a present, which I didn’t ask for. She enrolled me in a sculpture class. I had really no great interest in enrolling the class, but I went anyway. I was curious. I have since fallen in love with sculpting. When I retire, I will begin my second career, as a sculptor. You see, I never really abandoned my interest in art, and over the years I’ve collected art quite seriously. I have a reasonably representative collection of Chicago Imagist paintings.

What sort of sculptures do you create?

I’m into sculptural representation, in somewhat of an abstract form, of things that are troubling humanity now. My sculpture represents machines or buildings or things that are clearly man-made, interacting with organic forms that represent the nihilism or anarchy or the response of the abused Earth.

I spend most of my weekends creating sculptures in the machine shop in my lab, which I equipped with appropriate welding equipment. Most of the pieces are made of welded steel. I have between 30 and 40 pieces now and I’m keeping them together for showing.

What can we expect at the symposium on October 8?

The people who will be coming to give the talks are really the top people in the world in this field. I fully expect that they will have a few surprises. They are all excellent speakers and have a lot to say. It should be a really fun event.

Topics: People