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How a studio art major turned neuroscientist is trying to cure hearing loss

Where Science and Art Meet

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Editor’s note: Steminism is a biweekly feature column where Ash Shah highlights work and research being done by womxn in STEM at the UW. 

The path from student to researcher is not set in stone; most take the more traditional route where they choose a field during their undergraduate years and keep with it through master’s and Ph.D. degrees. Then, there are others who happen upon the field and, unsuspectingly, fall in love with it. 

Jennifer Stone, a research professor at the UW, falls into the latter category.

A self-described “prolific drawer,” Stone started her college career as a studio art major at Skidmore College, though switched to biology after she took an introductory course she was dreading, after bad experiences in high school. 

However, she found herself connecting with the professors in the department and realized biology’s potential as an outlet to continue to express her artistic side. 

“One of the earliest projects I was involved in was doing scientific illustration with insects,” Stone said. 

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She would go out in the winter and collect nymphs which she would then sketch throughout the season through late January.

She felt a connection with the faculty and biologists that she had interacted with and felt a sense of support that she hadn’t been getting from the studio art program.

“It was a nice intersection between arts and science, and I think that really helped cement my interest in biology,” Stone said. “I had a couple of really strong interactions with women biologists there.” 

As a postbac, she took two years to focus on research in Boston while deciding between dental and medical schools, during which time she worked in a lab that was studying cerebral cortical development, and her life took another turn to neuroscience. 

Later, she settled at the UW where she could research and fulfill her calling to be an artist, incorporating illustrations into her teaching and focus on her research, studying hair cells, which she refers to as the most beautiful cells in the body.

Stone’s research today is focused around the regeneration of hair cells in mammals during adulthood. Her team studies the natural capacity that mammals have to regenerate their hair cells. Hair cells exist in our ears converting sound waves into electrical signals.

Hearing loss is an extremely widespread phenomenon, affecting many adults over the age of 65. This makes it particularly difficult to hear in noisy environments, resulting in feelings of isolation. This often also affects balance and other forms of spatial awareness.

Most of these disorders can be traced back to changes in the ear, but no one really knows what causes this hearing loss, and there isn’t a cure.

The team is looking at problems with the vestibular system, a part of the inner ear which involves balance, causing hearing and balance disorders and includes conditions such as dizziness and vertigo.

While there is no natural regeneration in the auditory sensory organ, the cochlea, the vestibular organs have a natural capacity to regenerate some of their hair cells.

Hearing aids amplify sounds for the cochlea, but if the cochlea is already degenerated, they don’t help. Cochlear implants bypass the injured cochlea altogether and directly stimulate the nerve.

“But, neither of them is curing the problem,” Stone said. “So we’d like to find a way to.”

Though her path diverged from the typical model, Stone found ways to blend both of her interests, finding a place for biology and art in her career. 

Reach Assistant Science Editor Ash Shah at Twitter: @itsashshah

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