A Winding Path to Hearing Loss Research
Like many individuals, I have always been awed by science but ultimately found it too complex to pursue as a career.
As a young person, one of my first encounters with nature was leaning in on a pond filled with tadpoles, as I stood on a rickety wood pedestrian bridge at a vacation resort in the 1980s. I distinctly remember making eye contact with these small aquatic creatures, and then going on my merry way, lured by the sounds of pop music emanating from humanity nearby.
Assistant Professor of Biology Aaron Steiner, however, was one of those kids who would have stayed.
He was always interested in biology and knew that he wanted to work with animals and study their physiology and behavior. “I recall many trips to my local pond and swampy areas as a child, where I would collect all manner of small animals to be brought back to my parents' house,” he says. At 12, he even took part in the compilation of a herpetological atlas, a map that details the ranges of all reptiles and amphibians in a particular region.
Today, Steiner is engaged in research with a unique focus, and one that connects two seemingly unrelated species – fish and humans. As a molecular biologist, this work has been his focus both in post-doctoral studies at Rockefeller University and his research at Pace, where he is supported by a three-year $378,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Steiner researches hair cell regeneration in fish and other non-mammalian vertebrates. His path to this specialization was a winding one, as he hop-skipped between various fields of biology before he landed on molecular biology, and specifically research.
As a Biology undergraduate at Brandeis University, Steiner worked in a biochemistry lab, where he studied the interactions between molecules and how they influence and define biological systems. Later, in graduate school, he was exposed to cancer biology, which focuses on the behavior of cells that over-proliferate and invade regions of the body where they do not belong.
His excitement had not yet been sparked, but everything that came prior was a building block for what would follow.
In graduate school, he discovered a developmental biology lab, where he studied how an organism forms from a single cell, as well as the signals that tell cells where they should live in the body and how they should function.
He was getting closer.
Steiner spent the next six years during the course of his PhD studies exploring early frog development, and in his postdoctoral studies, had an “aha moment.” It occurred to him that the regeneration of cells was most interesting to him.
The cellular and molecular processes that enable cell regeneration in fish and other non-mammalian vertebrates are analogous to stem cell production of new hair cells in the human ear. Steiner researches these processes with the goal of identifying new paths to stop hearing loss in humans.
Understanding hair-cell recovery in the ears of humans is important because the delicate human hair cells of the ear are not naturally regenerated, which often leads to hearing loss. In fact, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, 20 percent of Americans have some form of hearing loss, making it an issue of concern.
He is also developing a new microscope that will allow him to make videos of hair cell regeneration in live zebrafish in real time, which will help identify changes in regeneration that are controlled by specific genes.
This has wide-ranging implications in the world of science.
Steiner says, “These studies will pave the way to a better understanding of how regeneration happens, and how we might control or enhance it. Scientists from other institutions would also be able to use this system to study a wide range of biological processes, such as how the brain gets wired up correctly, or how immune cells find and destroy their targets.”
It’s about the journey
Steiner’s work has also positively influenced Dyson students who have been working with him on hair cell regeneration research.
Mitchel Sybesma ’19, a dual Biology and Chemistry major, relates how his research experience with the “wise” Steiner has benefitted him, saying “Not only am I now comfortable with complex lab techniques, but there are several opportunities throughout the semester for me to present my work to colleagues or faculty.”
Bryan Volpe ’19, Biology, also credits Steiner for giving him the confidence to become competent in laboratory techniques of this nature, and also help him prepare for his future. He says, “My experience in Dr. Steiner’s lab has provided me with a strong foundation in research-oriented laboratory work as well as the research experience that I will need for medical school.”
To his students, Steiner’s advice reflects his journey.
He says, “It takes time and patience to discover what really excites you in a career. In college, I never would have imagined where my research would take me, but after several changes, I am glad that I have found an area that holds my interest and keeps propelling me forward.”
Where the compass points
It is a very good thing that I left the pond, and that professor Steiner stayed, so that I would be able to tell you this story, and we can be one step closer to innovative therapies for hearing loss.