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2009 ARRA Funds Support Summer Research Internships for Students, Teachers, College Faculty

In the summer of 2009, funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) enabled NIDCD-funded researchers to support research experiences for high school and college students, science teachers, and faculty from non-research-intensive institutions. Read on to learn how the interns and their mentors benefited from the experience.

(l-r): Sudanagunta, Engineer, Kilgard, and Vrana
(l-r): Sudanagunta, Engineer, Kilgard,
and Vrana

Mentors: Navzer Engineer, M.D., Ph.D. and Michael Kilgard, Ph.D.
Microtransponder, Inc. and University of Texas at Dallas
Summer Interns: Sindhu Sudanagunta and Will Vrana
Project Title: Targeted Neural Plasticity for the Treatment of Tinnitus

Engineer and Kilgard: Both Sindhu and Will were part of the lab team that is working on the tinnitus project. (Tinnitus is a ringing, roaring, clicking, or hissing sound in your ears. Read more here.) The project involves pairing electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve in the neck (called vagus nerve stimulation, or VNS) with a simultaneous delivery of tones to induce plasticity in the auditory cortex, the hearing center of the brain, to eliminate the tinnitus sensation. Sindhu helped perform all the implant surgeries in rats. She was also involved with the daily procedure during which VNS was paired with tones. Will built 280 implants for use in the project and assisted with experiments during which neural responses were recorded from auditory cortex. We were extremely pleased with the thoroughness and quality of their work.

Vrana: Participating in the summer internship gave me the opportunity to work alongside experienced scientists on clinically applicable research.  Working in the lab on a daily basis allowed me insight into neuroscience research as a career; it not only confirmed my desire to attend graduate school, but gave me confidence to know that I can contribute to the field in the future.

Sudanagunta: Due to the opportunity provided by the summer research experience, I was able to live on campus during the summer and take part in research every weekday. Having been a part of the laboratory the semester prior to summer, I had some exposure to the activities of the lab and the kind of research being done. My summer experience, however, was much different from the spring semester because I was able to dedicate more time to the projects taking place and also get more interaction time with the researchers. This helped build a trust in my proficiency in research and allowed me to advance in responsibilities I was handed.

Ryugo Chang
(l-r): Chang and Ryugo

Mentor: David Ryugo, Ph.D.
Location: Johns Hopkins University
Summer Intern: Luke Chang
Project Title: Studies of the Cochlear Nucleus Granule Cell Domain

Ryugo: Luke was involved in several projects this summer, but his main contribution was computer analyses of synapses (connections between nerve cells) where he reconstructed and measured them from electron micrographs using 3-D software.  The data from this work contributed to a manuscript that was submitted and accepted by the Journal of Comparative Neurology, and for which he earned co-authorship.

Chang: My experience in the Ryugo lab pushed me to mature not only as a researcher but also as a working professional.  Through my involvement in developing experimental and analytical procedures for several projects, I gained insight into the importance of experimental design.  Furthermore, working in a lab with seasoned researchers, I realized the indispensible demand for professionalism in both communication and teamwork.  I am certain that these lessons will become crucial stepping stones for my future endeavors in any field of research.

Jeff Wenstrup, Ph.D.
Courtney Sobieski

Mentor: Jeff Wenstrup, Ph.D.
Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine
Summer Intern: Courtney Sobieski
Project Title: Auditory Information Processing in the Midbrain: Modulation by the Amygdala

Wenstrup: Ms. Sobieski helped the laboratory to analyze features of social vocalizations. Her analysis, using big brown bats as a model for social auditory communication, helped to show that the vocalizations change as social interactions become more aggressive. We will use this information to test how neurons in emotional centers of the brain respond to social vocalizations with different emotional meaning.

Sobieski: This summer was beneficial because it showed me an aspect of neuroscience that I wasn't as familiar with. I was also able to use this lab experience as a guide for what I want to do in my future scientific career.Working with Dr. Wenstrup's laboratory over the summer was a very informative job and I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of it.

Nadine Connor, Ph.D.
Jaime Shier

Mentor: Nadine Connor, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Summer Intern: Jaime Shier
Project Title: Aging, Exercise and Mechanisms of Altered Tongue Function

Connor: Our lab benefited from this experience by allowing a talented student researcher to work with us full time this past summer. Having this focused time allowed Jaime to pioneer some new methods for our lab that we now plan on using in our other research applied to the aging cranial sensorimotor system. Her efforts during the summer really allowed us to break new ground in how we are approaching the problem of age-related decline in voice and swallowing.

Shier: This experience was very beneficial as it allowed me to devote a large amount of time conducting research, and I believe that because of this, I was able to exceed my expectations.With Dr. Connor as my mentor, I essentially became a personal investigator with my own study and experimental protocols. It was amazing to be able to practice all aspects of research first hand, and all that I learned will undoubtedly be useful in the future.

Robin Davis, Ph.D.
Edmund Lee

Mentor: Robin Davis, Ph.D. 
Rutgers University

Summer Intern: Edmund Lee
Project Title: Ion Channel Diversity in Primary Auditory Neurons


Davis: Edmund Lee joined my laboratory to study the electrophysiological properties of spiral ganglion neurons, nerve cells that transfer electrical signals from the inner ear to the brain. Using sophisticated single-channel and whole-cell patch clamping techniques, Ed teamed up with senior graduate student Qing Liu to determine how neuronal excitability is regulated in the peripheral auditory system (inner ear).

Lee: This past summer gave me the opportunity to extend my learning and intellectual development beyond the classroom. I was able to see real-life applications to concepts and experiments that I read about in textbooks. I discovered that being on the forefront of modern-day research is as exhilarating and exciting as it is educational.

Kathryn Hamilton, Ph.D.   with Salil Joshi
Joshi (front) and Hamilton (center)
confer with a colleague in
Dr. Hamilton's lab.
Photo Credit: Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Web page:

Mentor: Kathryn Hamilton, Ph.D.
Louisiana State University
Summer Intern: Salil Joshi
Project Title: Contribution of EPL Interneurons to Olfactory Processing


Hamilton: Salil was a wonderful addition to the lab. He enthusiastically undertook serial sectioning of mouse olfactory bulb tissue -- the first part of the brain that deciphers smells -- for immunocytochemical studies of interneurons in a key layer of the olfactory bulb called the external plexiform layer. He then tested a variety of new antisera that we intend to use in future studies. I look forward to having Salil in my lab again this coming summer to continue these studies.

Joshi: While in Dr. Hamilton’s lab, I learned many techniques such as immunohistostaining, sectioning, cover slipping, and how to make various solutions. The knowledge gained while working here will definitely help me in my classes at school and can easily be applied when I come back to work for Dr. Hamilton again. Working for Dr. Hamilton has padlocked my desire to go to medical school, and the experience gained through this opportunity cannot be emulated anywhere else besides in a laboratory.

Suzanne Mansour, Ph.D.  with Sara Rees
(l-r) Rees and Mansour
Photo Credit: Lisa Urness, University of Utah Department of Human Genetics

Mentor: Suzanne Mansour, Ph.D.
University of Utah
Summer Intern: Sara Rees
Project Title: Genes Involved in Ear Development


Mansour: My lab studies the role of fibroblast growth factor (FGF) signaling in determining cell types in the auditory sensory epithelium, the part of the inner ear where sounds are converted into nerve impulses. Our studies of a mouse model of Muenke syndrome, in which FGF signaling is inappropriately high and hearing is impaired, showed that the balance of supporting cell types in the organ of Corti is altered. Sara assisted in conducting breeding and auditory studies of Muenke model mice in which the FGF signals were reduced in an effort to prevent hearing loss. One such genetic combination was identified, and we are currently pursuing cellular and molecular studies to learn the reason for this outcome.

Rees: This experience allowed me to apply my coursework to actual experiments, and gave me the opportunity to learn laboratory techniques in a hands-on, respectful working environment. This allowed me to learn about and perform research in a way that most undergraduate students don't have an opportunity to do. By learning in this way, I have a much better understanding of research in general, as well as developmental biology and research techniques than I would if I only had classroom experience.

Timothy McClintock, Ph.D.  with Andrian Fischl
(l-r) McClintock and Fischl

Mentor: Timothy McClintock, Ph.D.
University of Kentucky
Summer Intern: Adrian Fischl
Project Title: Genomic of Olfactory Regeneration


McClintock: Survival of the olfactory sensory nerve cells that detect odors (located in the back of the nasal cavity) is known to be activity-dependent. Adrian identified activity-dependent genes in olfactory sensory nerve cells using methods that screened all known genes. Using a mouse in which one of these activity-dependent genes has been deleted, Adrian is testing whether that particular gene is necessary for survival of these sensory nerve cells. Because the deleted gene was replaced by a reporter gene encoding a fluorescent protein, he is also using this mouse as a tool to identify those nerve cells that were recently stimulated by odors.

Fischl: Being involved in this program stimulated my creativity and excitement for science. By learning through a “hands-on” approach, science became something full of adventure and discovery—a feeling which is hardly instilled by textbooks alone. Not to mention, I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that comes with contributing to a major research project. Moreover, I had the opportunity to develop my communication and presentation skills during lab meetings and department seminars. Interacting with researchers on a day-to-day basis was successful in sharpening how I conceptualize and solve problems. Most importantly, the practices learned in the lab positively affected how I performed in my classes, and helped prepare me for a research career in the future.

Michael Pichichero, Ph.D.
Robert Osgood, Ph.D.

Mentor: Michael Pichichero, Ph.D.
Rochester General Hospital
Summer Intern: Robert Osgood, Ph.D.
Project Title: NTHi Immunity in Young Children


Pichichero: Dr. Osgood brought his enthusiasm and energy for scientific inquiry to the question of the possible role of biofilm formation in the nasopharynx and middle ear during episodes of acute otitis media in children. He formed a bridge to new collaborations between our lab and scientists and students from his parent institution, Rochester Institute of Technology. In so doing, we established an ongoing collaboration of four new scientists and two students focusing on issues relevant to deafness and communication disorders in children.

Osgood: I benefited from the internship immensely. Personally, I met, worked with, and learned alongside individuals that are now colleagues and friends. Professionally, the experience opened new research and funding opportunities that may not have been available without this summer experience. All summer long, I was pleased to contribute to the success of the lab. I am now poised to pursue new research endeavors that are more specifically aligned with the funding agenda of the NIH.

Hinrich Staecker, M.D., Ph.D. with Justin Wei
(l-r) Staecker and Wei

Mentor: Hinrich Staecker, M.D., Ph.D.
University of Kansas Medical Center
Summer Intern: Justin Wei
Project Title: Development of Atonal Therapy for Bilateral Vestibular Hypofunction


Staecker: As part of the ARRA summer internship program, my lab hosted Justin Wei, a junior from the University of San Diego. Justin came to the lab with very little background in auditory neuroscience or bench experience. One of the valuable experiences gathered from his visit was a reexamination of how we introduced newcomers to our lab. We ended up revamping our instructional system, i.e., making new videos on how to set up some of our tissue cultures, based on our interaction with Justin. Overall, Justin was able to learn a fairly complex technique in a short time and was able by the end of his tenure produce reproducible and novel results.

Wei: Ever since I could remember, I have always aspired to become a physician. I have not only done everything to expose myself to medically related endeavors, but I have also studied relevant scientific topics in my undergraduate studies. However, I felt that I needed more research experience to really understand what I would and would not want to do in the future.

The 2009 summer research experience has given me more than I could ever ask for. My focus of work was studying the inner working of the auditory and vestibular (balance) systems. Primarily, I worked on the application of adenovectors (harmless viruses used in gene therapy to transport desired DNA to a site, such as the inner ear) to tissue cultures of the balance system’s macular organs. I also gained technical skills in dissection and surgery on mice by using many fine surgical tools. I also helped around the lab with procedures involving immunohistochemistry. Most of these tasks were entirely new to me. I am so grateful to have been able to experience so many different aspects and accomplish tasks in a laboratory research setting in such a short amount of time. The summer research experience has motivated me to work harder in trying to achieve my goals and has even stimulated my interest in possibly pursuing lab research-based work in the future. The summer really gave me a greater appreciation for the amount of work and time needed to produce exemplary results. Furthermore, the ARRA summer research experience definitely has sparked my interest in further studying the stimulating field of otology.

John V. Brigande, Ph.D. with Kendra Klag

(l-r) Klag and Brigande
Photo Credit: Han Jiang, Oregon Hearing Research Center, Oregon Health and Science University

Mentor: John V. Brigande, Ph.D.
Oregon Health and Science University
Summer Intern: Kendra Klag
Project Title: Molecular Embryology of the Mammalian Inner Ear


Brigande: Kendra made a series of oligonucleotides (short chains of genetic material) that are designed to knock down gene expression in the developing mouse inner ear. This loss-of-function paradigm will complement the gain-of-function studies we conduct presently. Kendra continues to pursue advanced science coursework in her freshman year at Whitman College.

Klag: Working in the lab of Dr. Brigande gave me an inside look into what it means to be a scientific researcher, as well as the valuable tools to learn how to investigate and analyze. This experience has given me a skill set that has greatly benefited my educational pursuits and passions, especially in the sciences.

Qizhi Gong, Ph.D. with with Kendra Klag and Christine Chaimanont
(l-r) Mahavongtrakul, Gong,
and Chaimanont

Mentor: Qizhi Gong, Ph.D.
University of California, Davis
Summer Interns: Matthew Mahavongtrakul and Christine Chaimanont
Project Title: Regulation of Odorant Receptor Gene Expression in Olfactory Sensory Neurons


Gong: Matt and Christine were undergraduate students in my lab for two years. Both of them have acquired sufficient research experience and techniques to contribute to the ongoing research in the lab. With the summer internship program support, they were able to devote the whole summer to research. As a result, they generated valuable data and are in the process of preparing a manuscript.

Mahavongtrakul: The research experience I gained at Dr. Gong's lab has helped me enormously. It was one of the reasons why I changed my career goals from being a medical doctor to obtaining my Ph.D. in neuroscience. Working for her has opened my eyes to the many puzzles of the brain for which there is no solution at the moment. Since I am applying to graduate school now, the skills and techniques that I have acquired through that internship will help me greatly in my graduate studies.

Chaimanont: The support for the summer internship program allowed me to continue research at Dr. Gong's lab. Because I spent the whole summer doing research, I was able to learn several new lab techniques, and I obtained data for a manuscript that we are planning to publish. In the future, I want to be a physician, and my experience at the lab has taught me the importance of medical research.

Terry Takahashi, Ph.D. with Caitlin Baxter
(l-r) Baxter and Takahashi

Mentor: Terry Takahashi, Ph.D.
University of Oregon
Summer Intern: Caitlin Baxter
Project Title: Masking in the Auditory System


Takahashi: When a sound comes from a speaker accompanied by an echo that is reflected off of nearby surfaces, people and other animals are aware of only the sound arriving directly from the speaker. This is called the "precedence effect." Caitlin conducted experiments designed to test the degree to which owls, an animal model of sound localization, can locate a sound when the similarity of a sound and its echo are varied systematically. This set of experiments will be the topic of her honor's thesis and will be presented at the 2010 Mid-Winter Meeting of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology.

Baxter: The summer internship allowed me to focus on research for my thesis instead of spending my time at a summer job with little or no relation to my career interests. The internship benefited me in multiple ways: it gave me the opportunity to focus on my research, and it allowed me to more fully experience what it is like to work in a research lab. This experience has reinforced my commitment to go to graduate school, as well as furthering progress on my senior thesis. I am very fortunate to have been chosen to participate in the summer internship program.

Sharon Kujawa, Ph.D.
Ziwei Hao

Mentor: Sharon Kujawa, Ph.D., and Charles Liberman, Ph.D.
Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Harvard Medical School
Summer Intern: Ziwei Hao
Project Title: Basic and Clinical Studies of Noise-Induced and Age-Related Hearing Loss


Kujawa and Liberman: Our summer intern, Ziwei (Judy) Hao, is currently a chemistry undergraduate student at MIT. She came to us with very impressive credentials, having spent time in the laboratories of Drs. Amanda Lauer, Howard Francis, and Brad May at Johns Hopkins. During her time in the Eaton-Peabody Lab (EPL), she participated in our study of the dynamics of cochlear injury after noise exposure. Her experiences included morphometric analysis and quantification of noise-induced histopathology.

Hao: My interactions with my two wonderful mentors, Dr. Charles Liberman and Dr. Sharon Kujawa, along with many researchers and doctors in EPL, opened my eyes to the importance of research and applicable studies for patient care. Having enjoyed my work so much, I’ve decided to incorporate research into my profession as a physician. Thus, I plan to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. in the future so I will have a balance of research and medical practice.