The Making of a Research Scientist

by Abby Person '00

When she was an undergraduate, Lynne Bianchi didn't know her work helping nursing home patients would eventually lead her to a Ph.D. in neuroscience, a professorship at Oberlin, or research that could result in therapies to prevent or treat hearing loss. She thought she'd become a speech therapist.

Fascinated by the speech-loss patterns she saw in the stroke patients she worked with, the communication science major soon realized it was the neurobiology behind the problems that interested her. Later, an introductory audiology course focusing on the structure and function of the inner ear presented new possibilities.

"The inner ear, the cochlea, is such an amazing thing, such a tiny little organ and so incredibly organized. The questions I'm interested in now have more to do with mechanisms of early neural development. I still focus on the ear, though, because it's still my favorite system."

After earning a bachelor's degree at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Bianchi stayed on at SUNY, earning a master's in the hearing sciences. Introduced to the delicate intricacy of nerve cell outgrowth by a neurobiologist mentor, she focused her doctoral research on the developing inner ear's role in promoting neurite outgrowth from auditory nerve fibers. After earning her Ph.D. in anatomy and cellular biology in 1994, she did postdoctoral work with a pharmaceutical company, examining the role of growth factors in the inner ear and embarking on her current research project investigating a family of proteins called Eph, for erythropoietin heptocellular carcinoma, where the first molecule was discovered in 1987.

The Eph family is unusual because all of the ligands are membrane bound, and some of the proteins function both as receptors and ligands. In a very rough sense, they function as both a lock and a key. Because the ligands and receptors are present on adjacent cells, they may provide an important link in understanding how a group of cells is organized during development.

Indeed, the Eph family may be integral in establishing how the inner ear develops by separating the auditory (hearing) regions from the vestibular (balance) regions. Eph molecules may also be involved in another organizational task: when neurons are first growing, they "feel" their way around their environment by interacting with molecules on adjacent cells. If appropriate, the correct neuron will connect with its target cell. For hearing to be functional, it is imperative that the proper connections be made. Thus, Eph molecules are being looked at for clues about hearing loss and deafness.

After finishing her postdoc, Bianchi joined the Medical University of South Carolina, where she spent three years as a research assistant professor. When she began looking for her next position, she first considered medical schools similar to the one in which she'd been trained. But the idea of lecturing to medical students was unappealing "because there is little opportunity to interact with the students," she explains.

"Oberlin appealed to me because of the small classes, the hands-on lab experiences offered to students, and the chance to involve students in my research. In talking with members of the faculty, I saw that it's possible to maintain an independent research program at an undergraduate institution."

Inspired by Oberlin's faculty members, Bianchi accepted the College's assistant professorship in 1998. And that's where our lives intersect. I'm working with her this summer, as a Howard Hughes Research Assistant.

With funding from the Deafness Research Foundation, the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communicative Disorders, and the Hughes fellowships for student research assistants provided by Oberlin, we are investigating the Eph molecule's role in inner ear segregation and how they influence auditory nerve growth.

Besides the opportunity to work closely with students and to continue her research, "the facilities are one of the selling points," says Bianchi, when a researcher considers moving to a new institution.

"I have been very pleased with the facilities here at Oberlin; the College has been very supportive. I have no doubts that I'll be able to continue my research."

She'll be even more pleased when Oberlin's new science center is completed. Incorporating 142,000 square feet of new construction and 87,000 square feet of renovations, most of the building will be open when classes begin in fall 2001. The neuroscience department alone will gain nearly 7000 square feet.

"The larger space is going to make research a lot easier," says Bianchi. "The new facilities will provide students with even more lab experiences, many of which they can't get at other undergraduate schools.

"I have colleagues who are always asking me to send them our graduates, because they recognize how bright and well-trained Oberlin science majors are. The new science building will even further enhance the students' experiences." Me, I'm excited just to be working alongside a person who knows research like Professor Bianchi does.

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