Insects Might Help People Hear Better
Ron Hoy lives in a world of singing insects, in particular, and
sound in general. As an HHMI Professor, he will invite undergraduates
to join him there—in the world of communication and systems
He studies how insects such as crickets and grasshoppers generate
sounds and how their calls influence communication and behavior,
particularly when it comes to that age-old pastime, mating.
"Only males of the species produce sounds, and these are emitted
only in the context of male-male competition and male-female courting,"
says Hoy, professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell.
Beyond its implications about the form, function, and evolution of
auditory systems, the work conducted by his lab may also lead to new
inventions for humans, enhancing their ability to hear sounds.
"We discovered a new kind of 'ear' in a fly," he says. "The fly is a
parasite that finds its host by hearing the song of the cricket. She
deposits her larvae on the cricket. The fly's ear is an incredible
cricket-homing device that is really good at direction finding. The ear
not only senses a cricket's song as well or better than a cricket
can—the fly has `invented' a new way to sense direction."
The practical application? "In collaboration with mechanical
engineer Ron Miles of Binghamton University, we are now trying to make
a silicon model of this ear to develop a new type of microphone for
hearing aids that will be directionally sensitive," he explains.
Hoy's teaching combines pedagogical theory with hands-on practice.
He is designing four courses for undergraduates, some for science
majors, others for non-science majors. His teaching draws on a
career-long interest in behavioral neurogenetics, as well as his
fascination from a bioengineering point of view with the
neurobehavioral systems of animals. One course, for example, will
examine the genetics and neurobiology of Drosophila, the fruit
fly. Another aims to look at design principles gleaned from biological
systems for tackling problems that arise in an engineering context.
"Engineers and computer scientists who design and build robots study
animal locomotion to make their robots adaptively mobile in
unpredictable environments," he says. "I believe that reframing
neuroethology in an engineering context will attract engineering and
physical science students, and provide a new take on the subject for
When Hoy was an undergraduate at Washington State University, one of
his professors offered him a spot in his lab, an unusual gesture at the
time. "It changed my life," he says. "I got a taste for real
research—even though that taste began with my washing lab
He extended his time in this lab by also spending the summer, by
which time he had paid his dues and "graduated from washing dishes to
doing real experiments."
His undergraduate research involved tracking the flow of radioactive
calcium ions across the thin membrane that separates a clam's body from
the inner surface of its calcareous shell. He loved it. "It said to me:
What a life—research and teaching."
Now, Hoy says, "I'm paying back. I want to give somebody else that
same sort of 'aha' that happened to me. In my own way, I've never
forgotten what that teacher did for me."