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Insects Might Help People Hear Better

Summary

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 neurobiology.

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 biologists."

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 dishes."

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."

Scientist Profile

HHMI Professor
Cornell University
Experimental Evolutionary Biology

For More Information

Jim Keeley
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