Dance your PhD – Maarja Laos

“Creativity is a great motivator because it makes people interested in what they are doing. Creativity gives hope that there can be a worthwhile idea. Creativity gives the possibility of some sort of achievement to everyone. Creativity makes life more fun and more interesting.”   –   Edward de Bono


Here’s a submission from Maarja Laos, an ILS PhD Student and Student Council member, for the Dance your PhD contest organised by the Science magazine. No talk, only Dance! Kudos to Maarja for being able to put all the hard work to get it done and inspiring us fellow students to look at our projects from a creative perspective and add fun in our journey as scientists. Enjoy!



The cochlea of the inner ear functions to enable us to hear sounds. It contains hair cells that via the hair bundles on their apical surface detect sound waves and transmit them to the brain to generate hearing.

Human hair cells are very sensitive and die easily due to loud noise and other insults (e.g. some antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs). Unfortunately, following injury the surviving hair cells in mammals, including in humans, are unable to divide leading to a gradual deterioration of hearing.

Scientists are trying to restore human hearing by designing strategies to replace lost hair cells either by forcing the surviving hair cells to divide, by repairing the damaged essential parts of the hair cell, such as the hair bundle or by making the surrounding supporting cells to convert into hair cells. The cochlear auditory sensory epithelium containing the hair cells and supporting cells can be grown in culture on a filter membrane. The filter membrane is placed on top of a metal mesh so that the cells are located at the interface of the culturing media and air, allowing both nutrients from the culturing media and oxygen from the air to reach them.

Scientists face many difficulties trying to make these regenerative strategies to work. When mammalian hair cells are forced to divide, the cell division often fails, resulting in death of a cell or daughter hair cells with abnormal number of chromosomes. The strategies aiming to repair the damaged hair bundle of a hair cell are not able to fully restore the hair bundle, resulting in hair cells that are unable to properly detect sound. The strategies that convert supporting cells into hair cells usually produce hair cells that are not fully functional and retain characteristics of supporting cells. In my PhD project I have tried to understand the reasons why these regenerative strategies are not successful.

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