Science academy to honor 4 from WUSTL faculty

The Academy of Science of St. Louis has selected eight women and men whose distinguished careers represent St. Louis’ top research institutions in academia and industry and include new technologies and treatments based on their research.

Of these eight, four are affiliated with Washington University.

Being recognized with the Peter H. Raven Lifetime Award are Ira J. Hirsh, Ph.D., the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Audiology, and Nobuo Suga, Ph.D., professor of biology in Arts & Sciences.

Receiving a Fellows Award is Susan E. Mackinnon, M.D., the Sydney M. Shoenberg Jr. and Robert H. Shoenberg Professor of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and head of that division.

And receiving an Innovation Award is Phyllis I. Hanson, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of cell biology and physiology in the School of Medicine.

Others being recognized are Will D. Carpenter, Monsanto Co. (Trustees’ Award); Raymond G. Slavin of the Saint Louis University School of Medicine (Fellows Award); Donald P. Ames, Fluotech Inc. and McDonnell Douglas Research Laboratories (James B. Eads Award); and James P. McCarter, Divergence Inc. (Innovation Award).

They will be honored at the annual Outstanding St. Louis Scientists Awards Dinner April 2 at the Sheraton City Center.

Hirsh is recognized as one of the founders of audiology. He arrived at Central Institute for the Deaf (CID) and at the University in 1951, and his half-century of service in St. Louis includes full-time positions at both institutions.

At CID, where he is a member of the board of managers, he has served as director of research and executive director.

He continues to teach in the CID/Washington University graduate program in speech and hearing.

At the University, Hirsh has chaired the Department of Psychology in Arts & Sciences and served as dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences.

The Acoustical Society of America recently honored Hirsh with a special symposium that featured 10 of his students and colleagues presenting summaries of his contributions to their scientific endeavors. These contributions included research in auditory perception, physiological acoustics, speech communication, the measurement of hearing impairment, deaf education, musical and architectural acoustics and psychoacoustics.

Through election to the National Academy of Science and Hirsh’s many leadership positions, he has been able to act as a positive influence on national scientific and educational policies. He chaired the National Research Council’s Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education from 1982-87.

He also is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as the Academy of Science of St. Louis.

In a career spanning 54 years, Hirsh has made numerous seminal contributions to the sciences of acoustics, psychoacoustics and psychology. His legacy continues not only through more than 100 scientific papers and a textbook, but also through the many students he has mentored who have made their own contributions to research in speech and hearing.

Suga has led discoveries in the neurophysiology of hearing through research on bat echolocation. The work has applications for increased understanding of human hearing and perception.

Suga was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1992, the National Academy of Sciences in 1998 and the Academy of Science of St. Louis in 2002.

For three decades, Suga and his colleagues have studied the auditory system of bats, which is highly developed to guide the night-flying mammals. Their investigations have targeted the complex neural mechanisms used in echo-location: Bats send out sound signals then interpret the reverberating echoes to navigate, locate food and communicate among themselves.

Suga has applied the analysis of the bat’s central auditory systems to understand the process in other mammals, including humans. He found the elegant neural representations of different types of biological sonar information in the cerebral cortex and showed, among other things, the similarity in the basic neural mechanisms for sensory signal processing between the bat’s auditory system and the monkey’s visual system.

His recent studies have broken new ground to show that the auditory system of the brain can adapt in response to stimuli and associative learning, termed plasticity.

The Suga team has found that in bats, auditory information moves from the inner ear to the cerebral cortex at the top of the brain. Feedback loops are formed to modulate auditory signal processing in a highly specific and systematic way as signals come down from the cerebral cortex to the inner ear.

A pioneer in the field of nerve transplantation, Mackinnon performed the world’s first nerve transplant using nerve tissue from a cadaver donor. The procedure allows a patient’s own damaged peripheral nerve to grow along the donor nerve, which serves as a trellis or bridge for regeneration.

Well-known for her outstanding teaching and mentoring of young surgeons, Mackinnon will receive the Fellows Award for excelling in communicating to colleagues and future scientists, as well as for her leadership in all aspects of her career.

She is one of the few plastic surgeons to be continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health. She is studying the development of tolerance to nerve allotransplants to maximize survival and minimize risk of rejection.

Hanson’s research has advanced understanding of synaptic function and its plasticity and of how intracellular membrane fusion reactions are catalyzed.

Hanson’s work, using biochemical, biophysical and cellular tools, has led to a general theory of transmitter release at the synapse. It has led to a complete revision of the roles certain proteins play in exocytosis, said Philip D. Stahl, Ph.D., the Edward Mallinckrodt Jr. Professor and head of the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology.

The long-term goal of Hanson’s work is to understand molecular reactions responsible for cellular membrane trafficking, particularly as they relate to the function of the neuronal synapse.