Balancing act

Dora E. Angelaki's research bridges neuroscience and biomedical engineering

Ever since Dora E. Angelaki, Ph.D., left the small Greek island of Crete to attend college, she’s pursued her dream of becoming an academic with what her colleagues agree is one of her most distinguishing features: energy.

“Dora is a scientific dynamo, and her boundless energy and enthusiasm are infectious for students and faculty alike,” says David Van Essen, Ph.D., the Edison Professor of Neurobiology and head of the department.

Dora E. Angelaki, Ph.D., graduate student Kim McArthur (left) and research associate Yong Gu, Ph.D., discuss data analyses for a project studying motion perception using a newly developed virtual reality apparatus that combines real motion and visual stimulation.
Dora E. Angelaki, Ph.D., graduate student Kim McArthur (left) and research associate Yong Gu, Ph.D., discuss data analyses for a project studying motion perception using a newly developed virtual reality apparatus that combines real motion and visual stimulation.

Driven by an insatiable desire to learn and be stimulated, Angelaki has matured from a small-town girl to a respected leader in brain research.

“With her sustained commitment to excellence and her rigorous, quantitative approach to problems in neuroscience, Dora has made major contributions to the field,” Van Essen says. “She also has played an important role in building strong bridges between the neuroscience and biomedical engineering communities here at Washington University.”

The allure of academia

Though always enchanted by the allure of research-based higher education, Angelaki appeased her parents by agreeing to pursue a more-applied undergraduate degree. Their hope was that electrical engineering would satisfy their daughter’s natural scientific talents and curiosity while preparing her for a more practical career than academia — and one that wouldn’t take her too far from home.

The plan was futile. Rather than squelch her academic yearnings, college fueled them.

During her studies, Angelaki, now the Alumni Endowed Professor of Neurobiology, was inspired by several articles she read that mentioned a newly emerging field called biomedical engineering. She decided it was the ideal opportunity for her to apply her engineering background to a more theoretical, research-oriented field.

Though she had no formal training in any of the biological sciences, she moved away from her beloved family and country and enrolled in the biomedical engineering graduate program at the University of Minnesota.

“I didn’t even know what a red blood cell was,” she recalls. “I had to start from scratch, and every day I had to go back and study the basic information my classmates already knew just so I could understand what was being taught.”

Dora Angelaki with her daughters, Kristina (left) and Natalie.
Dora Angelaki with her daughters, Kristina (left) and Natalie.

These challenges were overshadowed by her passion for the material and unquenchable thirst for knowledge. By her second year of graduate school, she had discovered her niche in an area of science she had never heard of before.

Unlike the more well-known senses of vision and hearing, few people notice their sense of balance, let alone know what it’s called. But the system of fluid-filled passages in the inner ear, collectively called the vestibular system, is critical for orienting ourselves in space and maintaining posture and equilibrium. Damage or disruption to the system can be devastating, resulting in dizziness, nausea and confusion.

Researching the vestibular system and its role in spatial orientation incorporates all of Angelaki’s strengths and interests. By studying the network of cells that communicate with each other and with the brain via electrical signals, Angelaki could apply her knowledge of mathematics and control systems to broader, biologically relevant questions.

Most importantly, the field is truly interdisciplinary, both in its scope and in the scientific approach it demands. To orient in space, the brain gathers information from a variety of sensory processes, like the balance system and sights and sounds.

Studying this interactive system requires a combination of techniques ranging from theoretical approaches to intricate animal models to applied clinical investigations. Spatial orientation research, therefore, provides Angelaki with ample opportunity to achieve her personal career goal: learning something new every few months and incorporating it into her research.

“Ever since I first learned about the vestibular system, I have been fascinated by all the diverse functions it has and by its complexities,” she explains. “It’s a multisensory system, integrating information to and from all the other senses, so it’s a challenge to study and requires an understanding of a lot of different subjects.”

An eye for research

Though her focus has remained on the vestibular system, Angelaki’s research has evolved as she continuously adapts to lessons learned through collaborative experiences such as research on eye movements and the visual system.

One of her most renowned accomplishments is that she pioneered the analysis of how the brain integrates information like the head’s rotation, linear movement and response to gravity.

“She’s put the question of how we use the vestibular sense to guide our eye movements into a broad and interesting perspective that relates to the larger concepts of neuroscience,” says Stephen G. Lisberger, Ph.D., director of the W.M. Keck Foundation Center for Integrative Neuroscience and professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco.

In 1996, just a few years after starting her first faculty appointment at the University of Mississippi, Angelaki’s scientific potential was recognized with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. She came to Washington University as an associate professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science in 1999.

Dora E. Angelaki

Title: Alumni Endowed Professor of Neurobiology and professor of biomedical engineering

Reason for joining WUSTL: “I remember that after my first day of interviews here, I called my husband and told him this is where I want to be. The reason I enjoy science is that it allows me to continue learning and expanding my research, and I knew right away that I would be able to get that here. I was absolutely right.”

Family: Husband, J. David Dickman, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology; daughters Kristina, 9, and Natalie, 7.5 (“the half is very important”)

“My rule is that whenever I can find time to be with my family, that’s exactly what I do.”

Her accomplishments have continued to garner respect and accolades, which have allowed her to take on more leadership roles such as editorial and scientific advisory positions — a charge that helps satisfy her constant craving for incorporating new research perspectives into her own work.

The recognition and responsibility also have enabled her to fulfill another goal: encouraging aspiring scientists to study the underappreciated vestibular system.

For example, she participated in the development of a new subspecialty within the University’s neuroscience program, called Systems, Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience, dedicated to providing graduate students training on the brain’s interconnected systems.

When Angelaki isn’t studying the body’s feats of balance, she is focused on maintaining her own. She spends her little spare time with her husband, J. David Dickman, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology, and their two daughters, either sailing their boat in the Ozarks or enjoying the sunshine on their annual trip to visit her family in Greece.

An ideal role model

As one of a growing number of successful female scientists — including one of eight female faculty in the School of Medicine with an endowed professorship — she is especially dedicated to attracting more women to the field.

“Being a female scientist has always been one of my biggest challenges,” she says. “I am very proud I’m a woman, and I feel it’s important to make sure universities and communities accept, support and promote women scientists.”

In her laboratory, more than half of the postdoctoral research fellows are female. According to two trainees, Andrea Green, Ph.D., and Eliana Klier, Ph.D., Angelaki not only is an effective motivator, but she also is an inspiring role model simply by the example she sets as a scientist, wife and mother.

“Dora is an extremely motivated, enthusiastic and energetic scientist who is consistently pushing the field forward in new directions,” Green says.

Klier adds, “She’s successfully involved in so many things that I ever wonder if I can do anything; I just look at her and realize that I can.”