New solutions for age-related hearing loss
Jackie Overton is nearing the final stages of her Ph.D. in the Neuroscience Graduate Group. She has a long-time fascination with how brain function shapes our perception and makes us who we are. Overton completed a BSc in cognitive science at UC San Diego, where she became very interested in early development and the lifelong impacts that early experiences can have on our endocrine systems. Her undergraduate work focused on the relationship between maternal care and the developing stress response and effects on development of attentional systems in infants.
As a graduate student Overton has explored the auditory system in adults and how neural processing changes with age. She has extensive experience designing behavioral tasks to assess perceptual abilities, and hopes to use this experience to develop widely available training tools that can help people overcome a range of perceptual and learning deficits.
When not engaged in her research, Overton is “a bit of an artist” and loves being outdoors.
Note: This interview was conducted during Jackie Overton’s tenure as a 2015/16 Business Development Fellow.
What’s important about your research—and where do you hope to take it?
As a Ph.D. student I was drawn back into the world of perception and, in particular, the later stages of life. My current work focuses on the the auditory system: how changes in the aging brain relate to hearing loss. Age-related hearing loss is a major health problem, and the aging population is growing. I am working to understand the relationship between how neurons in the auditory cortex encode rapidly changing acoustic signals in relation to our ability to perceive those sounds, and how this processing changes with age—leading to difficulties understanding speech. To accomplish this I had to learn a wide set of skills, including electrophysiology and how to analyze neural spiking data, and how to design behavioral tasks and analyze those data as well.
The last phase of my research involves behavioral testing with young and old human subjects. I hope that this work will lay a foundation for a solution that helps people with age-related hearing loss retain or regain functional hearing ability.
What are you most passionate about in your work?
The most exciting part of my research experience was using MRI and CT imaging along 3D printing to design custom implants in collaboration with Biomedical Engineering. This is a really exciting new field, and I hope to be able work on more projects in this area.
It’s also really amazing (and somewhat surreal) to find a neuron in a brain with an electrode and actually hear how the spiking activity changes in response to certain stimuli or the subject’s behavior. I find that I am really passionate about solving problems, and while figuring out how to make an experiment work and pushing the boundaries of basic science is great, I realize that I would personally prefer the challenge solving problems and seeing those solutions applied outside of a laboratory.
How will in the Business Development Fellows program help you to change the world?
I have a very varied and unique set of skills, and I am excited to round out those experiences with knowledge about the business world. Having been in the academic research environment for more than a decade, I feel ready to branch out and explore how I can best apply those capabilities to do something great that positively impacts people’s lives.
Now at midpoint in the program, what is the most important thing you have learned—and the most critical connection you have made?
I think the most important lesson I have learned is the importance of building a strong team with the right set of capabilities, and at the same time building the network around the venture to ensure its success. Working in teams with MBA students lets me put this into practice—I am learning how to recognize when I have something important to offer and how to take a leadership role when necessary.
I have also learned how to assess a potential business idea and had the opportunity to assess other venture ideas from an investor’s perspective in our entrepreneurship class. Being able to view that process from both sides was so valuable to understanding what factors are important for a viable business, and now I am learning about different aspects of business strategy. I decided to pursue the Fellows program in the final year of my Ph.D. knowing it would be a significant time commitment and make finishing this year that much more challenging, but I had a strong sense that this was going to be a life-changing experience. Halfway through the program, I have no doubt that the lessons I learn and the people I meet through this program will play a key role in my future successes.