When Robert Fettiplace, PhD, talks about the joy of discovery, he captures the spirit that drove explorers over mountains and into the deepest caves.

“The results of electrophysiological experiments are usually evident immediately, which can be exciting,” says Fettiplace, professor of neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “It makes one feel like an explorer who turns a corner in the forest to encounter a new and unexpected artifact.”

Fettiplace’s explorations of the physiology of the inner ear earned him one of the highest awards in science. This week, he became a Kavli Prize Laureate in a ceremony held in the Oslo Concert Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded. He received a gold medal from King Harald of Norway and shared the $1 million neuroscience prize with two colleagues in hearing research, James Hudspeth, MD, PhD, of Rockefeller University and Christine Petit, MD, PhD, of the Pasteur Institute.

The award, given every two years, is considered a portent of a future Nobel Prize. The ceremony, co-hosted by Alan Alda, was broadcast on Norwegian television and capped a week of festivities that included lectures, a concert, meetings with young scientists and a dinner in a palace.

Two researchers posing for a photo in their lab
Robert Fettiplace and Maryline Beurg are engaged in research aimed at understanding the proteins that open and close ion channels in mammalian hair cells.

Much of the work that won him the Kavli Prize took place in a corner lab on the street level of the aging Medical Sciences Center, at the intersection of Charter Street and Linden Drive. Fettiplace, an Englishman who can trace his heritage to the Norman conquest in 1066, earned his doctoral degree at Cambridge University. He began his career at Stanford University, studying photoreceptors in the retinae of turtles.

On returning to Cambridge University, he switched to studying hearing, using turtles because they were technically easier than mammals, and it was in the turtle cochlea he made his early discoveries. He was already a fellow of the Royal Society of London when he arrived on campus in 1990, to become Steenbock Professor of Neural and Behavioral Sciences.

He says he was excited to join a department filled with renowned auditory researchers, such as John Brugge, Joe Hind, Bill Rhode, Tom Yin, Dan Geisler, and Donata Oertel in what was then the Department of Neurophysiology.

Most of his neuroscience career has focused on the workings of the ear, describing hair cells in the cochlea that translate the vibrations of sound into electrical signals that are the currency of the brain. One of his most important early discoveries was that auditory hair cells are designed electrically to pick up a specific range of frequencies and arranged along the cochlea like the keys of a piano, with high frequencies at one end and low at the other.

“Just as a prism separates white light into the colors, the cochlea behaves like an acoustic prism; it takes wide bands of noise and the hair cells separate the sound by frequency,” he explains.

The hair cells detect motion of the membranes inside the cochlea and convert them to electrical signals. But the movements that stimulate cochlear hair cells are very small, a thousandth the diameter of the hair on a human head. So Fettiplace had to invent new methods and techniques to record what the cells were doing, and he did so, in part, because no one else had.

“People think scientists develop hypotheses and design experiments to prove them. That isn’t how science works,” he says. “You try to get a new measurement and if you’re lucky, you stumble onto something. That’s how we discovered electrical tuning, we just wanted to be the first to make a recording from the hair cells.”

His colleague Oertel, the chair of neurosciences and a fellow hearing researcher, calls Fettiplace “tremendously creative and a genius at designing new techniques.”

A computer screen showing images from a microscope
Robert Fettiplace says, “The results of electrophysiological experiments are usually evident immediately, which can be exciting. It makes one feel like an explorer who turns a corner in the forest to encounter a new and unexpected artifact.”

“He pioneered numerous new techniques with which he could address problems unique to the ear,” Oertel says. “He published his findings in a series of ground-breaking papers that are as elegant in their approach, as beautiful in their writing, as rigorous in their analysis, and as meticulous in their scholarship as any I have read.”

In recent years, he has switched his research from turtles to mice to exploit the many mouse strains that are deaf mutants. His current research is aimed at understanding the proteins that open and close ion channels in mammalian hair cells. He and Maryline Beurg, PhD, the senior scientist in his lab, have recently published evidence in Nature Communications suggesting that a protein called TMC1, for transmembrane channel-like protein isoform-1, creates the channel that converts the mechanical stimuli into electrical signals. In the small world of hearing research, Beurg previously worked in a French lab overseen by Petit.

The Kavli Prize committee noted that together, the hearing researchers “provided fundamental new insight in how our inner ear transforms sound into electrical signals – the basis of hearing – and have unveiled genetic and molecular mechanisms underlying hearing loss … between them the three laureates have helped unravel the sense of hearing.”

The Kavli Prize, established in 2008, is also awarded in astrophysics and nanoscience.

The 2018 nanoscience prize was awarded to the inventors of the CRIPSR-Cas9 gene-editing tool – Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute, Berlin; Dr. Jennifer Doudna of the University of California-Berkeley; and Dr. Viginijus Sisnys, of Vilnius University. Dr. Ewine Van Dishoeck, of Leiden University, won the astrophysics prize.

Fettiplace is a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS).