In the past two years, Robert Fettiplace, PhD, amassed two prestigious academic honors, and a recently announced third puts him in company with scientists who were subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize.

In October, the pioneering neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University in New York.

Of the 103 Horwitz Prize winners to date, 51 have gone on to receive Nobel Prizes, most recently in 2018.

Robert Fettiplace
Robert Fettiplace

Fettiplace’s current research examines how the ear interfaces with the brain. The work was recognized by the prize committee as trailblazing in the biomedical sciences for showing that individual sensory cells, called hair cells, located in the inner ear are electrically tuned to specific sound frequencies and are arranged in an ordered pattern, much like the keys of a piano.

He subsequently demonstrated that each hair cell is defined by the properties and location of ion channel proteins that allow detection of sound vibrations. Mutations of genes encoding these proteins cause deafness.

“We are so proud and pleased that professor Fettiplace has received another highly prestigious award in recognition of his outstanding scientific accomplishments,” said Robert N. Golden, MD, Dean, UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “We are also deeply appreciative of his research team, our Department of Neuroscience, and the academic community on this campus for creating a research environment where the highest level of scientific inquiry can thrive.”

hair bundles of a rat cochlear inner ear
Scanning electron micrograph of the hair bundle of a cochlear inner hair cell

Additional co-recipients of the 2020 Horwitz Prize were A. James Hudspeth of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland and Rockefeller University in New York, New York, and Christine Petit of the Collège de France and Institut Pasteur, both in Paris, France. Both were recognized for their contributions to discovering the molecular and cellular mechanisms behind hearing.

In September 2018, Fettiplace received his first prominent international award for his research, the Kavli Prize, which is given by the Norwegian Academy of Letters and Science ‒ and presented at the Oslo Concert Hall, the locale for the Nobel Peace Prize. He received a gold medal from King Harald of Norway and shared the $1 million neuroscience prize with Hudspeth and Petit.

In May 2019, his second major scientific honor followed, the Passano Award, which is awarded by the Passano Foundation, in partnership with Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Fettiplace’s consistently rigorous and elegant studies over his career have been instrumental to understanding how the inner ear transduces sound into electrical signals that are interpreted by the brain, according to Erik Dent, PhD, interim chair, Department of Neuroscience.

“We feel honored to have Robert as a colleague in our department and are overjoyed that he has been honored with this prestigious award,” he said. “He is truly an exceptional scientist and scholar.”

Fettiplace will give a virtual lecture as a recipient of the Horwitz Prize at 11 a.m. CST, Nov. 24, presented by the University of Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.