Robert Fettiplace, PhD, professor of neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, is among 120 scientists across the United States selected to join the National Academy of Sciences in 2021. His renowned research examines how the ear interfaces with the brain.

Membership in the academy is one of the highest honors that can be conferred on a scientist. Members are chosen “in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.” Originally from the United Kingdom, Fettiplace is one of 30 new international associates joining this year.

Robert Fettiplace
Robert Fettiplace

“An important aspect of being elected to the National Academy of Sciences is that it is a great honor to be a member of a famous and distinguished society,” Fettiplace says. “My election to the National Academy of Sciences is an acknowledgment in the U.S. of the type of science I do as a physiologist. I also regard it as adding to the prestige of my Department of Neuroscience.”

Ellen Zweibel, PhD, professor of astronomy and physics, is a second faculty member from UW–Madison earning the recognition this year. According to records maintained by the Office of the Provost, there are a total of 41 members from the university.

Fettiplace, who joined the UW–Madison faculty in 1990, studies at the molecular level how sound that enters the ear is translated from vibrations into electrical signals, the “currency of the brain.” The process occurs in hair cells in the inner ear that possess minute ‘hairs’ on their surface, and his research has shown that transduction takes place in these structures.

“Vibration of the hairs is the ultimate, sound-induced mechanical stimulus for exciting the cells,” he explains. “The mechanism is complex and involves many molecules. Defects in any of the components of the transduction pathway cause death of the hair cells, leading to permanent deafness.”

These defects are a result of mutations in the genes that code for the formation of hair cells and account for genetic deafness in two out of 1,000 human births. Fettiplace’s research group currently uses CRISPR gene editing technology in mice to investigate the impact of mutations.

The honor is part of a string of accolades Fettiplace has earned in recent years, many of them seen as precursors to the Nobel Prize. Along with fellow hearing researchers A. James Hudspeth of Rockefeller University and Christine Petit of the Collège de France and the Pasteur Institute, Fettiplace won the 2018 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience and 2020 Horwitz Prize in biology from Columbia University. He was named a Passano Laureate in 2019.

“Dr. Fettiplace is a pioneer in the field of auditory transduction,” says Erik Dent, PhD, professor and interim chair of the Department of Neuroscience. “His work is remarkable for its technical breadth, intellectual depth, and rigor. Done largely with his own hands and with a small number of collaborators, he has made fundamental contributions to understanding how sound is transduced in the cochlea. Dr. Fettiplace is simply a superb scientist and scholar.”

The National Academy of Sciences — with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine — provides science, engineering, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations. It is a private, nonprofit institution established in 1863 under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln.