Dr. Elisabeth Glowatzki, Professor of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery and Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine

Dharshan Varia


I sat down with Dr. Elisabeth Glowatzki, Professor of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery and Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to talk about her role, education, innovation, and projects she’s currently conducting in neuroscience, including teaching, research, and physiology. Dr. Glowatzki is currently investigating the function of auditory nerve fibers in the mammalian cochlea. Other projects in her lab involve efferent synaptic transmission and supporting cell function in the cochlea.



Dharshan Varia (DV): “What do you do on a daily basis? What is your role in the field of neuroscience?”

Elisabeth Glowatzki (EG): “To the first question, I do three things. One is teaching, which is when I present lectures, give courses, but also do one-on-one teaching to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Secondly, I design research studies together with the people in my laboratory. Thirdly, I write grant applications, so we have funding, and I write publications based on what we do in the lab. My role in the field of neuroscience is that we specifically study hearing, and we look at synaptic transmission in the auditory pathways of the inner ear.”


DV: “From when you first started studying, what inspired you to become a neuroscientist?”

EG: “I studied in Germany, biology, and I was always attracted to understanding how the brain works, so I decided to specialize in neuroscience. Then, it was a talk by a prominent hearing scientist, and his name was Jim Hudspeth. He works in New York. He came to Germany to give a lecture about how the inner ear works, and I was very inspired by that, and that moved me into the field of hearing.”


DV: “In your tenure as a neuroscientist, how has neuroscience education changed? How are the labs different abroad than here at Johns Hopkins?”

EG: “It has changed a lot, especially, since I am from Germany. The neuroscience education that I experienced was very classical and wide in the field. However, now, if you study neuroscience you will be trained in many different techniques rather than a lot of background I received. The background you now receive is very specific to the newest methods; for example, in the last few years, genetics has become a very important factor in the field of neuroscience, and beforehand, that was not the case.  There is no difference in the labs here and Germany.”


DV: “What are some technological innovations in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins today?”

EG: “In my laboratory, we were the first laboratory to actually be able to record the synaptic activity of auditory nerve fiber endings worldwide. This has allowed us to exactly look how the signal that the hair cells receive about sound information will be processed in the auditory nerve fibers. Here at Hopkins, and in our center, there are many studies that really advance the field. One I would really like to mention is the work by Charley Della Santina and his colleagues because they work on vestibular prosthesis, which like a cochlear implant, will allow to replace the sensory hair cells in the vestibular system. People with balancing problems and Meniere's disease will hopefully benefit from this.”


DV: “How have your auditory synaptic nerve endings directly benefited hearing loss today?”

EG: “It is not a straight line. Basically, when we think about hearing loss, one thing we need to understand, there are many different contributing factors. For different people, different things arise. One prominent problem one can experience with hearing loss is that the auditory nerve fiber endings die; it’s called synaptopathy. It will happen if you perceive a sound that is too loud or with aging. Synaptopathy will give you problems when you try to understand sound signals. So, what we are working on is to understand how auditory nerve fibers work and to be at some point with other groups together replace neurons and make new neurons that produce the right synaptic contacts for an ear that has a loss of hearing due to synaptopathy.”


DV: “With all of your fellows and graduate students, what projects are you currently undergoing in your lab, and what importance does neuroscience have in your experiments?”

EG: “All what we do is neuroscience because we study the inner ear, which is a neuronal structure and sends basically nerve signals to the brain. What we are doing right now is specifically working on nerve fibers that possibly get activated by sound signals and send a signal back to the inner ear. What we think is that those nerve fibers are protecting our inner ear during loud sounds. That is something that our brain does itself. We want to understand how the brain protects the inner ear from sound exposure. If we understand that, we could use this mechanism to produce a protective method for the inner ear.”


DV: “How do you, as a neuroscientist and professor of otolaryngology, connect/interact with other members within the neuroscience, otolaryngology, and neurosurgery fields?”

EG: “I attend lectures in both departments, so I also have collaboration with colleagues in both departments. I teach neuroscience students who get their doctoral degree. I am involved in their exams, so I am part of the neuroscience community. What is very special for me is that I am also in a clinical department. I really know the physicians well that are specialized in their fields, looking at either hearing or balance dysfunction. The communication between the basic scientists and the clinicians is very important to first decide what is a really important question in the field that needs to be answered to make out comes better when teaching patients, so we can learn from each other. For example, we have big cores that every year we put together. I have been the director of this from the inner ear up to the brain and every stage in between. It has a mix of neuroscientists that give lectures and are specialized. Also, clinicians that tell us about the disease that specifically arise in the auditory or vestibular pathways.”


DV: “How crucial is it for neuroscience students (those interested in neuroscience) to research and have lab skills in their undergraduate, postgraduate, and possible medical education?”

EG: “To really understand how research works, one definitely needs to work in a laboratory. It takes a number of years not just to even learn all the practical skills, but also to be able to judge good research. Also, to understand how research design happens and how many pitfalls there are during your studies that you have to take care of. In that sense, there are some subspecialties which analyze data they did not gain themselves, which makes sense if you are doing computational studies. Otherwise, you really have to work in a laboratory to understand how research works.”


DV: “Through your tenure as a professor and all of your research work, what has been your biggest challenge?”

EG: “I think the biggest challenge is having a laboratory that is continuously moving forward. We work with students and postdoctoral fellows who come for a few years and sometimes it takes them three to four years until they are at the point to do good research. Just when they are ready to really excel they move on. One thing one has to be really good at is that all of the technological advancements stay in the laboratory by teaching and making sure that the next generation learns from the last; there is always overlap. Having change in personnel can be an advantage because after a certain time one has a certain view of a project; new people can change this view and bring something new. It is a challenge and an advantage.”


DV: “What has been your most significant finding in neuroscience?”

EG: “Our most significant is what I talked about: we are the first group worldwide that was able to actually look at the synaptic activity in auditory nerve fibers that sent sound signals to the brain. There is a subgroup of auditory nerve fibers; they are called the Type II fibers, where it is completely unknown as to what this group of fibers does. We are the first group that has looked at any activity patterns of these auditory nerve fibers. We are still trying to figure out what their function is.”


  1. Glowatzki, Elisabeth. (n.d.). Neuroscience Department. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. 08/07/2018

Dharshan Varia

Dharshan Varia

Dharshan is a senior at Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City, Maryland. He has been part of IYNA for the last 2 years and is interested in global health and its crossroads with neuroscience and advanced scientific treatments. Dharshan holds positions with multiple STEM organizations along with the AYNA.