Expert on frog hearing to deliver Hugh Knowles Lecture
For Peter Narins, Northwestern’s Hugh Knowles Prize for Distinguished Achievement came as a surprise. Awarded for outstanding achievement in research or treatment of hearing disorders, the prize has typically recognized work focused on physiology and anatomy.
“None of the people I could see who won in the past really tried to link physiology and anatomy with behavior,” says Narins, a distinguished professor of integrative biology and physiology and of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA, where he is a member of the Brain Research Institute. “So I think the fact that I got this prize means that someone on the committee thought behavior was important.”
Actually, many someones did.
“To many of us in the hearing sciences, Peter Narins is the ultimate adventurer,” said Sumit Dhar, interim director of the Hugh Knowles Center and Hugh Knowles Professor in the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. “He has asked the most interesting questions of the most interesting species in the most interesting corners of the globe. Through his adventures we know a lot about acoustics, communication, animal behavior, and hearing that we would have not known otherwise.”
Narins’s field is neuroethology—the neural basis of behavior. A specialist in ultrasonic communication in amphibians, Narins conducts field studies on how frogs emit signals that affect other frogs’ behavior. His Hugh Knowles Prize Lecture will focus on two distantly related Asian frog species that communicate in an ultrasonic range beyond the capacity of human hearing. Narins theorizes that this upward extension in sonic sensitivity was an evolutionary response to the frogs’ habitats, which are characterized by intense, low-frequency ambient noise from fast-flowing streams.
“The world is teaming with sound humans cannot hear,” says Nina Kraus, Hugh Knowles Chair and professor of neurobiology and otolaryngology in communication sciences and disorders. “Narins brings us into this rich realm, revealing new understanding of vibration as a vital life force – a force that affects all of us.”
Why frogs? Narins explains that because “the frog is a vertebrate, like humans, its nervous and auditory systems have the same general plan as humans. But frogs produce a limited repertoire of sounds, so you can characterize and synthesize those sounds and use the synthesized sounds in playback experiments. You can learn a lot about the frog’s auditory system just by going to the field, playing back sounds, and seeing how the frogs respond. And you can know everything about every sound the frog makes—you can catalog the entire repertoire. Try doing that with a human. There’s a huge advantage to working with an animal that has a limited repertoire.”
Narins came to this field by an untraditional path, having earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Cornell University in electrical engineering. He then served in the Peace Corps, teaching electrical engineering in Spanish at the Catholic University in Santiago, Chile. While there, he met Olivia, his future wife. “We got married in Chile—she’s my souvenir of the Peace Corps, so it worked out well.”
Hoping to continue teaching at the college level after returning to the states, Narins realized he would need a PhD. “So I went back to Cornell to show Olivia where I had been a student, and we met Bob Capranica, who eventually turned out to be my thesis adviser. He was an electrical engineer like I was, but he suggested that I use my engineering background as a tool to study biology.”
Capranica offered Narins a position in his lab but on the condition that he take 40 hours of biology courses to catch up with the other entering doctoral students, who all had master’s degrees in biology. “When I walked into his lab,” Narins recalls, “I saw racks of equipment from floor to ceiling—oscillators, recorders, amplifiers, things I knew exactly as an electrical engineer. But the questions he was asking? I had no idea; I didn’t know what they were talking about.”
The biologists entering the lab had the opposite anxiety—they didn’t know how to use all the electronic apparatus. “I was happy with the equipment but learned how to ask questions,” says Narins. “And the others were great at asking questions, but they learned how to use the equipment. So there was a great synergy between the biologists and the engineers.” He ended up collaborating with Albert Feng, a member of his doctoral cohort, for more than 50 years, and they coauthored numerous published papers.
“Cornell was where I got interested in frogs,” says Narins, “because Bob Capranica had worked on acoustic communication in frogs.” But after earning his PhD there, Narins did a two-year postdoc at England’s University of Keele, where he studied the auditory physiology of cats. He returned to the world of amphibians after getting hired for his “first and only job” at UCLA—the same school where Capranica had earned his undergraduate degree. “I joined the biology faculty in 1976,” he recalls, “and I’ve been there ever since.”
As the latest Hughes Knowles Prize winner, Narins says, “I personally know almost all the people who have received it in the past, and I’m humbled. They’re sensational.”
Presented by Northwestern’s Knowles Hearing Center, Peter Narins’s prize lecture—“High-End Audio: Neuroethology of Ultrasonic Communication in Amphibians”—will take place at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, October 30, at Pancoe Hall, 2200 Campus Drive.