Scientists turn an accident into an opportunity

Science Friday is premiering a new series that follows the innovative research of women scientists. The first episode follows Dr. Rene Gifford and her colleague Dr. Allyson Sisler-Dinwiddie who together develop methods to improve cochlear implants.


'Science Friday' is premiering a new series that follows the innovative research of women scientists.

The first episode follows Dr. Rene Gifford and her colleague Dr. Allyson Sisler-Dinwiddie, who together developed methods to improve cochlear implants.

Science filmmaker Emily Driscoll brings us the story of how these scientists turned an accident into an opportunity for innovation.

Joining me now is science filmmaker Emily Driscoll.

So, let's talk about, first of all, this is part of a series.

What's the series gonna be?

That's right.

'Science Friday' is launching a series about women scientists, and it's really six films that are portraits of women and also show the challenges, frustrations, obstacles but also the excitement and rewards of what it's like to be a scientist.

And we're following some incredible stories, like a team of women in India who are involved in space exploration in a very male-dominated field.

A field biologist who works in very harsh conditions but also has two little kids at home, so how does she work with that balance.

So it's really portraits.

It's about the science, but it's also about the scientists' journey to becoming a scientist.

All right.

So, let's talk about this specific story.

How much did the personal situation influence the work of Dr. Sisler-Dinwiddie?


So, this is a really exciting story that struck me for a number of reasons.

But, so, this is a case where Sisler-Dinwiddie, the researcher, she's studying towards becoming a researcher.

But then she also becomes the test subject.

So she was hearing impaired, and she was studying to become an audiologist.

And during this time, she was in a car accident, and she hit her head, and it made her hearing impairment fade into complete deafness.

So she thought, 'What am I going to do?

I'm deaf.

How can I help the hearing impaired when I myself can't hear?'

And at the same time, Rene Gifford was on her journey to becoming an audiologist, which is also a very personal story for her, because she was influenced by her grandfather, who was a war veteran, Purple Heart recipient, and had profound hearing loss.

So that was her personal journey to wanting to help people improve their hearing.

So, these women were both at Vanderbilt.

And Rene Gifford, along with an interdisciplinary team at Vanderbilt, they developed a method to fine-tune cochlear implants.

So instead of stimulating a number of different nerve cells, they could turn on the electrodes so they would only stimulate the nerve cells that that person needed to hear clearly.

So that would actually take away extra noise.


So Allyson Sisler-Dinwiddie, she described this interference with the electrode stimulating nerve cells as sounding like Donald Duck, in her case.

So, they were able to, with this innovative technique, target the nerve cells only that needed to be targeted.

And they were able to restore Sisler-Dinwiddie's hearing.

So now both researchers are working to restore hearing in other patients and on a weekly basis.

And I'm sure she connects with the patient in a different way because she knows exactly what they're talking about.


And we're going to be seeing people who have their hearing restored.

Like, we're going to be seeing a patient who was a singer and lost his hearing, and now these women are going to activate his cochlear implant, so we'll see what that looks like.

So, first of all, I'm thinking from a storytelling perspective, how do you put a story about sound on TV?

Well, they have a chamber, which we will get to see what that looks like.

But, and that's also one of the exciting parts -- Like, how do you tell this story, and what happens to the ear?

What can go wrong?

How do you communicate that?

What does that look like?

What does the surgery look like?

So we'll be seeing all of that.

And we'll also get to be there for the activations, when people are hearing again for the first time, or maybe they haven't been able to hear for years.

And we'll capture that moment.

When we think of this whole series, why is it important to cover women and science in this way?

So, we wanted to show the challenges of being a scientist.

And one of the challenges is different for men and women, because gender is one of those challenges.

And so we would like to really reach a wide audience but also inspire women to become scientists.

So to do that, it's important to show role models.

And that's one thing I found in speaking with a lot of different women scientists, is that in their life, they had a lack of role models.

But they still got to where they are.

And that's one of the things that we want to show, is that it is very challenging to become a scientist, but these people overcame those challenges.

You can overcome those challenges.

All right.

Emily Driscoll, looking forward to the series.

Thanks so much.

Thank you.