Travis Austin Babola

I’ve always been told that practice makes perfect. In the developing auditory system, this also seems the case. Even before hearing begins, cells in the inner ear rehearse for hearing — sending electrical signals to the brain that are indistinguishable from pure tones. During my Ph.D. studies, I was able to visualize these signals in awake animals using fluorescent brain activity sensors. We found that brain activity in developing auditory centers is highly organized and propagates from the periphery all the way to the auditory cortex. This activity was not driven by sounds (the auditory canal is not open), but originated in the inner ear itself, as removal of the ears abolished this activity. While we don’t know the exact role this activity plays during development, we suspect that coordinated activation of brain cells across multiple brain areas helps refine and strengthen newly formed brain connections. Understanding how this activity influences development may help us gain new insights into auditory processing disorders in young children, the causes of which remain unknown and underexplored.

Questions & Answers

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I had my sights set on Hopkins after working for two years as a research technician at the University of Texas at Austin. With acceptance of my application and my (now) wife already living outside D.C., it was a no-brainer.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

Upon receiving the email for this award, I immediately delved into figuring out who the namesake was. I was saddened to see that Alicia Showalter was a young Ph.D. student whose life was taken too early on a trip to Virginia to visit her mother. I hope to honor Alicia by committing to continue my research and studies. I am lucky to have been chosen for this award and appreciate those around me who have made my success probable.

What contributed to your project’s success? 

The many personalities of the Bergles lab, Crair lab and Muller lab contributed immensely to my success. I’ve worked with so many great people who shared key insights and advice, many of whom I could not give enough thanks. In particular, Amit Agarwal and Dongeun Heo slogged me through the basics of molecular biology, Alexandra Gribizis and Michael Crair provided key technical assistance in live calcium imaging, and Dwight Bergles sparked more ideas than I could ever attempt to explore.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles students and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

Science is hard and life is short. Young Investigators’ Day serves to recognize the accomplishments of young scientists in a time when careers and futures are uncertain. I am lucky to have been selected and will keep working tirelessly toward being the best scientist I can be.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

Hopkins hosts scientists from all around the world and sends its scientists to conferences all over the world. I’ve had conversations with people from China, Taiwan, Russia, Germany and South Korea — and that’s just people in my lab!

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

As all of my colleagues will tell you, I won’t shut up about marching band. I was in the University of Texas Longhorn Band and the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps during college, and have performed all across the United States.