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Professor Neil Segil, Ph.D

In Memoriam: Neil Segil, PhD (1953–2022)

Professor, Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, and USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, Keck School of Medicine of USC


It is with sadness that we share that Neil Segil, PhD, passed away on July 2, 2022. Dr. Segil was an internationally recognized scientist, known for his pioneering research on factors controlling sensory cell division and specification in the inner ear. Since most people experience some degree of deafness as they age, his work is of considerable medical significance. 

“Neil’s influential research was founded on a deep scholarship, insightful and innovative experiments, and an ease in extending his laboratory’s research through highly productive, collaborative partnerships,” said Andy McMahon, chair of the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at USC.

Dr. Segil received his undergraduate degree from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he majored in philosophy and psychology. He spent the next few years traveling before earning his PhD from Columbia University in New York City in biochemistry, with an emphasis on early frog development. When his thesis advisers relocated to Vienna, he moved abroad, and then completed a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology, with a focus on cell division and gene expression, with Dr. Nathaniel Heintz at The Rockefeller University in New York City.  

In 1996, Dr. Segil was recruited to the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology in the research division of the House Ear Institute (HEI), a Los Angeles nonprofit devoted to auditory neuroscience. He spent the majority of his career at HEI, where he rose through the ranks to become Director of the Division of Cell Biology and Genetics from 2006 to 2013, and Executive Vice President for Research from 2010 to 2013. 

Dr. Andrew K. Groves, now a faculty member at the Baylor College of Medicine, collaborated with Dr. Segil since 1999, when they were both scientists at HEI.

“Neil’s enthusiasm, generosity of ideas, and practical help allowed me to expand my own research scope far more than I would have planned when I started my lab,” said Groves. “He has constantly challenged me to be a better scientist, to try new techniques and to not be afraid of projects failing. As a result, I am undoubtedly a better and more successful scientist for having known him. Our collaboration lasted for over 20 years, and it has been my privilege to have Neil as a colleague, an intellectual soul mate and a friend throughout this time.”

Dr. Segil’s initial relationship with the Keck School of Medicine was established as a voluntary faculty member in the Department of Cell and Neurobiology from 1996 to 2013. When HEI’s research division closed, many of the research faculty were recruited as a group to the Keck School. Dr. Segil was a natural fit with the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, and the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, and he was eventually appointed as a full Professor with tenure.

Dr. Segil was well funded throughout his career, and published extensively in high impact journals, including Developmental Cell,  Nature, and Journal of Neuroscience, among others. Projects still underway include studies investigating the gene regulatory mechanisms responsible for the failure of the sensory cells of the inner ear to regenerate after being lost or damaged, and drug screening and gene therapy approaches to cellular reprogramming for the treatment of hearing loss.

Beyond his research, Dr. Segil was deeply committed to educating the next generation of scientists. In 2007, he co-founded and then directed USC’s Hearing and Communication Neuroscience graduate and post-graduate training program, funded by a T32 grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. The training program brings together faculty and trainees in auditory neuroscience across the Keck School, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. 

According to Dr. John Oghalai, chair of the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, “Neil was instrumental in bringing together faculty from diverse areas across USC to design and organize the curriculum and acquire the necessary funding. The result of his tireless effort was a vibrant program for training and mentoring graduate students and postdoctoral scholars that thrives to this day.” 

Dr. Christopher A. Shera, professor in the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, added, “The program structure reflects Neil’s philosophy and approach to teaching and mentoring—an approach deeply grounded in his own undergraduate experience at Hampshire College—that at every level, the goal of the mentor is to help others learn how to think about and solve problems while allowing those mentored to imagine it was all their own idea.”

Dr. Segil was a valued mentor for dozens of trainees at every level, many of whom have gone on to faculty positions at prestigious universities. He was also a valued mentor to junior faculty, for which he received a USC mentoring award. 

Dr. Ksenia Gnedeva completed her postdoctoral training in the Segil Lab before being hired as an assistant professor in the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery. 

“I’m grateful for the opportunities to learn from Dr. Segil,” she said, “whose generosity as a colleague and a mentor can only be matched by his humbleness and kindness as a person.” 

Dr. Min Yu, an associate professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, was also formally mentored by Dr. Segil when she joined USC. 

“Neil has set a standard as a role model, and forever inspired me to become the best scientist and mentor that I can be,” she said. “With his critical mind, innovative science, extensive knowledge, and caring and supportive attitude, I couldn’t have asked for a better career mentor.”

Dr. Segil’s leadership roles in his field extended far beyond HEI and USC. Among other important roles, he served as member of the Board of Scientific Councillors at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders from 2009 to 2014, and served as a member of the Advisory Council from 2017 to 2019. He was also a founding member of the Hearing Restoration Project, a national consortium of scientists supported by the Hearing Health Foundation and dedicated to studying inner ear sensory cell regeneration. These roles underscore Dr. Segil’s influence in shaping the field of molecular and cellular biology as it relates to the auditory system. 

Dr. Segil is survived by his wife Greta and son Nathan. In lieu of flowers, friends and colleagues who wish to honor Dr. Segil’s life and work can considering donating to the Segil scholarship fund for supporting educational programs in stem cell and regenerative medicine by visiting our giving page. When prompted, please select “USC Stem Cell Fund” and add Dr. Segil’s name under “memorial or honorarium information.”

We would like to sincerely thank the following individuals for contributing to this piece: Andy McMahon, PhD; John Oghalai, MD; Robert E. Maxson, PhD; Andrew K. Groves, PhD; Christopher A. Shera, PhD; Min Yu, MD, PhD; Ksenia Gnedeva, PhD; Cristy Lytal; and Judy Garner, PhD.



Hearing loss can significantly disrupt the ability of children to become mainstreamed in educational environments that emphasize spoken language as a primary means of communication. Similarly, adults who lose their hearing after communicating using spoken language have numerous challenges understanding speech and integrating into social situations. These challenges are particularly significant in noisy situations, where multiple sound sources often arrive at the ears from various directions. Intervention with hearing aids and/or cochlear implants (CIs) has proven to be highly successful for restoring some aspects of communication, including speech understanding and language acquisition. However, there is also typically a notable gap in outcomes relative to normal-hearing listeners. Importantly, auditory abilities operate in the context of how hearing integrates with other senses. Notably, the visual system is tightly couples to the auditory system. Vision is known to impact auditory perception and neural mechanisms in vision and audition are tightly coupled, thus, in order to understand how we hear and how CIs affect auditory perception we must consider the integrative effects across these senses.

We start with Rebecca Alexander, a compelling public speaker who has been living with Usher’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder found in tens of thousands of people, causing both deafness and blindness in humans. Ms. Alexander will be introduced by Dr. Jeffrey Holt, who studies gene therapy strategies for hearing restoration. The symposium then highlights the work of scientists working across these areas. Here we integrate psychophysics, clinical research, and biological approaches, aiming to gain a coherent understanding of how we might ultimately improve outcomes in patients. Drs. Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik are new to the ARO community, and will discuss neurobiology of the visual system as it relates to visual prostheses. Dr. Jennifer Groh’s work will then discuss multi-sensory processing and how it is that vision helps us hear. Having set the stage for thinking about the role of vision in a multisensory auditory world, we will hear from experts in the area of cochlear implants. Dr. René H Gifford will discuss recent work on electric-acoustic integration in children and adults, and Dr. Sharon Cushing will discuss her work as a clinician on 3-D auditory and vestibular effects. Dr. Matthew Winn will talk about cognitive load and listening effort using pupillometry, and we will end with Dr. Rob Shepherd’s discussion of current work and future possibilities involving biological treatments and neural prostheses. Together, these presentations are designed to provide a broad and interdisciplinary view of the impact of sensory restoration in hearing, vision and balance, and the potential for future approaches for improving the lives of patients.

Kirupa Suthakar, PhD - Dr Kirupa Suthakar is a postdoctoral fellow at NIH/NIDCD, having formerly trained as a postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts Eye and Ear/Harvard Medical School and doctoral student at Garvan Institute of Medical Research/UNSW Australia.  Kirupa's interest in the mind and particular fascination by how we are able to perceive the world around us led her to pursue a research career in auditory neuroscience.  To date, Kirupa's research has broadly focused on neurons within the auditory efferent circuit, which allow the brain to modulate incoming sound signals at the ear.  Kirupa is active member of the spARO community, serving as the Chair Elect for 2021.



I began studying the vestibular system during my dissertation research at the Università di Pavia with Professors Ivo Prigioni and GianCarlo Russo. I had two postdoctoral fellowships, first at the University of Rochester with Professor Christopher Holt and then at the University of Illinois at Chicago with Professors Jonathan Art and Jay Goldberg.

My research focuses on characterizing the biophysics of synaptic transmission between hair cells and primary afferents in the vestibular system. For many years an outstanding question in vestibular physiology was how the transduction current in the type I hair cell was sufficient, in the face of large conductances on at rest, to depolarize it to potentials necessary for conventional synaptic transmission with its unique afferent calyx.

In collaboration with Dr. Art, I overcame the technical challenges of simultaneously recording from type I hair cells and their enveloping calyx afferent to investigate this question. I was able to show that with depolarization of either hair cell or afferent, potassium ions accumulating in the cleft depolarize the synaptic partner. Conclusions from these studies are that due to the extended apposition between type I hair cell and its afferent, there are three modes of communication across the synapse. The slowest mode of transmission reflects the dynamic changes in potassium ion concentration in the cleft which follow the integral of the ongoing hair cell transduction current. The intermediate mode of transmission is indirectly a result of this potassium elevation which serves as the mechanism by which the hair cell potential is depolarized to levels necessary for calcium influx and the vesicle fusion typical of glutamatergic quanta. This increase in potassium concentration also depolarizes the afferent to potentials that allow the quantal EPSPs to trigger action potentials. The third and most rapid mode of transmission like the slow mode of transmission is bidirectional, and a current flowing out of either hair cell or afferent into the synaptic cleft will divide between a fraction flowing out into the bath, and a fraction flowing across the cleft into its synaptic partner.

The technical achievement of the dual electrode approach has enabled us to identify new facets of vestibular end organ synaptic physiology that in turn raise new questions and challenges for our field. I look forward with great excitement to the next chapter in my scientific story.


Charles C. Della Santina, PhD MD is a Professor of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery and Biomedical Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he directs the Johns Hopkins Cochlear Implant Center and the Johns Hopkins Vestibular NeuroEngineering Laboratory.

As a practicing neurotologic surgeon, Dr. Della Santina specializes in treatment of middle ear, inner ear and auditory/vestibular nerve disorders. His clinical interests include restoration of hearing via cochlear implantation and management of patients who suffer from vestibular disorders, with a particular focus on helping individuals disabled by chronic postural instability and unsteady vision after bilateral loss of vestibular sensation. His laboratory’s research centers on basic and applied research supporting development of vestibular implants, which are medical devices intended to partially restore inner ear sensation of head movement. In addition to that work, his >90 publications include studies characterizing inner ear physiology and anatomy; describing novel clinical tests of vestibular function; and clarifying the effects of cochlear implantation, vestibular implantation, superior canal dehiscence syndrome and intratympanic gentamicin therapy on the inner ear and central nervous system.  Dr. Della Santina is also the founder and CEO/Chief Scientific Officer of Labyrinth Devices LLC, a company dedicated to bringing novel vestibular testing and implant technology into routine clinical care.

Andrew Griffith received his MD and PhD in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University in 1992. He completed his general surgery internship and a residency in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Michigan in 1998. He also completed a postdoctoral research fellowship in the Department of Human Genetics as part of his training at the University of Michigan. In 1998, he joined the Division of Intramural Research (DIR) in the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). He served as a senior investigator, the chief of the Molecular Biology and Genetics Section, the chief of the Otolaryngology Branch, and the director of the DIR, as well as the deputy director for Intramural Clinical Research across the NIH Intramural Research Program. His research program identifies and characterizes molecular and cellular mechanisms of normal and disordered hearing and balance in humans and mouse models. Two primary interests of his program have been hearing loss associated with enlargement of the vestibular aqueduct, and the function of TMC genes and proteins. The latter work lead to the discovery that the deafness gene product TMC1 is a component of the hair cell sensory transduction channel. Since July of 2020, he has served as the Senior Associate Dean of Research and a Professor of Otolaryngology and Physiology in the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Gwenaëlle S. G. Géléoc obtained a PhD in Sensory Neurobiology from the University of Sciences in Montpellier (France) in 1996. She performed part of her PhD training at the University of Sussex, UK where she characterized sensory transduction in vestibular hair cells and a performed a comparative study between vestibular and cochlear hair cells. Gwenaelle continued her training as an electrophysiologist at University College London studying outer hair cell motility and at Harvard Medical School studying modulation of mechanotransduction in vestibular hair cells. As an independent investigator at the University of Virginia, she expanded this work and characterized the developmental acquisition of sensory transduction in mouse vestibular hair cells, the developmental acquisition of voltage-sensitive conductances in vestibular hair cells and the tonotopic gradient in the acquisition of sensory transduction in the mouse cochlea. This work along with quantitative spatio-temporal studies performed on several hair cell mechanotransduction candidates lead her to TMC1 and 2 and long-term collaborations with Andrew Griffith and Jeff Holt. Dr. Géléoc is currently Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology, at Boston Children’s Hospital where she continues to study molecular players involved in the development and function of hair cells of the inner ear and develops new therapies for the treatment of deafness and balance, with a particular focus on Usher syndrome.

Jeff Holt earned a doctorate from the Department of Physiology at the University of Rochester in 1995 for his studies of inward rectifier potassium channels in saccular hair cells.  He went on to a post-doctoral position in the Neurobiology Department at Harvard Medical School and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where he characterized sensory transduction and adaptation in hair cells and developed a viral vector system to transfect cultured hair cells.  Dr. Holt’s first faculty position was in the Neuroscience Department at the University of Virginia.  In 2011 the lab moved to Boston Children’s Hospital / Harvard Medical School.  Dr. Holt is currently a Professor in the Departments of Otolaryngology and Neurology in the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center.  Dr. Holt and his team have been studying sensory transduction in auditory and vestibular hair cells over the past 20 years, with particular focus on TMC1 and TMC2 over the past 12 years.  This work lead to the discovery that TMC1 forms the hair cell transduction channel.  His work also focuses on development gene therapy strategies for genetic hearing loss.