A student works on a microscope in the Trapani lab
A student at work in the Trapani lab. Photo by David Le ’17E

Spend a little time with Josef Trapani, and what makes him light up quickly becomes clear.

It’s not his recent $439,357 grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders—the second-largest grant the National Institutes of Health has ever awarded to an Amherst professor.

It’s not the advances that could someday come from his research, such as better cochlear implants and devices that are better at detecting a much wider range of sound. 

It’s when the assistant professor of biology walks around his lab that it’s apparent where his passion lies: in working with students. It’s there as he banters with a group from Amherst’s SURF Program who look up, grinning, from their microscopes; as he enthuses about a piece of innovative equipment one woman is creating; and as he talks to an undergraduate researcher about fish embryos.

Undergraduate students, he says, are fundamental to all that he does—from summer research in his laboratory, to co-authoring papers, such as one recently published in The Journal of Physiology.

“It’s really important that the research is fundable and exciting and asking important questions, but it’s also really important that it’s exposing students” to research methods and techniques, Trapani says, adding that he works "with the students to learn to do the experiments, but then they collect all the data, they do the analysis, they make the figures, they help write the papers.

Student at work in Trapani Lab Photo by Takudzwa Tapfuma
Photo by Takudzwa Tapfuma ’17

Announced in June and awarded at the beginning of July, Trapani’s NIDCD grant will be divided among supplies, money for students, a student travel budget, a publication budget and faculty and staff summer salaries. 

The grant research will focus on understanding the way zebrafish detect water motion, how their brains interpret that information, and ultimately how that process is similar to what happens with the auditory system in humans.

For Trapani, though, the grant is important not just because it advances his research, but also because it gives him more opportunities to bring students into his lab.

By being in the lab, he says, that students can learn to think independently, create and test a hypothesis, and understand what an experiment can, and can’t, do.

“The temptation is to say, ‘Oh, we’re going to understand how hearing works,’” he said. “But it’s really good for them to get into the lab and see that a lot of times science is incremental in the day-to-day—and that the leaps and jumps come in tying together really good experiments.”

As part of his grant proposal, Trapani explained how his research into low-frequency sound encoding could help advance the development of hearing devices. While he’s focused on the basic science, he notes how a medical device company might eventually use the published research to improve existing devices.  

“At the biological level we’re asking how sensory information is encoded,” he said. “We’d like to extend those findings to say that, ultimately, we might understand a little bit more about how human hearing works.”