Interview with Christine Petit

Pioneer of the genetics of hearing talks about how her research interests have been shaped by wine and music – and how she would cope with deafness

November 8, 2018
Christine Petit
Source: Christine Petit

Christine Petit has spent her career attempting to understand how genetic defects affect sight, smell and hearing. She is currently head of the genetics and physiology of hearing laboratory at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and also holds a chair in genetics and cellular physiology at the Collège de France. Previous honours include, in 2012, the Brain Prize, awarded by the Lundbeck Foundation. Earlier this year she was awarded the Kavli Prize in neuroscience for exploring the genetics of hereditary deafness, and identifying more than 20 genes crucial for hearing. 

When and where were you born?
I was born in Laignes, a small village in northern Burgundy, in 1948.

How did your family life shape you?
I was extremely lucky to grow up in a family where the quest for authenticity guided our way of life. There was a very strong conviction that everyone has immense potential that should be allowed to develop. I was highly influenced by my father, a brilliant physicist who grew up in a very modest family. I was also marked by the extreme frustration of my paternal grandmother, who was excellent at school but was denied the chance to become a teacher because she was a woman.

How did your childhood foster an interest in scientific investigation?
I spent a lot of time in the country, and at that time we had no organised activities – I was free to go where my curiosity drove me; to make, for example, a waterwheel turned by the local stream, or to capture and dissect small creatures, using whatever magnifying glasses I could find. I could spend a full day trying to dissect some insects without anyone disturbing me! This immense freedom was a real plus. I think that children growing up in towns today lack this important experience.

Before researching hearing, you were interested in smell. Have you always been curious about the senses?
My mother’s family were vintners, producing Chassagne-Montrachet, one of the best wines of Burgundy, and an olfactory culture was central – tasting wine, learning to recognise the village of origin of the wine, the vineyard, the vintage. And also, family meals lasting five to six hours! My interest in the senses was also stimulated by music. At home everyone played a musical instrument, and we would all sing – hiking songs, drinking songs, religious songs. What we are is shaped by our senses and our sensory perception.

Has your work made you better appreciate your own hearing?
I always ask myself, if I were deaf, what could I perceive? I would not recognise the voice of my friends and, even more importantly, I would be unable to recognise their feelings in the way that we normally do even when someone just says “hello”. I would be unable to enjoy music. It would be highly frustrating and I would feel very isolated.

How would you cope with being deaf?
First of all, I would not hide the fact that I was deaf. One of the key issues, particularly in Mediterranean countries, is that people tend to hide their deafness, making it more difficult for those around them.

Your work has taken you to study large, isolated families with hereditary deafness in North Africa and the Middle East. How did you manage to convince them to work with you?
I knew that if we were able to identify large families affected by deafness, I would be able to pull out the genes responsible. Retrospectively, what I find surprising is the way that our colleagues in these countries threw themselves into the project with enthusiasm, carrying out the huge task of searching for family members affected by deafness in geographic isolation, and collecting blood samples. As everything was new, they felt that they were pioneers, and that really motivated them. They rapidly became autonomous and highly committed to the project.

What one thing would make your working day better?
Administrative tasks really pollute the lives of researchers. Frankly, this is not our job. Moreover, the need for younger scientists to reapply continually for grants to fund their work detracts from their research activities. There needs to be more support for risk-taking in science, without which there is little gain.

What do you do for fun?
I walk – in the past I did a lot of trekking, in Nepal, South America, Morocco, Yemen and Tanzania, for example. I like being outdoors, camping and discovering new places and cultures. I also like going to concerts; my son is a jazz cellist.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Be yourself, first of all. Be free. And don’t be afraid to take risks.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Joël Mesot has been appointed the new president of ETH Zurich. Professor Mesot will begin a four-year term in January, succeeding Lino Guzzella. He has been director of the Paul Scherrer Institute in Villigen since 2008 and holds a joint professorship in physics at ETH and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. Professor Guzzella said that he was delighted that ETH had “found such a safe pair of hands” in Professor Mesot. “He has a strong background in technology, science and research, and as director of PSI he has proven his ability to lead a large research institute,” Professor Guzzella said. 

Olivette Otele has become the UK’s first black professor of history after being awarded a personal chair by Bath Spa University. Her research focuses on the links between history, collective memory and geopolitics in relation to the British and French colonial pasts. Professor Otele said that there were “many hard-working women, especially women of colour, working in academia, and I hope this will open the door to more of them receiving the recognition they deserve”. Sue Rigby, Bath Spa’s vice-chancellor, described Professor Otele as a “world-class and internationally renowned academic”.

The new vice-chancellor of the University of London will be Wendy Thomson. Professor Thomson, who holds a professorship of social policy at McGill University, is currently managing director of Norfolk County Council. She previously served as the UK prime minister’s chief adviser on public service reform, and as director of best value inspections for England and Wales at the Audit Commission. 

William Locke, currently reader in higher education studies at the UCL Institute of Education, has been named the new director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne

Mary Spongberg, currently dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Tech-nology Sydney, has been appointed deputy vice-chancellor (research) at Southern Cross University.

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