Campus News

Sound Advice: The Impact of Transformative Mentorship on the Faculty in the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery

Michelle Meyers March 21, 2024
From left to right: Co-Division Chiefs of Research: Carolina Abdala, Ph.D., Christopher Shera, Ph.D., and Division Chief of Head and Neck Surgery: Uttam Sinha, MD, MS, FACS.

From left to right: Co-Division Chiefs of Research: Carolina Abdala, Ph.D., Christopher Shera, Ph.D., and Division Chief of Head and Neck Surgery: Uttam Sinha, MD, MS, FACS. (Photo Credit: Richard Carrasco and Christopher Shera)

It can be easy to imagine that the most prestigious and brilliant figures in our society simply emerged in a vacuum, but, in fact, strong mentorship can be key to cultivating the talents and ambitions of future generations of clinicians and researchers, as described by Dr. Carolina Abdala (Ph.D.), Dr. Christopher A. Shera (Ph.D.), and Dr. Uttam K. Sinha (M.D., M.S., F.A.C.S.) of the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Dr. Abdala, for example, was born in Argentina and came to the United States with her family when she was around three or four years old, growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles. During her Master’s program in Hearing Science at UC Santa Barbara, it became clear almost immediately that she was drawn to the research aspects of hearing more so than the clinical/diagnostic components. “I loved the logical, detail-oriented critical thinking required to design experiments in hearing and to interpret research findings, and from then on, I knew I was headed for a doctoral degree so that I could have my own research lab,” she says.

Dr. Abdala was then profoundly impacted by her time studying with Dr. Lynne Werner while completing her Ph.D. in Hearing Science at the University of Washington in Seattle in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Werner was a pioneering researcher in developing techniques to collect quantitative behavioral data on how young infants detect, discriminate, and categorize acoustic stimuli, and Abdala notes that Werner “is a living example of a highly dedicated, intellectual, well-read, well-published emerging scientist who was building her own lab and career while dealing with all of the real-life issues of family and the competing demands of life. But she always had time for questions and long discussions about science.” Abdala directly cites Werner’s influence on her mentorship practices in her own lab: “I try to exemplify dedication, depth in my work, precision, and creative, innovative research practices for my postdocs. I consider myself a teacher and make myself available for my trainees. I am very hands-on, digging in and getting into the nuts and bolts of the learning process. I challenge the trainees in my lab and have really high expectations for them, but I try to provide them with the tools to be successful.”

Dr. Shera, who serves as Co-Division Chief of Research of the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery with Abdala, describes how he “grew up playing happily among the scenic mesas and unexploded radioactive ordnance of Los Alamos, New Mexico. My father studied the structure of atomic nuclei using muons and my mother worked as a technical writer. So the science mutation, if not always present in my genes, was quickly induced by environmental exposure.” As a kid, he had hoped to become a field biologist and study the lions of the Serengeti, but inspired by his love of Star Trek (as well as his myopia and physical ineptness), he applied to graduate school to study astrophysics. A month or two before enrolling at Caltech, he met the man who would become his Ph.D. thesis advisor, George Zweig, whose influence and mentorship would change the course of Shera’s career path forever. Zweig was a theoretical particle physicist who had recently begun to work on cochlear mechanics, and because of Zweig, Shera switched from studying astrophysics to studying the ear. The cochlea is a fluid-filled structure in the inner ear that plays a vital role in hearing, and the study of cochlear mechanics looks at how the cochlea transduces sound-induced mechanical vibrations to neural signals. “I unwittingly missed out on the golden age of astrophysics,” Shera jokes. “But, by way of compensation, perhaps I have been lucky enough to participate in the golden age of hearing research.” Zweig taught Shera how to think clearly and productively, while John Guinan, his postdoctoral advisor at Harvard/MIT, taught Shera the importance of communicating about one’s work effectively.

Dr. Sinha, who is Professor and Director of USC Head and Neck Center, grew up in a small town at the foothills of the eastern part of the Himalayas in India, and during his childhood, he used to see patients lying on the streets with large tumors in the head and neck area, dying. This memory stayed with him, and he says: “This depressing scene planted a seed in my mind of becoming a doctor and taking care of these patients with this horrifying disease. I went on to study medicine in Calcutta University in India and started cancer immunology research in 1983 with a renowned professor at the Tropical School of Medicine of Calcutta University. However, I wanted to further my education and applied for a Research Fellowship at the House Ear Institute (HEI) at USC. Based on my cancer immunology thesis, I was accepted as a Research Fellow and moved to Los Angeles.” Sinha emphasizes that the most important mentorship experiences do not necessarily need to occur in an academic or professional setting. “When I was a kid, my first mentors–my parents–taught me to treat all people equally with respect, compassion, and dignity. Now I know these attributes are the foundations of professionalism. My second mentor was my high school teacher who educated me not to compromise quality in life. My third mentor, William House (M.D.) here at USC showed me the limitless potential of life and used to say, ‘the sky is the limit.’ All my mentors had several common traits. They were honest, trustworthy, loving, caring, compassionate, and always there to help others. I have embraced these wonderful traits and apply them when I mentor high school students, medical students, post-docs, and faculty.”

These mentorship best practices have tangible impacts–in fact, many current faculty members at the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery were once students. Shera recalls that Dr. Radha Kalluri (Ph.D.), who heads the Kalluri Lab at USC (which studies the physiology of the inner ear), was actually his first graduate student: “it has been both thrilling and gratifying to see my role as ‘Chief’ evolve from cheerleading advisor and problem-solver-of-last-resort to proud faculty colleague. It’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day, but seeing Radha’s journey as she has progressed through the stages of her career to become the great scientist that she is today has helped me enormously to appreciate my own.” Meanwhile, Sinha details how as the past Residency Program Director, he trained and mentored nearly half of the current faculty in the department, including Dr. Tamara Chambers (M.D.) Dr. Chambers is now Chief Medical Officer of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Los Angeles General Medical Center as well as Associate Program Director for the residency program, plus Co-Chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Action Committee for the Caruso Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. “Tamara did research with me when she was in high school,” Sinha says. “I stayed in touch with her when she was in college and mentored her as a medical student and resident, recruited her as faculty, and today, she is one of the most celebrated Black women in LA County as the Chief of OHNS at the Los Angeles General.” As Past President of the Society of University Otolaryngologists (SUO), one of the most prestigious national societies in otolaryngology, Sinha diversified the SUO Council and promoted inclusivity as strategic priority for faculty development. Sinha has also described how mentorship can leave a lasting influence on mentors as well as mentees: “as a junior faculty, one of the biggest achievements from this mentor-mentee relationship for me was the new perspectives I gained about people from different races, backgrounds, and cultures. This inspired me to mentor more minority students, especially Black, Latino, and Native American students, over the last 25 years. Through these experiences, my self-awareness, empathy, and humility have grown.”