When a stranger at a party asks scientist Peter Barr-Gillespie, Ph.D., what he does for a living, he doesn’t start off explaining he’s trying to prevent deafness.
Instead, he deep dives into his passion for understanding sensory cells and how they help us perceive the outside world. He doesn’t expect everyone to understand the details of his hearing research, but he hopes his overall enthusiasm is contagious.
Science increasingly includes developing easy-to-digest elevator pitches about research and acknowledging some members of society distrust science. But Barr-Gillespie — who is a professor of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery in the OHSU School of Medicine — sticks to his wonder of the unknown.
“I come to my research with a real, insatiable curiosity about the world,” he said. “I’m interested in exploring biological problems for their own sake. It turns out what I do has tremendous relevance for solving hearing loss, but I remain a committed basic scientist who's driven by the search for understanding.”
Considering Barr-Gillespie has spent the last 30 years toiling away on the minute, molecular details of how sensory cells in the inner ear called hair cells allow humans to hear, it’s no surprise he’s a science cheerleader.
Barr-Gillespie grew up in the Seattle area. He followed the footsteps of his parents and attended Reed College in Portland and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1981. He completed his senior undergraduate thesis at OHSU thanks to a summer fellowship in the biochemistry department.
In 1988 he earned a doctorate in pharmacology at the University of Washington, where he focused on light-sensitive cells in the eye. After finishing grad school, Barr-Gillespie determined there were more unknowns in hearing than vision, which led him to switch his research focus. He returned to Portland 10 years later as a researcher at OHSU’s Vollum Institute and its Oregon Hearing Research Center.
After decades of lab work, Barr-Gillespie added administration to his resume when he took on OHSU’s associate vice president for research role in 2014. In 2017, he became the interim senior vice president for research.
In general, his new position has him supporting OHSU research, which exceeded $410 million during the 2017 fiscal year. But Barr-Gillespie also directly oversees about $15 million in funding for research support, including the University Shared Resources Program, which buys expensive equipment such as high-powered microscopes for OHSU researchers to share when individuals can’t easily purchase such equipment on their own. And nine of OHSU’s research centers and institutes – such as the Oregon National Primate Research Center and the Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute – report to him.
An important part of his job is advocating for research while also understanding the financial and other constraints OHSU faces as Oregon’s only academic health center. The OHSU health care system supports OHSU’s research side, Barr-Gillespie noted, and the school’s research future partly depends on OHSU effectively navigating health care reform. Despite these challenges, he is confident that OHSU scientists will continue to do well.
“The answer is not to cut back on the research we do,” Barr-Gillespie said. “The answer is to improve our position among U.S. research universities and to invest smartly so we can further strengthen ourselves in areas that we’re already strong – and invest in new areas so we can remain at the cutting edge of science.”
Though his administrative responsibilities mean he can no longer spend 12 hours at a time running experiments, Barr-Gillespie still oversees his own research lab. His currently focuses on data analysis and grant writing – two unglamorous aspects of research that he happens to enjoy. He’s happy to do almost anything to keep basic science moving forward.
“Basic science is a wonderful contribution to the human condition,” he said. “For us to understand who we are at the chemical and physical level, to understand who we are in the world, really expands what it is to be alive. It enriches all of us.”