Logo for University of Iowa Health Care This logo represents the University of Iowa Health Care

Faculty Focus: Kirill V. Nourski

Date: Wednesday, February 8, 2017

What is your hometown?

Leningrad, USSR (now St. Petersburg, Russia)

When did you join the University of Iowa faculty?


How/when did you become interested in science and medicine?

A family friend, Jacob Altman, who was a prominent Russian auditory scientist, inspired my interest in the physiology of hearing. During my second year of medical school, I joined his lab as an assistant and my interests changed from clinical medicine to basic science. I wanted to make contributions to society with my life’s work.

What interested you to pursue a career in Neurosurgery?

After I had earned my MD and PhD, I was exploring the possibility of continuing work in auditory research. Dr. Matthew Howard’s Human Brain Research Laboratory at University of Iowa Department of Neurosurgery was doing fascinating and unique studies of human auditory cortex. I had the opportunity to work in that realm, and I took it.

Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career?

I consider myself very lucky in that I have had great mentors at all points in my career. Two of them have very strongly affected my work in neuroscience.

Dr. Paul Abbas was the best kind of PhD advisor one could have: patient, knowledgeable, and supportive.  He was always available for opinions and advice despite his numerous commitments. Dr. John Brugge, who was my postdoc mentor, is a legend in the field of auditory cortex research. From him, I tried to take the traits of a cautious and thorough scientist, always seeking the scientific equivalent of ‘measure twice and cut once.’

How or why did you choose the University of Iowa?

Working in my last year of medical school in St. Petersburg, Russia, I learned about the Biosciences Program at The University of Iowa through a visiting UI faculty member, Dr. Nikolai Artemyev. He was in St. Petersburg visiting my university, interviewing those interested in applying to the program. Since I’d decided on science, the more I read and understood of the Biosciences Program at the University of Iowa, the more I realized that Iowa would teach me what I wanted to know.

The University of Iowa’s faculty members are united to provide exceptional patient care while advancing innovations in research and medical education. How does your work help translate new discoveries into patient centered care and education?

As a research faculty member in the Department of Neurosurgery, I have the opportunity to work closely with patients who volunteer to participate in our research studies. With these patients and their families, I do my best to explain how our research program works, how their participation advances scientific progress, and how the research benefits humankind.

What kinds of professional opportunities or advantages does being a faculty member at an academic medical center provide?

My present research is dependent on the participation of neurosurgical patients. Without their generous participation, we would not make the advances we have been able to. There is also the opportunity to meet and collaborate with other professionals and other scientists of different specialties. Finally, with medical students and residents in the lab, I have the opportunity to share my knowledge and get their feedback and fresh thinking. 

Please describe your professional interests.

I work in the Human Brain Research Laboratory with a team of neurosurgeons and neuroscientists to understand how the human brain processes sound in normal and disordered conditions.

Our research program is among a handful in the world with expertise in working with neurosurgical epilepsy patients who undergo electrode implantation for clinical diagnostic purposes. This provides a unique opportunity to study auditory and auditory-related cortex with high spatial (millimeters) and temporal (milliseconds) resolution.

My work focuses on studying the functional organization of human auditory cortex, processing of sounds under adverse listening conditions, and effects of cognition on auditory cortical function.

Functional organization of auditory cortex is poorly defined in humans, and  its better understanding is achieved through systematic investigation of its basic response properties. This knowledge, in turn, serves as a foundation for understanding higher auditory functions, i.e. how the brain “makes sense of sound” to build a coherent percept of the environment.

Finally, I also study how degraded listening conditions (e.g. as encountered by people with hearing loss or by cochlear implant users)  affect sound processing. This line of work seeks to bridge my basic research with interventions for patient benefit.

What led to your interest in your field?

Being exposed to auditory science in the lab, I worked in as a medical student.  I saw how cool it was, how relevant its study is, and how much there is left to learn. By the time I finished my medical degree, I knew this was the field for me. 

How does working in a collaborative and comprehensive academic medical center benefit your work?

For me, it’s of great importance that I have been able to maintain the connections I made 15 years ago as a grad student, and these colleagues in other UI departments often provide an outside-the-box perspective.

Keeping in touch with others who do hearing research, in areas outside my own research projects, helps me stay up to date, and can help further my own work. 

What are some of your outside interests?

I am a big fan of the music of the 1960s. I have a collection of over 3,000 LPs and 2,000 45s including the largest collection of Heino albums in North America. On weekends and in my travels, I always seek out record stores and resale shops.

I sometimes deejay on the weekends at a downtown club that features a Mod night. I’m also a big fan of B-movies (the “so-bad-it’s-good” kind) and music documentaries, and host a weekly movie night with friends. 

Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?

My colleague, mentor, and friend, Dr. Steven Green, once said, “You cannot be on leave from science.” That is absolutely true. I am driven to work, seven days a week.

If you could change one thing about the world (or the world of medicine/science), what would it be?

We used to have pizza served at the epilepsy surgery conference. If I could change one thing about the world, I'd have the good old days of the pizza epilepsy surgery conference back.

What is the biggest change you've experienced in your field since you were a student?

The internet.

There is so much information available at your fingertips. This is helpful, of course, but there is so much out there, it can be overwhelming and even distracting. There are so many journals and perspectives online, it’s hard to keep up. With so many new papers coming out, important seminal work might be forgotten or unfortunately ignored.

What one piece of advice would you give to today's students?

It’s important to keep a balance between work and play. Keep yourself happy and healthy. 

What do you see as "the future" of medicine/science?

Future research advances will be dependent upon multi-disciplinary approaches. Progress in neuroscience relies upon advances in computer science, biomedical engineering, and other fields. These interactions will lead to the next great discoveries.

In what ways are you engaged with the greater Iowa public (i.e. population based research, mentoring high school students, sharing your leadership/expertise with organizations or causes, speaking engagements off campus, etc.)?

You don’t have to ask me twice about my work; I am happy to share. I have worked with local junior high school students in mock interviews, presented at the UI Brain Awareness Week, and spoken at the Iowa Chapter of Society for Neuroscience at Iowa State University.  

Faculty Focus Archive