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About the Institute

Profile of Melissa Polonenko

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Melissa Polonenko

By: Megan Hutchinson

Melissa Polonenko, M.Sc.

  • PhD Candidate, Neurosciences & Mental Health

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I grew up in Guelph and completed my undergraduate degree in physiology at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. During that time, I worked at the Robarts Research Institute looking at genetic predisposition to atherosclerosis, and I worked at the Lawson Health Institute investigating the role of a specific receptor protein in placentation and preeclampsia. I then made a big switch into audiology for my clinical Master’s degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders, during which I worked in the Child Amplification Lab. 

My interest in audiology began when I took a psychology elective course about sensation and perception and this grew as my grandmother became deaf. Seeing her struggle with hearing loss and sometimes being disconnected from what was going on motivated me to study audiology. 

Following my graduate studies, I worked clinically as an Audiologist in Edmonton at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital with Alberta Health Services, where I had a very diverse and stimulating practice. The questions that arose during that time inspired me to pursue a PhD, which I am now doing at the University of Toronto in the Institute of Medical Sciences and Collaborative Program in Neuroscience.

2. What are you researching right now?
At SickKids, I study brain development in children who have asymmetric hearing loss. These children have severe to profound hearing loss (deafness) in one ear whereas the other ear has quite a variable range of hearing loss - anywhere from normal hearing to a severe hearing loss as well. The problem for these children is that they don’t meet standard criteria for a cochlear implant in the one ear but they struggle because they don’t have adequate hearing in both ears. 

This has language, social and educational implications. The brain integrates information from both ears in order to listen to noise and identify different speakers. When bilateral hearing is compromised, children spend so much time trying to hear what people are saying that they are then not able to listen properly and comprehend and think about what is being said.  

I study these children in order to understand how the brain responds to this kind of asymmetric hearing during development and how we can optimize or promote normal development.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
There are so many amazing scientists. Personally, it is my mentor who really inspired me to consider a career in research, Dr. Richard Seewald. He revolutionized the field of audiology and guided research into management of children with hearing loss. Beyond being a pillar of the field, Dr. Seewald was always very humble and took the time for his students, even a first-year Master’s student. Now he's working with non-profit organizations to improve access to care for people all over the world, irrespective of their income. As a person and as a scientist, he is an inspiration and model to me.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough?
I would say that understanding the structure of DNA is the most important breakthrough. It allows us to understand so much about the pathogenesis of disease. Just by understanding our systems and what we learned through the human genome project allows us to create targets for drugs. This helps us improve the prognosis and the treatment of disease. We are also able to better understand some of the causes of hearing loss.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I am an avid hiker. I’ve hiked several mountains and many of my holidays are spent doing some form of hiking. I also play the piano and enjoy baking - I call it “baking therapy.” I have a big sense of adventure and love trying new things, whether that be hiking a new mountain trail, going to new places, or exploring the city.

6. What inspires your work?
My trajectory was inspired by Dr. Seewald. Day-to-day I’m insatiably curious. It’s always interesting for me to ask new questions or to see something new, but I think that, ultimately, it is the children I see that inspire me most. When I was in practice, by just talking with them I really saw how much effort they put forth. All children are unique and they have all led to new insights into research that we wouldn’t have found otherwise if we didn’t talk to them. My passion and interest in research is fueled by my ultimate goal, which is to improve hearing for children.

7. Why SickKids?
I love SickKids. What I really like about it is how they integrate research and clinical. The interaction between clinicians and researchers (and clinician scientists!) helps continual care but also integrating research and clinical care together. SickKids is a leader in healthcare for children and research. With the Research Institute and how things are structured within the research tower, there are so many opportunities to meet other researchers. There is also a great variety of support and resources, such as workshops on how to improve your resume, writing and exploring career opportunities. I feel very blessed and fortunate to be in this environment.  

8. What is the most controversial question in your field?
There are several questions in my field right now. One question right now is related to what we are trying to change in clinical practice. Through our research, we are exploring the idea of providing cochlear implants to children who do not necessarily meet the traditional implant criteria. There are only a few sites in the world that have expanded their criteria to allow provision of an implant to this unique population, and we are one of those sites because of the stellar team we have here at SickKids. This is controversial because we are asking the question, should we be giving implants to this special group of children and does it improve their quality of life, their ability to learn and interact?

9. What are you reading right now?
I take the TTC (public transit) every day so that’s my pleasure reading time. I love murder mysteries or crime dramas and I am currently reading Careless in Red by Elizabeth George. It’s part of the Inspector Lynley series. I enjoy trying to figure out who did it before they reveal it.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
I think you need to really ask yourself what you like to do and explore different options. I volunteered in different labs during my undergrad. Each year I was in a different lab to gain exposure and experience to see what I like. Before I went into audiology I volunteered in different audiology clinics to and an audiology research lab to see if this is the field for me. Explore your options and try. Ask for experiences in labs to obtain exposure and keep your options open and see what opportunities will arise. Stay focused and ask questions – don’t be afraid to ask questions!

November 2017