NIDCD’s Platt Bids Farewell
As Dr. Christopher Platt—who joined NIDCD as a program director in 2003 and retired at the end of December—will tell you, all species of fish do not navigate through their liquid habitat in the same way. Flounders can swim tilted on one side, catfish graze along the water surface while inverted and other fish can point their nose either upward or downward. Fascinated since youth by the range of balancing acts, Platt applied his scientific mind toward explaining how the vestibular system in the inner ear functions for maintaining posture and balance.
Platt’s passion for fish and biology in general began during his boyhood in a University of Chicago faculty neighborhood. He visited the aquarium and zoo, dipped his toe into marine biology on the East Coast on summer breaks and majored in zoology in college. In 1967, at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., he discovered neuroscience and applied it to behavioral biology, especially spatial orientation and navigation in fish.
“Fish don’t have necks or legs,” said Platt, an NIDCD extramural program director. “The way they tilt is a reflection of what their ears are telling them. The vestibular sense, which has been called a sixth sense, is not well studied in comparison to sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. It is so critical to overall health that it is an important specific mission area for NIDCD.”
After earning a Ph.D. in marine biology from Scripps and becoming an assistant professor at the University of Southern California and later a research assistant professor at Georgetown University, Platt continued to focus on how fish use their inner ears for hearing and balance. He transitioned into research administration at the National Science Foundation by first becoming a “rotator” program officer, later the sensory systems program director and ultimately the neuroscience cluster director within the biological sciences directorate.
When Platt decided to join the NIDCD Division of Scientific Programs, he had been with NSF for 19 years and already had attended several advisory council meetings at NEI, NIDCD, NIMH and NINDS as a federal official.
“I came here after NSF and was simply stunned,” said Platt of the NIH investments in research grants. “The scale of activity is hugely different.”
Platt is highly regarded and has earned recognition and awards for his collaborative spirit, not just within the institute but in trans-NIH activities such as the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research and NIH Academic Research Enhancement Award Program.
Platt also earned recognition beyond NIH. On his desk, he displayed an award from Advances and Perspectives in Auditory Neuroscience “for his steadfast support and significant impact on auditory neuroscience and hearing research.”
Recently, coworkers, friends and his three adult children gathered to celebrate his more than 30 years of federal service.
“Christopher’s light-hearted nature, keen intellect, honesty and openness have made us better people and the institute a better place,” said Dr. Judith Cooper, NIDCD deputy director and director of the Division of Scientific Programs. “Christopher has been an invaluable colleague to us in the institute and an equally invaluable resource to the hearing and balance/vestibular research community.”
During retirement, Platt said he would certainly continue his daily practice of donning his helmet and yellow vest to ride his bike, even on days when most others wouldn’t want to be outside, let alone on a bike. And he might volunteer with some local scientific or natural resource institutions or pursue research collaborations. Platt also plans to attend national meetings on neuroscience, as well as talks on the NIH campus.
“It’s exciting to be part of this world at NIH,” he concluded. “But it’s really time to give new people a chance.”