Professor Spotlight: Khaleel A. Razak

By Sumeera Jattala, CHASS Dean’s Office Student Writer
March 3, 2017

Dr. Khaleel A. Razak is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology in CHASS and the campus-wide Graduate Neuroscience Program. His main topic of research is auditory neuroscience and understanding how the brain is able to process the everyday sounds we hear. In addition, he is interested in how these processes change with age and hearing loss as well as developmental disorders such as autism. His lab studies plasticity of complex sound representation in the mouse auditory cortex as well as the neural basis of sound localization and echolocation in the pallid bat.  This is done by using various techniques that record the activity of neurons as the animal listens to sounds.

This type of research helps to decipher mechanisms of auditory processing at the level of cells and circuits.  Bats and mice offer a number of advantages to understand how hearing works in mammals. Razak explained how bats depend on hearing to make a living and therefore possess certain specializations that make them a fit for this particular research. These specializations help understand more general principles of organization in the mammalian auditory system, including our own. Mice provide the advantage of genetic modifications one can make, creating models of disease as well as hearing loss, leading to the question as to how auditory system can change. “Once we understand how neurons and circuits in the hearing part of the brain process sounds, what happens to these circuits say in a disease condition or during aging or during development -- those are the topics I’m interested in.” Razak said in an interview in his office, located in the psychology department.

Razak has a strong interest in bat behaviors and natural history. After receiving his undergraduate degree in engineering, he worked for a company that made medical ultrasound scanners, creating an interest in sonar, high frequency sounds, and their reflections. In his undergraduate senior project in India, his group made a telephone for the deaf, essentially an earlier form of a texting device for the hearing impaired. This combination of backgrounds created an interest in biosonar and hearing in bats which he pursued as a graduate student at the University of Wyoming. Now working at UC Riverside, his research is currently funded by the National Science Foundation’s CAREER award to study hearing in bats, and the National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense to study hearing in various mouse models.

“The most fundamental question in my lab is how neurons and circuits participate in our ability to distinguish one sound from another. Once that discovery is made, then we can apply that to understand what happens if there is a disease or during aging. What I hope to understand eventually is how the activity of a set of neurons and how they connect with other neurons -- how does that pattern allow us to understand when one sound is different than another.”

Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars through the Neuroscience program and Psychology department do a large portion of this research in Razak’s lab. They design their own experiments with the goal of understanding sound processing, sound-evoked behavior, auditory deficits in aging or autism. Undergraduate students are recruited through his courses, spending a year or two in his lab learning about the scientific method and various techniques. These students go on to graduate school, medical school, and even get articles published alongside Razak. This offers students training for research, troubleshooting, collecting data and other skill sets with the hope that they become independent and carry out that work in similar areas. This experience gives undergraduate students in the lab a flavor for what graduate school is all about.

When asking Razak on the milestones of the lab, he says, “We have made significant breakthroughs in which we understand which cell types and brain regions are involved in specific aspects of sound processing, how they are involved and how they change in disease and aging.  One of the things I am proud of is publishing papers with my students. My students have made novel and significant discoveries in the field of auditory neuroscience.  Providing them with resources and leading them through this process is quite rewarding and every student paper or graduation is a milestone”.  “It is a privilege actually to be in a position where you can discover something, pursue it, and have the freedom to say, ‘I want to study this now.’” The goal is to contribute to knowledge on how the auditory system works. “The key is to ensure what we are doing is done correctly, and then build on that,” he says.

“Those of us in the Psychology department are interested in behavior. That is the link between all of us here. We study behaviors at different levels. I study at a cellular/circuit level and there are those who study at brain network levels.  There are others interested in behavioral development or social behaviors. When you think about it, a lot of people in CHASS are interested in behavior, right?” Razak explained. For example, in Political Science or Economics, the interest may be in understanding why and how humans make certain decisions. In performing arts, such as dance or music, one may think about how the music is deemed as pleasant to an individual, or not. Razak finishes the interview on this thought, “All of these overlaps are useful to think about in many regards.” Professor Khaleel Razak’s work is one example of the college’s ability to generate new knowledge that aids our understanding of human behavior.

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