In Memoriam: Neil Segil, PhD (1953–2022)

Neil Segil (Photo by Chris Shinn)
Neil Segil (Photo by Chris Shinn)

Professor, Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, and USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, Keck School of Medicine of USC

It is with sadness that we share that Neil Segil, PhD, passed away on July 2, 2022.

Neil was an internationally recognized scientist, known for his pioneering research on the development and regeneration of hearing through the study of sensory cell division and specification in the inner ear. Since most people experience some degree of deafness as they age, his work is of considerable medical significance.

“Neil’s influential research was founded on a deep scholarship, insightful and innovative experiments, and an ease in extending his laboratory’s research through highly productive, collaborative partnerships,” said Dr. Andy McMahon, chair of the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at USC.

After growing up mostly in the sailing town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, Neil received his undergraduate degree from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. While majoring in philosophy and psychology, he worked in a lab at neighboring Smith College and wrote a senior thesis about lens regeneration in newts, which he published in the journal Developmental Biology.

He spent the next few years traveling and taking various jobs to fund his adventures. One of these jobs was working in the Harvard Medical School lab of Drs. David Hubel and Torsten N. Wiesel, who shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for explaining how the brain turns information from the retina into images. The experience inspired him to enroll in graduate school at the University of Washington, but he was primarily interested in studying retinal development in the lab of Ray Lund and didn’t take any courses. After a couple of years, he dropped out and moved back to New York City.

Along with a friend, Neil started a magazine called Europa about East European political science and cultural affairs. Publishing was not a lucrative business, so he once again supported himself by working as a lab technician—this time at New York University where he came to realize just how much he enjoyed working in a lab. So Neil applied and was accepted into the PhD program at Columbia University, joining the laboratory of Drs. Mark Dworkin and Eva Dworkin-Rastl, using biochemistry to study early frog development.

When his thesis advisers relocated to Vienna, Neil moved with them. There, he met Greta Kirchbaumer, a fellow scientist, who eventually became his wife and a researcher in the Segil laboratory for many years.

Together, Neil and Greta moved to New York City, where Neil completed a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology, with a focus on cell division and gene expression, with Dr. Nathaniel Heintz at The Rockefeller University.

On the basis of his strong research studies in the Heintz laboratory, Neil was recruited in 1996 to the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology in the research division of the House Ear Institute (HEI), a Los Angeles nonprofit devoted to auditory neuroscience. Remarkably, Neil had no prior experience in hearing research when he set up his laboratory focused on the molecular and cellular regulation of the developing auditory sensory epithelium. At HEI, Neil rose through the ranks to become Director of the Division of Cell Biology and Genetics from 2006 to 2013, and Executive Vice President for Research from 2010 to 2013.

Dr. Andrew K. Groves, who is now a faculty member at the Baylor College of Medicine, began collaborating with Neil in 1999, when they were both scientists at HEI.

“Neil’s enthusiasm, generosity of ideas, and practical help allowed me to expand my own research scope far more than I would have planned when I started my lab,” said Dr. Groves. “He has constantly challenged me to be a better scientist, to try new techniques and to not be afraid of projects failing. As a result, I am undoubtedly a better and more successful scientist for having known him. Our collaboration lasted for over 20 years, and it has been my privilege to have Neil as a colleague, an intellectual soul mate and a friend throughout this time.”

Neil had a long association with the Keck School of Medicine of USC as a voluntary faculty member in the Department of Cell and Neurobiology from 1996 to 2013. When HEI’s research division closed, many of the research faculty were recruited as a group to the Keck School. Neil’s research on hearing development and regeneration was a natural fit with the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, and the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, and he was appointed as a full Professor in both departments shortly after his recruitment.

Neil was well funded throughout his career, and published extensively in high impact journals, including Developmental Cell, PNAS, Development, Nature, and Journal of Neuroscience, among others. Current projects, still underway, include studies investigating the gene regulatory mechanisms responsible for the failure of the sensory cells of the inner ear to regenerate after hearing is damaged, and drug screening and gene therapy approaches to cellular reprogramming for the treatment of hearing loss.

Neil also enjoyed exploring new research areas through collaborations with his colleagues in the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. In a 2020 publication in eLife, the Segil lab worked with Dr. Justin Ichida’s lab to directly reprogram various types of cells into the sensory hair cells of the inner ear. The two labs also collaborated to explore gene regulation in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“Neil introduced our lab to the inner ear, and together, we developed methods for making hair cells that could pave the way for new therapeutics for hearing loss,” said Dr. Ichida, who is the John Douglas French Alzheimer’s Foundation Associate Professor of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, and a New York Stem Cell Foundation-Robertson Investigator. “Neil saw all the angles and always had a great perspective on science and life. As a colleague, mentor and friend, Neil was simply one of the best, and I will miss him dearly.”

In 2021, another eLife publication showcased a collaboration between the Segil lab and Dr. Gage Crump’s lab exploring craniofacial cartilage development in zebrafish, and utilizing approaches to examine genome organization perfected in the Segil lab. Neil and Dr. Crump also co-mentored Tuo Shi, a PhD student who is continuing studies to identify the critical gene regulatory differences that allow zebrafish but not mammals to regenerate the sensory epithelium of the inner ear.

“When I arrived as a fledgling assistant professor in 2006, Neil was one of the few successful scientists in the field of developmental and stem cell biology at USC,” said Dr. Crump, a professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine. “He was a huge influence and mentor to me in establishing my new research lab. Neil was always incredibly generous with his time, reading my grant proposals and lending his lab resources to help me establish new techniques for studying gene regulation. What I will most remember is how his eyes would light up after a seminar or a great paper he had just read, and then the long discussions to follow of how cool such and such a result was and how we might use it in our own research. His pure joy of science, not just the data but also the many people he mentored and worked with, will be deeply missed.”

Beyond his research, Neil was deeply committed to educating the next generation of scientists. In 2007, he co-founded and then directed USC’s Hearing and Communication Neuroscience (HCN) graduate and post-graduate training program, funded by a T32 grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. The training program brings together faculty and trainees in auditory neuroscience across the Keck School, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

According to Dr. John Oghalai, chair of the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, “Neil was instrumental in bringing together faculty from diverse areas across USC to design and organize the curriculum and acquire the necessary funding. The result of his tireless effort was a vibrant program for training and mentoring graduate students and postdoctoral scholars that thrives to this day.”

Dr. Christopher A. Shera, professor in the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, added, “The program structure reflects Neil’s philosophy and approach to teaching and mentoring—an approach deeply grounded in his own undergraduate experience at Hampshire College—that at every level, the goal of the mentor is to help others learn how to think about and solve problems while allowing those mentored to imagine it was all their own idea.”

Neil also played a pivotal role in education and training programs in developmental and stem cell biology at the Keck School. He was a founding organizer of the Developmental Biology Student Seminar, which met alternately on the Health Sciences Campus and at HEI. This seminar morphed into the Friday student seminar in USC’s Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, a thriving program bringing together trainees and faculty to discuss science and munch pizza. Neil also served on the oversight committee for USC’s training grant for PhD students and postdoctoral trainees from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

“Neil’s contributions to graduate and postdoctoral education at the Keck School were key to what the programs have become,” said Dr. Robert E. Maxson, Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine, and Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. “But what truly stands out about Neil for me is that in his dealings with students and postdocs, he had an uncanny ability to be scientifically rigorous and kind at the same time. He was able to make critical comments in an oral qualifying exam, for example, that were somehow positive and supportive. This was a rare talent, much appreciated by his mentees.”

Neil was a valued and trusted mentor for dozens of graduate students, medical students, postdocs, undergraduates and faculty, and his trainees have gone on to faculty positions at Emory University, the University of Rochester, Johns Hopkins University, Case Western Reserve University, the University of Santiago (Chile), Creighton University, Merced College and USC.

Dr. Ksenia Gnedeva completed her postdoctoral training in the Segil lab before being hired as an assistant professor in the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery.

“Since becoming an independent principal investigator in 2020, I continue to rely on Neil’s advice and guidance as the head of my Faculty Mentoring Committee,” she said. “I’m grateful for the opportunities to learn from Neil, whose generosity as a colleague and a mentor can only be matched by his humbleness and kindness as a person.”

Dr. Min Yu, who is now an associate professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, was also formally mentored by Neil when she joined USC as a junior faculty member.

“Neil has set a standard as a role model, and forever inspired me to become the best scientist and mentor that I can be,” she said. “With his critical mind, innovative science, extensive knowledge, and caring and supportive attitude, I couldn’t have asked for a better career mentor. When I congratulated Neil on his well-deserved mentoring award from USC, he replied, ‘If I was at all helpful, I am more than pleased, but more importantly, I am happy we are friends.’ I will miss Neil enormously for his contributions to science and his discussion of ideas, but most of all, I will miss the strolls that we had around beautiful Altadena as friends.”

Neil’s leadership roles in his field extended far beyond HEI and USC. He was a member of the Advisory Board for the Center for Hearing Research at the University of California, Irvine, for 10 years. Significantly, at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, he was a member of the Board of Scientific Counselors from 2009 to 2014, and served as a member of the Advisory Council from 2017 to 2019. He was also a founding member of the Hearing Restoration Project, a national consortium of scientists supported by the Hearing Health Foundation and dedicated to studying inner ear sensory cell regeneration. These roles underscore Neil’s influence in shaping the field of molecular and cellular biology as it relates to the auditory system.

Neil is survived by his wife Greta and son Nathan. In lieu of flowers, friends and colleagues who wish to honor Neil’s life and work can considering donating to the Segil scholarship fund for supporting educational programs in stem cell and regenerative medicine on our giving page. When prompted, please select “USC Stem Cell Fund” and add Dr. Neil Segil’s name under “memorial or honorarium information.”

We would like to sincerely thank the following individuals for contributing to this piece: Andy McMahon, PhD; John Oghalai, MD; Robert E. Maxson, PhD; Andrew K. Groves, PhD; Gage Crump, PhD; Justin Ichida, PhD; Min Yu, MD, PhD; Christopher A. Shera, PhD; Ksenia Gnedeva, PhD; Cristy Lytal; and Judy Garner, PhD.