Cambridge Science Centre


Matt Mason, PhD


When I was a toddler, I quizzed a member of staff at London’s Natural History Museum about why dinosaurs became extinct, but was not satisfied with the answer. Having realised that my opportunities to study dinosaurs were limited as a child, I moved towards living animals. It seemed a natural progression to find myself studying veterinary medicine at St. John’s College, Cambridge.

In the third year of my veterinary course I chose to specialise in Zoology, and I discovered that I enjoyed learning about the inner workings of weird animals much more than treating domestic species. I therefore applied for a PhD in the Department of Zoology. Dr. Adrian Friday, a natural philosopher and polymath of a kind so woefully lacking in science nowadays, kindly agreed to supervise me and set me a project on the workings of the middle ear of moles. I had never considered the middle ear, or moles, in any detail before, but this sounded satisfactorily anatomical and esoteric!

After I finished my PhD research, I moved to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where in the laboratory of Professor Peter Narins, another inspiring mentor, I used laser Doppler interferometry to measure nanometer-scale vibrations of frog ear structures.

I am currently the University Physiologist in the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of St. Catharine’s College. As well as teaching medical, veterinary and science students, I continue my research into the structure, function and evolution of the vertebrate middle ear, work which has taken me from Namibia to Greenland.

I am still a keen natural historian in my spare time – and I am delighted to find that my little son is developing the same interests!

Further details of my research can be found here.

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    The ear is an extraordinary organ: an intricate and elaborate system of canals, tiny bones, membranes and cells which together allow us to detect the faintest of air vibrations. Human hearing, however, only scratches the surface of what is possible in nature – consider the a...