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Dr. Elba Serrano - Biophysicist
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I was born in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Because my father was in the U.S. military, we moved on a regular basis. By the age of 11, I had lived in Puerto Rico, Central America, and Taiwan. In later years, I lived in England, France, and Germany, and I have spent shorter periods of time in Mexico, Japan, Italy, and Brazil. Living in so many different countries, I grew to love and value the richness of diverse cultures. My exposure to many different people helped me to appreciate world culture. In fact, when living in America, I sometimes become “homesick” for other countries.

While I was attending graduate school at Stanford University in 1976, I saw an African/Brazilian martial art called capoeira taking place on campus. Men and women stood in a circle while two people sparred in the middle, doing a combination of gymnastics, dance, and fighting. I instantly fell in love with the instrument of capoeira—the berimbau, which looks like a gourd attached to a bow and arrow. There is a legend in capoeira that if you are meant to be a capoeirista, the berimbau will call to you and draw you into the circle of capoeira. I heard the call of the berimbau and have been a capoeirista ever since.

Capoeira is a perfect example of how cultures can blend and produce a living art form that is constantly changing. It was developed by the descendants of African slaves in Brazil over 400 years ago. Capoeira combines African and Brazilian traditions of music, dance, and art with methods of self-defense. Capoeira appeals to my love of different cultures and has taught me that you can be at home anywhere on the planet, so long as you keep alive what is important to you.

As a capoerista, I listen to the music of the berimbau and then execute a series of movements that are similar to gymnastics. There is an organ that is specifically responsible for my ability to do that. That organ is the ear.

One of the functions of the ear is to hear the richness of sound. Sound is made up of vibrations which create waves that move outward from the source of the sound. If you could see sound, it would look like a pond after you throw a rock in it, with all the ripples moving out. The other function of the ear is to maintain balance. This is necessary for the gymnastics of capoeira. When your body moves, so does the fluid in the semicircular canals of your ears. If the brain senses that you are losing balance, it will send impulses to muscles, so you can regain balance.

The ear is part of the nervous system. The nervous system receives information about what is happening from both inside and outside your body. This communication of information is made possible by cells called neurons. They carry the message to the brain. This message is called a nerve impulse. Nerve impulses begin when receptor cells pick up stimuli from the environment. Receptors in the ear receive sound.

Many people with hearing loss have damaged receptors. Hearing loss can be caused by genetics or by noise pollution. We know about pollution in our environment with smog and garbage, but we don’t usually think of noise as pollution. Listening to your music loud on your headphones or playing loud music in your car can damage your ears. Not many people think of protecting their ears like they would protect their skin with sunscreen or their eyes with sunglasses.

Because the destruction of the ear is a global problem, I’ve been researching and conducting studies at the New Mexico State University on the receptors of the ear. It is my dream that someday everybody will be able to hear the richness of sound—to someday hear the music of capoeira and be called to the circle by the berimbau.


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