As a student at Desert Vista High School before graduating in 2009, Darcy Frear had a kind of love-hate relationship when it came to engineering.
“I always enjoyed science and math in school but disliked the idea of being an engineer,” said Frear, the daughter of Tracy and Darrel Frear of Ahwatukee.
But as she continued her undergraduate work at Arizona State University, she resolved that quandary in a field in which she just earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University.
“I found engineering was all about solving problems to better human lives,” said Darcy, 28, who now makes her home in Boston. “Biomedical engineering was especially appealing because I originally wanted to be a doctor — MD not Ph.D. — and doctors specialized in fixing problems in the human body.”
Frear received her Ph.D. in speech and hearing bioscience and technology in May 2019 after researching a way to create a mechanical model to better understand how people hear and develop a hearing device for people with problems in their ear canal, ear drum and/or middle ear.
Her thesis focused on an implantable hearing device that was shown to successfully bypass any mechanical problems in the ear and stimulate the cochlea — the snail-shaped organ required for hearing.
A 2013 biomedical engineering graduate of ASU’s Barrett The Honors College, Frear also found time at Harvard to develop her leadership skills on both the water and dry land.
She advocated for students as the president for two years of the Graduate School Student Council and helped lead the Harvard Dragon Boat team to victory in races on the east coast and around the world.
Harvard acknowledged her academic and extracurricular achievements by naming her one of eight Commencement Marshals, leading the other graduate students and deans at graduation while carrying one of the university’s banners.
Carrying on the academic excellence that she displayed at ASU, where she graduated summa cum laude as a distinguished graduate, Frear had earned two grants at Harvard through the National Institutes of Health and Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital.
Outside the lab and classroom, she discovered dragon boating.
“The Harvard Dragon Boat team is a very welcoming group and I’ve made some really amazing friends through the team,” she said.
“We always go to Montreal to race in July, but outside of Canada we have one international race a year. This year we went to Barcelona in May and got first in the B division — which is great. I’ve also been with the team to Tianjin, China and Venice,” she said.
She still participates in Harvard’s dragon boat activities as a head coach for the team, a job that involves organizing five other coaches, creating itineraries for practice, planning for races and coaching team members.
As president of the graduate student union, she led discussions on a variety of concerns, including student mental health, dental insurance plan, discounted public transit passes and student housing.
“When applying for graduate school I asked myself what aspect of the human body did I want to improve?,” she explained.
“I settled on hearing because of my family, specifically my grandmother. My grandma complained about her hearing aids and would not wear them, which lead to everyone becoming frustrated. I thought, maybe I could help improve hearing aids.”
She chose Harvard “because the program fit perfectly into what I wanted.”
Working in its hearing mechanics lab under the supervision of Dr. Heidi Nakajima, Frear’s research focused on three projects — the biggest related to developing and testing a device that could be used to surgically treat conductive hearing loss.
“Conductive hearing loss is when a person has a problem with their ear canal, ear drum and/or middle ear,” she explained. “If there is a problem with this part of your hearing pathway the sound can never enter the cochlea.”
Her solution was an implant that could mechanically stimulate one of the membranes around the cochlea.
“My device was tested in human cadaveric ears in a sound chamber at Massachusetts Eye and Ear,” she said, noting, “Amazingly, the mechanical properties of your ear operate very similarly whether you are alive or dead.”
Her work also focused on developing a mathematical model of the middle and inner ear to better understand how we hear “but also to understand how a patient’s hearing is affected if a problem or disease is present in their ear,” she said.
And she developed a study of 175 patients over 3 ½ years to identify the major causes of eharing loss.
“Identifying major causes of hearing loss can help us better allocate resources and gives impact to all types of hearing loss research,” Frear said.
“I found that about 16 percent of the 175k patients had a surgically treatable conductive hearing loss, which is the percentage of patients that could potentially be helped by my implantable device.”
Although the device is patent pending through Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Frear said it “still needs improvements that will be carried out by my lab.”
“It’s many years away from taking it to the market,” she added.
But that’s not likely to be a daunting obstacle for Frear, whose goal for a job echoes the reason why she finally came to love engineering.
As she explained, she’s looking for a job “where I can use my engineering background to improve medical devices.”