Hearing is not simply the ability to hear when sounds are present, nor is it the ability to understand language or tone. At its lowest functional level, hearing can be defined as the ability to distinguish important messages from background “noise”. The intricacies of this process are exactly to what Dr. Samantha Gustafson is dedicating her life and intellect. As she explains, the ability to decipher sound plays a large part in shaping our experience starting in early childhood. The lack of hearing can leave a child isolated, left behind; it contributes to the formation of who we are and how we perceive the world around us.

 

Dr. Gustafson earned her Doctor of Audiology at Arizona State University in 2012 and her PhD in Hearing Science this December, 2017. I asked her how she had come to work in this niche field of Hearing Science. “When I was in high school,” she explained, “one of my best friends had a brother who was blind. Her mom recruited us to help as teaching assistants each summer, which developed the passion in me for helping children with special needs.” So that’s why Dr. Gustafson decided to enroll in speech-science class in college, but it didn’t go well. “My first semester of speech classes left me lost because I did not enjoy them,” she said. ”I ran away from my confusion and spent a semester in Australia. When I returned, I had my first hearing-science class, and I was hooked. The professor of that class became my mentor and she helped expose my interest in hearing and reignite my passion for helping children. I do not know if I would have found my way back without her. Andrea Pitman was most definitely instrumental in me developing my passion for this career path.”

Because children don’t spend much time in ideal listening conditions, Dr. Gustafson is most interested in identifying technology best-suited to help children with hearing loss when they are  in a noisy classroom or a department store. However, as she started to develop the thesis for her dissertation she came to what many will likely consider to be a surprising realization: there is a lack of understanding about what “normal” hearing development really looks like in noisy environmental conditions. For her, that meant revising her focus and participating in more foundational research.

“Is that frustrating?” I asked. “To have to start by laying groundwork and not exploring what you’re most interested in?

“It was at first, yes,” she said. “But now it’s exciting! Because I’m laying the groundwork for my own future, I’m more invested and have come up with so many more questions than I probably would have if someone else had taken these first steps. Also, I love that future scientists and students will be able to use my research to answer their own questions.”

According to Dr. Gustafson, there is a drastic difference between what children can distinguish in a noisy restaurant versus a 20 year-old. Even children with normal hearing development on average achieve only a 40-50% success rate compared to 75% for the 20 year-old.

“The difference these success rates have on how we understand a conversation or learn new concepts can be drastic,” said Dr. Gustafson. “For instance, you can probably imagine that with 75% of the words in any given message, you can pretty much understand what someone is trying to tell you. But with only 50% of the message, it can be much harder to fill in those gaps. Combine that with the lower vocabulary and developing language skills of children and it seems amazing that they can learn new words and concepts as quickly as they do!”

To parents and people working as caretakers for children, this is a striking distinction and could modify how they react to behavior. What may seem to be willful disobedience or laziness could in fact be a normal developmental incapacity due to environmental conditions. As Dr. Gustafson works to further understand the development process itself, she looks forward to examining the same phenomenon in children with hearing loss, who understand even fewer words than children with normal hearing when listening conditions are noisy. “For these children in particular,” said Gustafson, “our first priority is to identify the hearing loss early so that we can use technology like hearing aids to provide them with opportunities to hear speech similar to their peers with normal hearing. Unfortunately, hearing aids are not like glasses – they can’t restore hearing to “normal”, especially in noisy environments.

“Even after giving someone access to the sound through hearing aids, there is a lot of ‘behind-the-scenes’ work that goes on to pick out important messages amidst the unimportant “noise”. This ‘behind-the-scenes’ work happens relatively easily for adults with no hearing problems but children and people with hearing loss have to work much harder to do this. This extra work, or effort, to understand speech in background noise can have negative consequences like stress and fatigue. By learning how this skill develops in children with and without hearing problems, Dr. Gustafson hopes to help the research field develop and advise applied technologies.”

 

Her field of study is truly her passion. Dr. Gustafson lights up when she talks about her patients. “I remember working with a child who was diagnosed with hearing loss at age 6,” she said. “We do not know if she had hearing loss earlier on, but her mom started to notice changes in the way she was interacting with friends. She wasn’t enjoying recess like she used to and was not the talkative girl she was before. The mom was very concerned because even her personality seemed to change. She wasn’t bubbly or chit-chatty anymore. Her mom was concerned she was being bullied. But after being diagnosed and fitted with hearing aids this girl was a completely different person! She was active and bright and vocal again! They [mom and daughter] love being a part of our research now because they have seen first-hand how much technology can help someone. This was a huge impact on their family system!”

On of the great contributions made by TED and  TEDxNashville is how it can illuminate the important work of people like Dr. Gustafson, educate us as members of society, and increase our compassion and understanding towards those around us. It’s also great to hear what TED or TEDx Talks our own experts find inspiring. Dr. Gustafson enjoyed listening to several while preparing for her dissertation. In particular, she recalled one called “Synthetic voices, as unique as fingerprints,” presented at TEDWomen 2013 by Rupa Patel, who works with patients who use assistive communication devices to speak. This would be similar to the system that Stephen Hawking uses. ”But historically,” explained Dr. Gustafson, “these devices have always been the voice of a middle aged male. Rupa Patel has been doing research to use vocalizations the patient can make paired with vocalizations of people who “donate” their voices. These donors record 100-300 words which are used to create a language system that sounds like the age and sex of the patient! It is such a cool concept and the presenter was fantastic!”

Dr. Gustafson has recently accepted a faculty position at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. We know that she will continue to do great things in her career for her field and especially for people with hearing loss. So thank you, Dr. Gustafson, for your passion to work in this vital field and good luck to you at UNC!

If you would like to learn more about childhood hearing, visit  www.babyhearing.org.

Interview and written article by Kaylee Hamar. 

Photos by Brad Culver