Category: Featured
The Problem of Hearing When It’s Loud – Insight From A Nashville Audiologist

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

Interview and written article by Kaylee Hamar. 

Photos by Brad Culver

Ross Scott: Host Extraordinaire

I think it’s been firmly established in previous articles that I’m a TEDxNashville super-fan. This explains, at least in part, why when hundreds of people were filing out of the TPAC lobby after sitting in the auditorium for two days I was fording the crowd to find Ross Scott: host of TEDxNashville 2017. Ross is what I would call a modern southern gentleman. His sunny southern drawl, engaging smile, and quick mind poetically illustrate the juxtaposition of the innovation and Tennessee neighborliness we enjoy here in Nashville. He was standing in line at concessions, waiting on a well-deserved glass of wine, and I felt a little bad for interrupting.  But not that bad. I introduced myself as the blog editor for TEDxNashville, and then after telling him he was basically my hero for the weekend I asked if we could find some time to talk about his experience behind the scenes. Fortunately, Ross is also a TEDxNashville super-fan and graciously gave me his contact info so we could connect. “Don’t email me tonight, though,” he said, picking up his wine. Fair enough.

It took a few weeks to align our schedules, and in the end we had to set up a phone interview because he was down in Florida. The first thing I had to confess after exchanging pleasantries is that I really didn’t know who he was or why he was even a part of TEDxNashville. “Oh about a decade ago,” he said, “I had the opportunity to go to TED – you know the big TED – as a treat for a job well done with my company.”

I could hear him smiling through the phone. For the first time I realized that his persona on stage was exactly what he is in real life. Even-keeled, funny, and able to make even a simple autobiographical account compelling.

“The whole thing had to be approved,” he explained, “They had to pay quite a bit of money for me to go, and honestly it changed my way of thinking and being.”

Something I didn’t know until that moment: In order to get a license as a TEDx entity, the organization applying must have a member who has attended “big” TED before. “So that’s how I got involved,” said Ross. “They needed my name for the application and then later on they asked me to host.”

I also didn’t realize that Ross has hosted numerous times since TEDxNashville started.

“But this year was significantly different,” he told me, “The host-team have it down to a science. Speakers were so prepared and so calm and knew step by step what to do. My job was really easy….The host committee, the board, the volunteers, and Leslie [Leslie Belknap, Executive Director of TEDxNashville] are on the ball! It is basically a professional organization run by volunteers.

“Honestly,” he went on, “I felt my skillsets were partially unnecessary because of how good the volunteer staff members are. I am used to being their partner – helping them understand how willing and fun the crowd is – but this year speaker after speaker knew exactly what to do. And Nashville is able to attract a level of talent that other TEDx cities don’t have access to. Over the last six or eight years – to see what it has become – it is a real source of pride.”

“To be clear,” Ross made a point to say, “it is no thanks to me.” I didn’t comment on that, but anyone who attended TEDxNashville 2017 will probably have at least one fond anecdote about its amiable host. And I could tell Ross loves it. “I break the rules,” he admitted, laughing, “but i do it in such a friendly way that people can’t help but put up with me.”

And there are rules. The TEDx host isn’t there to politicize (and Ross really only barely did…) or play favorites, which is why every time Ross addressed the crowd the last speaker was his new favorite speaker. But for the interview I asked him to bend the rules one more time and tell me who he found to be most memorable.

Ken Paulson,” Ross said immediately. “His talk was multiple things: inspiring, informative, contextual, but you know what is also was? It was also practical. He made out in this era of fake news exactly what we can do to combat it. I have been feeling frustrated about fake news and the hordes of people buying into it. I’ve been feeling really un-empowered. The fact that he actually gave it context and gave us all very practical steps – man I was eating that up! I have followed by subscribing to real honest-to-God news sources instead of getting everything online for free.

“I’m always inspired by speakers,” he continued. “Some are more professional, some more creative. But they aren’t always practical. Oh but I also loved watching Dr. Steven Schlozman. He was fascinating both on and off stage. That is a guy I would totally enjoy hanging out with. It is unfortunate to get the last-dance card. People are tired after a couple days of this. So [at the end of the show] the house wasn’t still packed, which is totally a shame because his talk was super cool. Who has ever asked the question, “What can the horror genre tell us about humanity? Oh my gosh, who spends their time thinking about that? He did not disappoint.”

For those who didn’t catch it, the theme for TEDxNashville was “Illuminate.” I gave my own take on what that means in my article posted a few weeks ago. I find the concept intriguing and I wanted to hear Ross’s take on it I didn’t prep him for any of my questions, so he took second to think about it.

“Okay,” he said. “So I had a professional mentor – well she was my boss who said something that i didn’t catch on to for years, but it kinda stuck with me. Basically what she said to me was, ‘You need to use your gift at connecting people because we are all interconnected in this universe. Don’t ever forget that. Don’t ever get psyched out by people who are richer, smarter, more powerful because we are all interconnected’

“As we age,” Ross continued, “you really do start to understand how interconnected how everything in this universe is. In this day and age of hatred/judgement/picking people apart as different, I feel like we have lost that sense of interconnectivity as a universe. The fact that she taught me that principle at an early age has helped me always view people as part of me and us.”Read More

The TED Talk Impact

by Jeremy Snow. Interviews by Beth Inglish

TEDxNashville 2017 is now a several months behind us but we are also still glowing with the energy from last April and the amazing weekend filled with curiosity, excitement, and a palpable sense of Nashville pride. This organization truly represents our community and its vitality, diversity, and position on the cutting edge of innovation and culture. The Tennessee Performing Arts Center does a fantastic job hosting, like it always does, but I have to admit that even when I’m there for a broadway show or to watch Neil DeGrasse Tyson totally capturing his audience, I can’t help but feel they’re all just borrowing the TEDxNashville stage for the evening.Read More