Many of us audiology types are curious people. We got into the field because we care about people, about good communication, and about both the science and the humanity of how hearing loss affects lives. We’re curious about what works and what doesn’t, and most of all we wonder “why?” As a result, we are naturals at doing clinical research. From the time I got hooked on audiology, I learned that there were questions without good answers. It’s one of the things I love about the field. There are many things about typical and atypical hearing that we do not yet understand. We are faced with clinical questions every day: How good are directional microphones in restaurants? What can I do for this person for an asymmetrical hearing loss? As Lisa Goffman and I stated in a 2006 ASHA Leader article about designing good research questions, many good research questions arise from clinical experiences and clinical practice. With some hard work and persistence, a clinical researcher can find good sources of public and private funding to kick-start a research career, and to sustain it once it’s rolling.
My own clinical research journey started when I started fitting clients with hearing aids, and later with cochlear implants. My patients did well and loved their devices in quiet situations, but were not fully satisfied in background noise. Later, when I was doing my dissertation research on speech perception in listeners with hearing loss, my wise uncle Earl Schubert complimented my work and then ‘innocently’ asked “I wonder what would happen to those speech cues in background noise?” He got me thinking, and started in a new direction. I realized that one of the biggest questions facing me was background noise and its adverse effects on people with hearing loss. Now I ask questions like: why do many listeners say that hearing aids are still unsatisfactory in many kinds of background noise? Why are cochlear-implant listeners so disrupted by low-level background noise? What is the nature of this difficulty, and what could we do about it? Those are million-dollar questions, I think, and potential breakthroughs are much needed.
I have found that with persistence, there are funding sources available for this kind of clinically inspired research. It almost goes without saying that I firmly believe the key first step is to have an outstanding PhD program, with a top research mentor as an advisor. I don’t think there’s any substitute for that experience. After that, most early-career researchers find that a postdoctoral research experience is very important for establishing real research independence. There are good sources of funding for postdoctoral research from NIH, and great research groups looking for postdoctoral researchers in audiology. I took advantage of that in my own career, by obtaining a K award from NIH. I found outstanding mentors (Dr. Sally Revoile at Gallaudet University and Dr. Craig Formby at the University of Maryland, Baltimore), and put together a 5-year plan for a K08 Mentored Clinical Scientist Award from the NIH. It was a great experience. I was able to include post-doctoral learning and mentoring experiences in my proposed plan. These included Matlab training, attending lab meetings of local research groups, spending time in other labs around the country. The K award provided me protected time (away from clinic and teaching) to really focus on my developing research career. (A description of the K awards from NIH can be found online.) From that experience, I went ahead with small-grant funding (R03) from the NIH as well as private funding (National Organization of Hearing Research) to continue my research questions. After much persistence, proposal writing, and re-writing, I have been successful in obtaining an R01 grant from the NIH to purse these questions further.
The investment one needs to put into the development of a research career is large. It takes years of hard work, intelligence, writing skills, persistence, and a thick skin to absorb and learn from criticism. But the potential return is tremendous. Because of these funding opportunities, at the University of Minnesota we have a lively, curious, and bright group of young (and old) researchers who are working together on the problem of masking and masking release in hearing loss. We have students working on pre-doctoral funding mechanisms, post-doctoral funding mechanisms, and research supplements. Together we are learning new answers and new questions every week from the work we are able to do, and we hope to make contributions to our understanding of these questions I’ve been asking for 20 years. We’re very grateful to organizations such as ASHA and the NIH for promoting and supporting such work, and encourage others to be just as persistent and to pursue a career in research.