American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Richard H. Wilson

Senior Research Career Scientist, VA Medical Center

Mountain Home, Tennessee

Professor, Departments of Surgery and Communicative Disorders

East Tennessee State University

Certificate of Clinical Competence, Audiology

Richard Wilson 1970    Postdoctoral Fellowship, Northwestern University

1970    PhD, Northwestern University

1965    MS, Vanderbilt University

                                 1964    BS, East Tennessee State University
                                             Speech and Hearing

I chose an academic/research career because:
I was always curious about almost everything. Initially in college I wanted to be a high school history teacher but soon realized that I did not have the patience for high school-age pupils. My freshman year was spent in the sciences (biology, chemistry, and math) with English and a few other soft courses. A friend suggested that I take an intro audiology course as an elective during my sophomore year. During the class it became apparent to me that this was a profession that I might enjoy, mainly for two reasons. First, and most important, audiology involved numbers, and I liked numbers. Second, it was a profession that at that time was fairly new (there were only a couple of textbooks at that time). During that first class, for some reason, I decided that eventually I wanted to get a PhD and I wanted to go to Northwestern University.

What do you do in your career as a teacher, scholar, and/or researcher?
Following my PhD program, I worked for 2 more years at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and then took a position as the Chief of the Audiology Section at the VA Medical Center in Long Beach, California. The position in Long Beach also involved an appointment in otolaryngology at the University of California, Irvine. I took about 10 years to develop the program at Long Beach into a research-oriented program, the key being the recruitment of an excellent faculty that included Drs. Janet Shanks, Cynthia Fowler, and John Preece. Our primary activities at Long Beach were clinic and research. Occasionally, we taught classes at local universities but not on a regular basis. After 20 years at Long Beach, which is probably long enough for anyone to stay in one position, I moved to the VA at Mountain Home, Tennessee, again to develop a program from scratch.

In addition to the cultural differences between California and the hills of Tennessee, Mountain Home presented an opportunity to be intimately involved in the local audiology academic program at East Tennessee State University. This was in the early 1990s, and the AuD was becoming the degree of choice. As both programs developed and added faculty, the decision was made that we could develop a strong AuD program using the resources of both institutions. Today, our joint faculty consists of 11 PhDs and several clinical audiologists. We have a strong program with substantial resources.

As a Senior Research Career Scientist in the VA, I spend my time working on my own projects and working with junior faculty members who have various types of Research Career Development Awards. In the VA, new PhD staff can apply for grants that pay their salary and allow them to spend 80% of their time working on their own research projects. I serve as the mentor for three audiologists-Drs. Faith Akin, Rachel McArdle, and Sherri Smith. The purpose of the Career Development program is to develop and refine the research skills of individuals who eventually will become independent investigators. In the academic program each year, I teach the speech perception course to the AuD students and quite often serve as the director of their graduate research projects.

Speech perception and the acoustic reflex have been my two areas of research interest. My interest in speech perception goes back to my work with Dr. Don Dirks, who was studying the binaural perception of speech in free field (anechoic chamber) and sound field using a variety of azimuth locations for the speech and noise signals. Following my dissertation that examined the interactions of forward and backward masking, my research interest changed to a more clinical phenomenon, the acoustic reflex. At the time, I was interested in the amplitude and adaptation characteristics of the acoustic reflex. Ultimately, my research interests revolved back to speech perception, where I am today. Currently, I am interested in the diagnostic and rehabilitative information that can be gained by evaluating the ability of listeners to understand speech in background noise (multitalker babble). We have developed a words-in-noise (WIN) protocol that evaluates the ability of patients to understand the same words spoken by the same speaker in quiet and in noise conditions. The aim is to convince all audiologists to use some type of speech-in-noise task in their routine audiologic evaluations. 

How did you get to the position you have today?
The 2 years between my master's degree and the start of PhD school were spent working primarily in the Auditory Research Laboratory at UCLA with Dr. Don Dirks, with some time in the clinic. Essentially, this position was like being in a PhD program but without interruptions in the laboratory experience caused by formal classes (obviously I preferred lab work to classes!). When I started the PhD program at Northwestern, I immediately went to work in Dr. Raymond Carhart's lab, whereas my fellow students, who didn't have prior research experience, spent most of the first year learning what type of lab experiences they wanted.

What were the key factors in your academic/research career decision(s)?
As I indicated above, my goal as an undergraduate, although it may have been unrealistic at the time, was to get a PhD at Northwestern. My undergraduate professor at East Tennessee State, Dr. Dick Cornell, was a Vanderbilt graduate, through whom I knew that the faculty members at Vanderbilt were almost all from Northwestern. These factors, plus being a Vanderbilt legacy, made Vanderbilt my first graduate stop. Little did I know then that my journey to Northwestern would not be directly from Vanderbilt but rather through a detour through UCLA, which had another Northwestern connection in that Dr. Don Dirks at UCLA was a recent Northwestern graduate. So, both logic and luck (being at the right place at the right time) were key factors in attaining my career goal of a research audiologist.

What do you like most about your career?
I am for the most part my own boss. My success or my failure depends on me and my work. Through research, I have gotten to know many scientists around the world. The highlight of my professional career was spending springs in the early 1980s along with my good friend Dr. Bob Margolis in Antwerp, Belgium, working with our good friend Dr. Karel Van Camp, who is a physicist, on the problems associated with multifrequency tympanometry.

What do you like least about your career?
I've never been able to have a sabbatical.

Who are your heroes/heroines?
In my early years, my grandparents and parents provided very good role models. Frank Maples, my biology and chemistry science teacher in high school, stirred my interest in academics and the importance of learning. At the undergraduate level, Dr. Sol Adler introduced me to the meaning of academics. As a master's student, Dr. Freeman McConnell at Vanderbilt was an outstanding model of a gentleman and scholar. Then as a lab assistant to Dr. Don Dirks at UCLA, my eyes were really opened to all the various tasks related to life as a researcher. At UCLA I started gaining insight into the various aspects of experimentation and, perhaps most important, writing. Finally, from Dr. Raymond Carhart I learned that we are all students of the science of hearing and as such are compelled to make contributions.

What advice would you give to an undergraduate or master's student who expressed an interest in an academic/research career in communication sciences and disorders?
First, get a strong background at the undergraduate level in the sciences, math, and English (for writing). In audiology, henceforth, academics will require both an AuD and a PhD. I would strongly advise an individual with an AuD to work in an auditory/vestibular laboratory as a research assistant before going on for the PhD. I worked 2 years at UCLA before going to Northwestern for my PhD. What I learned in those 2 years at UCLA prepared me to get the most out of my PhD program. After all, audiology is a clinical profession, and a researcher in a clinical profession must be acquainted with what goes on in the clinic.

What was the best thing about your PhD program?
The size and diversity of the audiology faculty at Northwestern was the big plus. Dr. Carhart was the recognized leader, or "chief" as many referred to him. Drs. Peter Dallos, Tom Tillman, Earl Harford, Noel Matkin, and Wayne Olsen all were important to the program. The old Speech Annex building was so small, everyone had to be friends. My fellow students were also contributors. I learned a lot from the faculty, and oftentimes I learned as much from my fellow students. The program enabled me to spend as much time as I wanted in the laboratory. I most enjoyed asking questions, designing experiments, analyzing data, and writing papers. I least enjoyed data collection and the structure of the classroom.

If you did your PhD program or your early career years all over again, what would you do differently?
To get to graduate school in audiology in the early 60s, I was required to take, I think, 45 quarter hours of speech pathology courses and, I should add, speech clinic. I didn't want to take those courses and clinics, but that was the route I had to pursue in order to get into a graduate audiology program. Instead of the speech pathology courses, I should have taken another year or two of lab sciences and math, which would have better prepared me for my doctoral studies. That option, however, was not open.

How do you find balance between your professional activities and your personal life? What do you do to relax?
All of the successful, competitive researchers I know work extremely hard and work long hours. Working in research becomes a way of life both professionally and personally. Working substantially more than 40 hours a week is not an issue. You don't even realize how many hours you work, because research is not really work in the traditional sense, but rather research is something that you enjoy doing, a way "to get your kicks." I've realized that being a researcher is like being self-employed even though you work for a big institution. You have to work hard to keep things going. Researchers are driven by their curiosity and their need to know the answers to questions they pose. I must add that it is helpful to have a significant other with a PhD who likewise has a substantial commitment to research.

What will you be doing 5 years from now? 10 years from now?
Five years from now I will probably be about ready to retire in the formal sense after almost 50 years in the profession. My first ASHA Convention was in 1962 as a sophomore at ETSU. In retirement I probably will continue to be available to work with junior faculty. Maybe I'm wrong, but after 50 years or so I think it will be impossible to stop what you have been doing.




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