Professor of Science Education, Stockholm University
Foto. Mikael Wallerstedt
Tell us about your background
When I was about four years old my parents noticed that I wasn’t able to hear crickets, but the pediatrician couldn’t find anything wrong with my hearing. Somehow, I also passed the school hearing tests, so throughout my schooling I had no idea that I didn’t have normal hearing. With all likelihood, I’ve had at least some degree of hearing loss since childhood. I’ve always had tinnitus and has always been the last person to notice my mobile phone ringing. Still, having no high frequency hearing was normal to me and I had no idea what I was missing. It wasn’t until in my thirties I realised that you were supposed to hear the lyrics of music. Since my hearing loss was diagnosed ten years ago my ski-slope has migrated to the left in the audiogram, my low frequency hearing is still within the normal range, but it then drops of very quickly. Practically, this means that I’m mostly OK with understanding speech if listening conditions are good, but that my speech understanding deteriorates quickly with background noise, distance, or bad acoustics.
I grew up in a small village in the middle of Sweden, about five miles from the nearest town, Falun, and about three hours north-west of Stockholm. The community I grew up in was very much a working-class community – my mum worked as a nurses’ aid and my dad at the local papermill. My dad had left school at thirteen, but mum had graduated from the upper secondary school science programme. Like her, I identified with being good at maths. I enjoyed school, had good grades, and my parents supported me. Throughout compulsory school I was in rather boisterous classes and in retrospect I can guess that my hearing loss probably helped me focus, making it easier for me to disregard all the noise in the classrooms. I was fortunate to have very good science and maths teachers in lower secondary school. In upper secondary school, the science programme seemed like the obvious choice. Despite coming from a non-academic background, going to university also was something I more or less took for granted as being in my future – something also made possible by higher education being free in Sweden and the student loan system generous. What I was going to study was a more difficult choice – throughout school I had always had broad interests across the sciences and the humanities, in particular. In the end I opted for physics.
How did you get to where you are?
I did my undergraduate degree in physics at Uppsala University. After much deliberation, I decided to study a subject that I had found interesting in upper secondary school and that also presented very much of a challenge. I liked the idea of physics being perceived as a difficult subject and didn’t mind it being a very much male dominated discipline, quite the opposite, in fact. This also contributed to the sense of doing something unusual. However, as the studies progressed, I still found physics interesting, but I had a hard time imagining myself working as an experimental physicist, the path that I was on. I also studied history as an undergraduate student, eventually earning a Bachelors degree, but didn’t really see much of a future in that discipline. Towards the end of the physics studies, I took a course in physics education research and that’s where I found a discipline where I finally could combine my interest in physics, with a broader interest in the humanities and social sciences. I then got the opportunity to do a PhD in physics specializing in physics education research at the same department as I had done my undergraduate physics studies. I had found an academic discipline where I felt I belonged. My PhD thesis is entitled “Doing Physics – Doing Gender” and is concerned with university physics students’ identity constitution in the context of laboratory work.
After the PhD, I did a two-year postdoc at University of Cambridge. As you would expect, my English improved during these years, but I struggled more and more to hear what people were saying. I did interviews with student teachers as part of my postdoctoral project and my transcribed interviews were full of gaps, because I just couldn’t make out what was said. Towards the end of the postdoc, I googled “high frequency hearing loss” and what I found was very much in line with my experiences. When I got back to Sweden after the postdoc I went to see an audiologist and the hearing test showed that I had ski-slope type of hearing loss, with no hearing in the high frequencies. I got bilateral hearing aids straight away.
After the two-year postdoc at Cambridge, I returned to Uppsala University, but this time to the Department of Education, as senior lecturer in curriculum studies. In 2018, at age 39, I was promoted to full professor at the same department. Since last year, I’m chair of science education at Stockholm University and lead the science education section, with about twenty-five senior researcher, lecturers, and PhD students. The more I’ve risen through the academic ranks, the easier I’ve found it to get accommodations for my hearing. Part of this is due to often being more in control of situations (I often chair meetings, for example, and can then apply a strict talking order), but it’s also about being listened to when you talk from a position of power.
What is a professional challenge you have faced related to your deafness?
In 2016 I was recruited to King’s College London, as Reader in Science Education. This really was an incredible opportunity, in a highly inspiring research environment. But, for the first time, my hearing loss presented a very substantial obstacle. The acoustics were terrible, sound kept leaking in from the busy road outside, and I was working in my second language. While I’m more or less bilingual in Swedish and English, I’m much more sensitive to bad listening conditions in English. This experience is common for most second language speakers. Hence, I was struggling in meetings and while teaching, and was exhausted all the time. At the same time, I enjoyed the work and really liked living in London. But, in the end I decided that it just wasn’t worth it, after a year I left the position and went back to Uppsala University.
What is an example of accommodation that you either use or would like to use in your current job?
I have a microphone system with three Roger table mics and a Roger pen, connected to my hearing aids, that I use for teaching and in meetings. I also connect one of the table mics to my laptop to be able to stream sound directly to my hearing aids, for example, in Zoom meetings. Swedish universities and public placed are often equipped with hearing loops.
Any funny stories you want to share?
As a graduate student I was teaching an evening class about “Everyday physics” and one of the topics was sound and hearing. As part of the topic, I wanted to demonstrate the human range of hearing using a tone generator. I tried the tone generator out in the lab, but just shy of 4000 Hz I couldn’t hear anything, no matter how much I turned up the volume. Thinking that there was something wrong with the tone generator, I went to get another one. Same thing. I then went to get a colleague and he could hear the sound almost up to 20 000 Hz, just like you’re supposed to as a young adult. In the lecture hall I asked the student to raise their hands and then take them down when they could no longer hear the sound, as I raised the frequency. In the mixed group of students, some twice my age (I was in my mid-twenties), no one took down their hand before about 15 000 Hz. You would think that I would have realised that something was wrong with my hearing there and then, in that lecture hall. I didn’t. Having no high-frequency hearing was normal to me.