Tag Archives: missing out

The sound we can see: working with hearing loss in the field

When I was 19 I went for a checkup with an audiologist and found out that I was hearing only 90% of what I should be. The doctor said that for my age, this was a high level of hearing loss, and attributed it possibly to the intense course of antibiotics I took for kidney failure when I was one year old. He suggested that I come back yearly to repeat the hearing exam, to verify if my ability further decreased below my current hearing levels. Of course I ignored this advice and never went back. When I started my graduate studies six years later, I decided it was finally time to visit the audiologist again, because I discovered that I could not hear the species of frog I had decided to base my research on. This was a very scary moment for me. How did I find myself in this situation?

In the last year of my undergraduate studies I took an ecology course and fell in love with the topic. I knew I wanted to earn a master’s degree in ecology, ideally working with animal populations. In Brazil, one has to take a standardized exam to enter a graduate program. I traveled 440 km to take the test and passed; I began my studies in the Federal University of Paraná located in Curitiba, in the south of Brazil. Among all the available mentors, there was one who carried out research on ecological dynamics of insects and anuran amphibians. I chose his lab and wrote a project proposal examining the population dynamics of an endemic species of stream frog (Hylodes heyeri) in the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, specifically Pico do Marumbi State Park, Piraquara, in the state of Paraná. Much of what I was to be doing was completely new to me: I had never worked with frogs and I also had never practiced the mark-and-recapture method. I thus faced a steep learning curve and had to learn a LOT about lab and fieldwork from my team and my mentor. In my first field outing, during which I was to learn how to identify and capture the species I would study, I discovered that I could not hear the frog. A labmate who accompanied me to the field said, “Are you listening? The frog is so close to us.” He thought I was not hearing the frog due to lack of experience, or because of the background noise of the stream. I worried that something else was amiss, and this finally prompted me to go back to my audiologist. There, I discovered that I had lost 2% more of my hearing, and this loss compromised treble sounds, those in the range of high to very high frequencies, precisely overlapping my frog’s vocalizations.

Now, I’m a PhD student and I use hearing aids programmed specifically for my hearing loss, which primarily encompasses frequencies above 4000 Hz. I was initially ashamed to wear hearing aids because people mocked them. But I didn’t consider changing projects, because I knew I could get help localizing the frog. I also knew there would be ways for me to analyze the sound without necessarily hearing it. Even with hearing aids, however, I can only hear the call of my frog when I am no more than 4 meters away. Other members of my lab can detect the sound of the frog from much farther away, even when they are 20 meters or more from the stream. This means that for every survey I carry out in the field, I need a person to accompany me to guide me to the frog, using their sense of hearing to identify the sound. But the assistance I receive in the field goes beyond locating my frog; the field can be dangerous for many reasons: I may not hear dangerous animals—such as puma, collared peccary, or leopards—approaching; and I may lose track of my team if people call me from too far away. Even for scientists without hearing loss, it is advisable not to carry out fieldwork alone.

In recent years, I have had the opportunity to learn Brazilian sign language (LIBRAS) in graduate courses. I am happy that it is a requirement for my degree! When I am in the field I communicate primarily with gestures. I am lucky that my frogs are diurnal, because I am able to see my companions in the field, making communication much easier. Once my companion hears the frog, they look at me so I can read their lips or we make gestures so as to not scare the frogs. Sometimes I use headphones, point the microphone of my recorder in the general direction of the frog, and increase the volume to better understand where the sound comes from—this trick of using my main research tool (my recorder) to find my frogs was taught to me by a friend who also carried out research in bioacoustics and had the challenge of finding a tiny mountain frog species that hid in leaf-litter (thank you, André Confetti). My frogs are also tiny, only 4 cm long. They camouflage in the streams and spook very easily, but in order to obtain my data, I need to get as close as 50 cm from the frog. Only then can I really start. The aim of my work is to analyze the effect of anthropogenic noise (such as traffic road sounds transmitted by playback) on frog communication. Once I am in position, I can play the anthropogenic sound, and record the frog’s call. I take these recordings back to the lab and experience the most rewarding aspect of my efforts to find these frogs. The recordings are transformed into graphs of the frequency and length of each call. Although I cannot hear the sounds my frog makes, I can see them! After seeing the sound I can analyze several call variables and calculate various statistics.

Would I recommend field work such as mine to somebody who finds themselves in my predicament? If you are open to creative workarounds, such fieldwork is possible for all. Having a field companion, using signs to communicate, and making use of the amplification provided by my recording equipment has solved the majority of my problems. Most important of all, having support from your mentor and other people who can help and you can trust is crucial. I do not intend to continue with bioacoustics research after I graduate, but if I need to mentor any students in the area, I’ll be happy to do it. I worry about my hearing loss too, in thinking of how it will affect my teaching in the future, because sometimes I hear words incorrectly and confuse their meaning. But I recently exposed my hearing loss in an interview; reading more at The Mind Hears and on other blogs has inspired me to worry less about my hearing loss and to continue to forge ahead in my career.

 

Biography: My name is Michelle Micarelli Struett and I am a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Program in Ecology and Conservation (where I also received my MS) at the Federal University of Paraná in Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil. My undergraduate was at Maringá State University in Maringá, which is also in Paraná. I am interested in animal behavior, especially in frogs, and in my research will examine multi-modal communication in the Brazilian Torrent Frog (Hylodes heyeri). This unique frog can sing from one or both sides of its mouth (it has two vocal sacs), depending on context. I will attempt to determine what that context is that stimulates those two possibilities (auditive, visual, or tactile), and how anthropogenic noise may interfere with communication and social interactions in this frog. Despite my hearing loss (which primarily encompasses frequencies above 4000 Hz), I have not been constrained from working with frog calls and bioacoustics.

Making an impact at high-stakes conferences

meeting presentation

-Michele

You are at a conference with ~150 experts in your sub-discipline from all around the world. The purpose of the conference is to advance our understanding by fostering in depth group discussions after provocative talks. This is the kind of conference where careers are made through well-delivered talks and insightful contributions to the discussion.  While hearing academics may relish the opportunity to participate in such a conference, for us deaf/HoH academic these conferences are obstacles to our success.

For these small conferences you are likely the only person who needs accommodation for deafness and because the conference is small they are likely not prepared to accommodate your needs. This means that you may spend a lot of time and effort figuring out accommodations that will work for you.  If you have a personal FM system, you can put it at the podium, but you will miss the questions. If you sit up front to hear the speaker, you will need to turn around to speech-read the discussion contributors. If you are able to have CART (real time captioning) or interpreters, they might quickly become lost in the technical language and variety of accents at an international conference of specialists. If you bring your own sign languages interpreters who are familiar with your expertise, you can reduce this problem; but interpreter lag can impede participating in fast-paced discussions. No matter what strategies you use, let’s face it, you are working twice as hard just to understand the material as your hearing neighbor and you aren’t going to get 100% of the information.

A high stakes conference with non-ideal lecture and discussion format can be a major career challenge for deaf/HoH academics!

You want people at specialty conferences to know that you know your stuff and have good ideas.  If you can’t do this by contributing to the group discussion at these high stakes conferences, can you be successful in your field? I think so and I will share some the approaches that have worked for me (full professor, moderate-profound loss, good speech reading skills).

I almost never speak up in the discussions.  The high probability of me asking a question that everyone knows the answer to because they heard the issue discussed seems too risky.  While I admire folks who can say “Maybe this was explained and I didn’t catch it, but (insert question)” I haven’t been able to do this at high-stakes conferences. My fear is that my colleagues will think that I wasn’t paying attention and dozed off when the topic was discussed. The truth is that even using 120% of my ‘attention’, I’m going to miss a lot of the discussion – but hearing people don’t often understand that so they may presume I was lazily dozing off.

The good news is that a lot of the networking at these conferences happens outside of the auditorium. We deaf/HoH can get our networking game going during meals, poster sessions, the food/beverage line, walking around the venue etc.  Sometimes, I seek people out for research conversations with pre-planned questions to help launch the discussion.   These informal settings are not without challenges (subjects of other blog posts!) but you have more control over these settings. For example, you can suggest moving a small group discussion outside of the noisy poster hall, your requests for clarification are more acceptable in small groups and you may have an opportunity to educate folks on the challenges of your deafness. While, your hearing peers will make clever comments in the formal group discussion and immediately earn the admiration of the big-shots, you can capture their attention through multiple small or one-on-one thoughtful discussions. It takes a bit longer this way, for sure.  What I’ve found is that those one-on-one discussions provide rich foundation for long-standing collaborations and friendships. For me, this has been the most rewarding aspect of high-stakes conferences.

Note: This blog was drafted at a high-stakes Gordon conference on Rock Deformation during a talk that was utterly indecipherable to me.  Writing this, instead of struggling with the talk, was my way of saving my energy for coffee break discussions where my game will be on.  I got this!

The more I missed, the more I made

RyanSeslow1

-Ryan

I am overcoming a lot of my fears by directly putting myself in positions where I have to talk about how hearing loss and being deaf has affected my life. As a college professor (yep, for 14.5 years now) my job requires me to be in front of a lot of people each and every day. I have been trying to be more direct with my students and colleagues, and tell them how I feel and what I need from them. My honesty about who I am and what I am missing makes getting to mutual feelings of compassion and empathy a little easier. This mutual empathy helps both parties make the emotional connection that I feel is necessary in education.

Often, I have to ask people to repeat themselves, or to speak more slowly, or loudly. I often incorrectly answer questions and everyone laughs or looks at me with a priceless look of confusion. These things also make me laugh as shared misunderstandings create connections and remind me to take myself lighter. That connection is where I begin to know someone, because they would now know me as I am. I need to be more honest and forward about why. It is my responsibility to make people aware of what and how much I am missing. It is natural to seek deeper meaning out of yourself and examine how that applies to the world around you. We grow through such self-discovery as we interpret ourselves in relationship to our time here on this planet. I have, however, learned the hard way that it can slip away all too fast if we hide from ourselves. Hiding only seems to perpetuate more hiding. I often wonder how many other people with severe hearing loss and deafness are out there hiding from their deafness as I used to do?

Dealing with this process of healing and facing my fears (it’s an ongoing process), I recently had an epiphany about my work as an artist. Possibly you are already familiar with my work, but if not, I have been a high-volume output kind of artist for my whole life. My style is to make many things At Once. Volume and production, productions in volumes and accumulation. What a great metaphor, and right under my nose! By connecting my hearing limitations to the question, “Why do I make so much stuff?” or “Why have I put the emphasis on physical output and high volume of works produced?” I suddenly get it. My work habits are all about filling in the fear of how much I have been missing and have missed in this world.

Overcompensation.

I missed a lot beginning in early childhood; and as I grew older, the more I was not hearing the more art I would make. Production and Volume = Missing. The funny part is, most of the art that I make and have made is not dark or representative of my frustration. I do not try to communicate unhappiness, but I do see a huge common thread of a lack of meaning in my work before I became more aware of the impact of my deafness. Subsequently, the context of my art has changed and this plays a huge role in the kind of work that I greatly need and want to produce. The best is really yet to come.

RyanSeslow2

The animations in this post continue to explore the soundless looping GIF format. These pieces begin as digital image fractures and manipulations. They are re-composed and organized as new imagery and content. How does that process play a role in communication? Missing 5-8 words in any sentence can have a profound effect on how one may respond, comprehend or take away from an interaction. What does this look like when that actual missing fragment(s) take place? Repetition is used to display the distortions and metaphors for how this experience may be interpreted visually. If you are a hearing person viewing these animations you may be “missing” the usual audio aspect to the videos you see, watch, and hear each day.

This post is slighted edited from the original on Ryan Seslow’s blog  where you can see more of his art.