What would you do if there were more than twenty-four hours in a day and you had a robot to clean your house? Ohio State grad student Sarah Yoho would spend more time working in the lab…and for a good reason. While she is working on earning her Ph.D. in Speech and Hearing Science, she is helping research ways to improve hearing aid technology, as well as working on other projects. Being part of such impactful research, it is understandable why she would cherish time spent in the lab.
In addition to her passion for research, Yoho also enjoys golf and cooking. (She has taken some of the free cooking classes offered for grad students here, and humorously adds that her fiancé pretends to enjoy the food she prepares.) Not long ago, she was an undergraduate entering the only school she had applied to; her parents were both alumni, and her brother was a Buckeye, so she didn't have to think twice about it. Of starting college, she says, "I loved the idea that for the first time I could choose what I wanted to learn about and what I wanted to do." However, she didn't choose right away; interestingly, she entered as a business major, hoping to become an accountant. "I have no idea how that happened," she says in retrospect. Next, she became an English major for a while, but realized that it wasn't something she could see herself pursuing either. Late into her sophomore year, she finally switched her major to Speech & Hearing Science. She reflects on her decision: "My mother was an elementary school teacher and she introduced me to the speech-langauge pathologists at her school. I knew it was a field that could combine my love of science with a desire to help people. It didn't hurt that the job market in the field is fantastic." Despite having taken a while to realize that this was her passion, she still managed to graduate in three years, also adding a minor in Italian and finding time to study abroad in Italy.
Yoho certainly made the most out of those three years. She was president of the local undergraduate speech and hearing group, NSSLHA (National Student Speech-Language Hearing Association), a trip leader for an alternative spring break trip, and a student representative on the Social and Behavioral Sciences Curriculum Committee (which makes decisions regarding course offerings in the school). Her favorite aspect of her undergraduate experience, however, was her on-campus job. When she was perusing the Honors and Scholars newsletter, she saw that there was a position available that involved mail and letter writing for the Office of the President. Though she didn't get that job, her resume got sent on to the Office of the President, which resulted in her getting an even better job: spending two years working for President Gee, who ended up writing one of her letters of recommendation for grad school. This was definitely an enviable occupation; she recalls that "the best part was walking around the stadium with Dr. Gee on game days and passing out bowtie-shaped cookies."
For her first two years as an undergrad, Yoho lived in the north campus dorms. She credits those two years of living on campus for helping her stay connected and be more involved in extracurricular activities. Her favorite classes as an undergrad were Introduction to Hearing Science (part of what inspired her to work toward her Ph.D. in that area) and Introduction to Dinosaurs ("No explanation necessary there," she adds). On the other hand, she recalls that an 8am calculus lecture during her first semester here was probably a bad idea. Not only did she go to the wrong calculus recitation for the entire first week of classes (a classic embarrassing freshman moment); she also quickly realized that college requires a lot more studying than high school. Her favorite place to study on campus was the 18th Avenue Library; Thompson Library was closed for renovations during her entire time as an undergraduate. Luckily, she stuck around for a while longer and has been able to make up for lost time studying at Thompson as a grad student.
Originally, she probably didn't expect that she'd get to experience that beautiful library at all; she didn't plan on getting a Ph.D. at first. Although she knew she loved science, she hadn't considered a Ph.D. as an option. "It's just not really a career that's discussed much in places like high schools. Therefore, I always thought I'd end up in something like medicine." She gratefully adds, "Good thing I didn't, because I'm incredibly squeamish." She notes that getting involved in research and completing an honors thesis as an undergraduate helped her realize that science could actually become a career for her.
Though she applied to many schools this time around, she ultimately needed a strong research institution with a helpful Ph.D. advisor. She knew of an instructor she'd had as an undergrad that she wanted to work with, so OSU was the obvious choice. She explains, "The advisor you choose for your Ph.D. strongly shapes not only your experience as a student, but also plays a strong role as mentor and can guide your entire career path. I chose to stay at OSU and work with someone who was active in an area of research that I wanted to be in."
Yoho describes graduate school as "worlds different" from undergraduate classes. Though a Ph.D. program sounds intimidating, she insists that the main difference is that the classes are mostly discussion-based and involve fewer exams. Additionally, her classes are much more closely tied to her interests than many of the classes she took as an undergrad. She notes that, surprisingly, her favorite classes as a grad student have been her statistics courses, even though statistics is not a huge interest of hers. She explains, "I loved those classes so much mainly because they were taught by a man who was obviously incredibly passionate about his area of expertise and taught us really practical applications of stats."
Classes, however, are only a small component of Yoho's Ph.D. program. She claims that most of the knowledge she has gained in graduate school has come from outside the classroom. "It's more like a really fun, fast-paced job than school," she describes. She works in the lab from 9-5, teaches undergraduate courses, publishes papers, and presents at conferences in places like Seattle and Montreal. She is a lab manager in Dr. Eric Healy's lab, and therefore has many responsibilities in each of the six or seven projects she is working on at one time: designing experiments, processing and creating stimuli for experiments, recruiting and scheduling all of the research subjects from undergraduate courses and the OSU Speech-Langauge-Hearing Clinic, analyzing data, and assisting with writing the publications and presentations.
Currently, one of her major projects has the potential to impact the current national (American National Standards Institute; ANSI) standard for speech intelligibility. Yoho explains that speech communication systems (such as telephones, hearing aids, and public address systems) don't transmit the entire speech signal; therefore it is important to figure out which aspects of the signal are most important. Another major project is a collaboration with the Computer Science and Engineering program. Current hearing aids can amplify sounds but do not separate speech from background noise, making it difficult for a hearing-impaired person to distinguish speech in restaurants, bars, and other noisy places. "Many research groups around the world have been working on this problem for years," she says. "Our group is the first to develop an algorithm that shows substantial improvements in understanding speech in noise for hearing-impaired listeners. Although still far from being implemented in current technology, it's a very exciting result as it was previously unknown whether such an algorithm was even possible." Their research is so important that they were awarded a $1.8 million grant from the National Institute of Health to continue it. Interim President Alutto also cited their recent publication in his speech to the University Senate.
Yoho says that her job right now is full of rewarding moments. "I love when students tell me that my class has encouraged them to pursue a career they hadn't previously considered." Of course, her research provides an even greater sense of accomplishment; she says hearing-impaired subjects are full of excitement and feedback when they participate in the noise-reduction algorithm study and realize what it might mean for the future. "After years of frustration trying to understand speech in noisy situations, the subjects were just so genuinely thankful that we were able to show them real, tangible improvements," she remarks. Some of their scores went from 0% intelligibility to 70% intelligibility, the difference between understanding no speech to understanding almost all of it. Yoho recalls that one subject referred to the algorithm as "a hearing aid on steroids."
"So much of research is really made up of small, incremental steps towards better understanding of a problem, not giant leaps and breakthroughs," she asserts. Though bigger breakthroughs get more publicity, many small improvements add up over time. Yoho states that most of their reports seem modest, but that "the field needs those types of 'boring' studies to drive the future development of treatments that may revolutionize how we address hearing loss." She hopes to see some of her research put to use in the real world, expecting that their algorithm may eventually be used in hearing aids, especially as engineering technology improves and processing power requirement is reduced. She also hopes to see these hearing devices become more affordable in the near future. Sarah Yoho certainly has high hopes for the future of speech and hearing technology, and gets to be involved in these improvements all the while. "I think hearing aids and cochlear implants can only become better," she remarks. "As it is, they are amazing devices. Essentially they are very high-tech, high-power computers sitting in a few-inch space behind someone's ear."
Of course, it would not hurt if someone could invent that house-cleaning robot, too.