Interview by Drew Simenson
Henry Adler, Ph.D. is a Research Assistant Professor with the University at Buffalo Center for Hearing and Deafness. He is coauthor of a recent Letter in Science, Community network for deaf scientists.
Dr. Adler received his BA in Biology at Harvard University and his Ph.D. in Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. He has done research at academic and medical institutions such as Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, University of Michigan Kresge Hearing Research Institute, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, University of Maryland, Gallaudet University and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at Rochester Institute of Technology.
Photo of Henry Adler by Rachel Adler
I was born deaf. It is unknown what caused my deafness. My mother had the rubella test done, and the lab that administered the test lost the results. A positive test can be associated with a heightened risk of deafness and other health risks. For me, I just had the one problem. She didn’t have rubella physically, though.
My parents discovered that I was deaf when they noticed I was not reacting to my mother’s voice or loud noises. There was a doctor clapping behind my head and was reacting, but only because I could feel the air. Finally, another doctor did confirm my deafness at 11 months old. At 15 months old, my parents set me up with a program for speech therapy.
Later on, I went to a deaf school in New York City where you were not allowed to sign; you could only use your mouth to speak.
When I communicate now, I don’t focus on signing; I use all methods of communication.
Developing a Network through the ARO Annual Conference
In Feb. 1990, I attended my first Annual Meeting of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology. At the time, I specialized in hearing loss and recovery in birds following exposure to loud noise. I found that birds’ ears were able to repair themselves within a few weeks after the hearing loss.
I was the first deaf scientist to be at ARO, displaying my work on hearing loss in birds.
The next year, in 1991, I met a second deaf scientist at ARO.
And the following year, 1992, a third deaf scientist arrived at ARO. The three of us would then go on to found a Hearing Impaired member group of ARO, or the HI-ARO group.
As the three founders, we did not focus only on those who could use sign language; we welcomed folks who were able to communicate in various ways (including speaking and lipreading). Sometimes, in my case, I normally function better when I notice an association between a concept or word and an action. If I can’t draw that connection it is more difficult for me. I can use this approach in how I mentor others and work with mentees with hearing loss.
Products of a Network
There are now over 60 HI-ARO members. At HI-ARO, we are a support group. We exchange our ideas and experiences in order to help other generations with hearing loss.
We want to see more in the future for scientists with disabilities. We want more and more to enter and to go into graduate school in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM).
Hearing loss is an invisible thing that folks are unable to notice. They just know that you’re “talking funny.” There is at times a perception problem by those who can hear, who are not as educated as they should be about those with hearing loss. Sometimes there is no impact until they meet someone who is hearing impaired. Then they become more familiar and understanding.
By interacting with HI-ARO members, ARO members with normal hearing are gaining exposure to ways to establish successful partnership programs, and discovering how to collaborate with one another. It helps those without hearing loss appreciate their own hearing more, and not take it for granted. These interactions also drive the community to be more motivated to answer questions about how to treat hearing loss, since there’s a heightened awareness of the ways hearing loss can complicate a person’s situation.
This has led to greater interest in protective measures such as avoiding loud noise, as well as protection against certain antibiotics and other drugs that can cause hearing loss. Scientists continue to study the effects of “ototoxic” drugs on the inner ear for further insights on prevention against hearing loss.
Other current research trends include pre- and post-trauma brain imaging, traumatic brain injuries, and tinnitus, an area I now work on at the University at Buffalo Center for Hearing and Deafness.
Virtual Networking and the Impact of Technological Advances
Technology has advanced, and that has been helpful, big time. The internet has been great. It has really helped people with disabilities. This has been a wonderful opportunity to pursue a successful career in STEMM.
I still think the best work is done in person, from my own experience working with various people, and as far as networking goes.
Recommendations for the National Research Mentoring Network
One good way that a network such as NRMN could help someone with hearing loss would be to somehow open up access major research centers with a proven history of success getting grants from the NIH and other government agencies.
Grants are important, and to earn them you have to show that your work will impact society in a major way. For example, tinnitus has a major impact and is a very competitive area of research.
A person with hearing loss could work well with leading scientists, and this experience could act as a career accelerator; once that person with hearing loss receives grants successfully, they would be more likely to obtain an advanced position in their career.
My HI-ARO colleagues and I have developed a distributed network for mentoring researchers with hearing loss (HL), from high school students to postdoctoral fellows. We want to develop monitoring tools to quantify efficacy of methods for mentoring individuals with HL. Mentors will analyze the data as well as mentor and mentee opinions before deciding which strategies are effective. We are always open to new mentoring technique(s), based on both personal experiences and logistics (including location) of a successful research project. The results will be used to facilitate mentoring experiences for future generations in research institutions globally.
Examples of cases studies include: (1) there always will be researchers in small distant research communities, and this calls for remote techniques to successfully mentor a trainee with HL, and (2) conferences should always have real-time captioning for all podium presentations. This method of hearing assistive technology will be beneficial for all in the audience. This is a fast-food area where technology can drive down current cost, yet the more effective technologies remain to be identified.