By Gina Beach
Stories in this student-led and -written Outlook series highlight the distinctive summer internships and work experiences of students from across the academic spectrum. In conjunction with Deaf Awareness Week, Sept. 21-27, this article spotlights student research in hearing sciences.
It was her goal of helping individuals with hearing problems -- not her own entertainment -- that led doctoral candidate Ning Zhou to replay over and over this summer the recordings of children in song.
Zhou, a doctoral candidate in hearing sciences in the College of Health and Human Services, is studying pitch perception in individuals with cochlear implants -- surgically placed electronic hearing devices. Her work centers on tonal languages, such as Chinese and Vietnamese, in which the same word can have different meanings depending on the speaker's pitch.
Working from her lab in Grover Center, Zhou focused on the singing abilities of youngsters from her native China -- some with cochlear implants, some without. Although the implants allow people to "hear" by simulating auditory nerves and aid in their comprehension of speech, they do not offer the range of hearing possible with a healthy ear.
According to Li Xu, Zhou's adviser and a top researcher in cochlear implants, Zhou's project is one of the first to examine singing proficiency in children with cochlear implants.
"The common ground is pitch perception between tonal language and music," Zhou said, explaining that assessing youngsters' singing can help researchers understand how implant recipients hear tonal languages.
To conduct her research in Athens, Zhou capitalized on a partnership between Ohio University and Tongren Hospital in Beijing. Researchers there sent Zhou audio clips of children with cochlear implants singing in Chinese. Zhou's mother recorded kindergartners in Zhou's hometown of Shang Hai for the comparison of a control group.
"I asked my mother when she picked (my niece) up, 'Can you please record some kids singing for me?' She had a little pen voice recorder and would ask them to sing," Zhou said.
Zhou found that while both groups understood tempo and rhythm, the cochlear implant recipients could not hear pitch. Her hypothesis -- that children with cochlear implants are monotonic -- proved to be true. This implies such children also will have difficulty learning tonal languages.
"They don't vary (pitch); they stay flat," Zhou said of the children. "We would say they have a shrunken pitch range or compressed range."
Zhou constructed her acoustic analysis using a software program she developed with MATLAB, a programming language ideal for analyzing data and statistics.
"Ning was able to derive many quantitative measures to assess singing in children. She is diligent as well as talented," Xu said. "I believe her project is going to be an important contribution to the research community."
Zhou presented her findings earlier this month at the Academy of Rehabilitative Audiology Conference in Portland, Ore. Winning the academy's 2007 Herbert J. Oyer Award, which provides one student annually with $1,000 for research and travel, gave her that opportunity. The project also will be featured in the ARA research journal.
Zhou also is awaiting word on a National Institutes of Health grant request -- which would give her two to three years of funding, including a salary and travel money -- to continue research related to her doctoral dissertation.
This particular project is a small part of her dissertation, which centers on constructing a cochlear implant that would allow users to discern pitch, enabling them to hear music and correctly hear and speak tonal languages.
"Hearing science explores one of the ways we perceive the world," Zhou said. "It adds understanding to what we know about ourselves (as) humans."
Updated Sept. 29, 2008, at 2:30 p.m. to update the accompanying photo.