Interview with Kimberly Skinner, AuD
Kimberly Skinner, AuD began the PhD program in speech and hearing sciences at Indiana University in the Fall of 2014 after 18 years as a clinical audiologist. Her research interests include speech perception and aging and tinnitus. She is currently working on a project looking at spectral weighting using a type of correlational method.
1. You obtained your clinical degree in audiology before pursuing your Ph.D. What made you decide to continue in the field of audiology and obtain a PhD?
I completed my master’s degree in audiology at a clinically-focused program back in the mid-90’s. It was always my desire and intention to go back to school someday for a research degree. My favorite part of graduate school was reading the research articles. Fairly early on in my career as a clinical audiologist, I purchased a private practice. I really enjoyed that for many years. I completed my AuD degree from a distance education program in 2002. Even then, I was thinking about where I might want to go for a PhD, but wasn’t ready to leave clinical practice quite yet. It becomes trickier to pick up and move when one has a private practice, a house, and a family! At some point, I realized that if I was going to become a researcher, I better get on it! I do recall the moment where I began to consider this very seriously. I was discussing amplification and surgical options with a patient who had single-sided deafness. In considering all of her options, it hit me how much things had changed since I was in school, and it also hit me that I was pretty far out of the loop when it came to anything other than hearing aids. I began asking questions and researching program options and here I am! I still can hardly believe my good fortune to have found and been accepted to a program that matches my research interests and professional goals so well!
2. How many years did you work in the field before pursuing your PhD? What is the most important thing you learned during these years?
I was a clinical audiologist for 18 years before starting my PhD program! I’ve worked with a variety of clinical populations, with my favorite being older people. I’d say the most important thing I learned clinically is that no one is exactly the same, no two families are exactly the same, and each case is a little bit different. Audiologists learn how to be good listeners! I loved that as an audiologist part of working with patients is getting to know them a little bit. Older people have some interesting stories!
3. What has been the most rewarding part of working on your PhD degree?
The most rewarding part thus far is learning directly from people who have a lot of research experience and are also quite brilliant! I’m also enjoying being a student again and being around other students. I love being around people who love to learn. It’s a neat experience getting to take classes with AuD students. They’re very smart and learning so much more about audiology than I did as a master’s degree audiology student way back when. I also like having the time to spend reading research articles and I love learning how to put together an experiment.
4. Please describe your current area(s) of research focus. How did you become interested in these research topics?
My general interest could be described as “speech perception and aging”. I have always been interested in communication and the “aging” part came after almost two decades of working with geriatric patients. I’m currently working on a project looking at spectral weighting in normal hearing listeners compared to people with age-related hearing loss. We are looking to see if people give different weights to certain frequency bands, in this case in a series of consonants, when identifying speech sounds. From the articulation index/speech intelligibility index research we know quite a bit about what frequency bands contribute greater or lesser information to speech sounds but we can’t assume we know what’s going on perceptually from those experiments (perhaps the speech intelligibility index accurately predicts how the auditory system weights frequency information, perhaps it doesn’t). The AI/SII experiments look at frequency importance by restricting frequency information. In spectral weighting studies, the entire range of frequencies is available to a listener. Instead of restricting frequency information, masking noise is used to determine which frequency bands are more heavily weighted. The idea is that if the presence of noise in a particular frequency band changes how a person responds, then that frequency band has a greater weight than a frequency band that is unaffected by noise. Spectral weighting information could potentially be useful in programming amplification devices and in aural rehabilitation planning. It would also be interesting to learn whether or not people with hearing loss have similar or different listening strategies as people with normal hearing, and whether or not people in general have different listening strategies.
5. Who are your mentors or role models?
I’m currently being mentored by Jenny Lentz, PhD and Larry Humes, PhD in the speech and hearing sciences department at Indiana University. Another mentor and role model is Patti Johnstone, PhD from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Patti was my CFY supervisor years ago, and was very helpful when I made the decision to go back to school.
6. What has been the most challenging aspect of your graduate school education thus far?
The most challenging aspect thus far has been getting back into school mode and changing career tracks after doing the same thing for so long. I was a very good clinical audiologist (if I do say so myself!) and it’s been an interesting experience studying new material with a middle-aged brain. I’ve gone from being very experienced at one thing to starting at the very beginning of something different. Sometimes it’s hard and overwhelming, but I haven’t regretted my decision for a single second!
7. What are your career aspirations after graduation?
My first choice would be to have a research position at a university where I would spend time researching and teaching, preferably in a program that is also training clinical audiologists.
8. What other area of research are you interested in after you obtain your PhD?
I don’t know how my interests will change over the next few years while I’m working on my PhD. While I’m here, in addition to looking at spectral weighting, I am also very interested in learning more about how normal hearing listeners and listeners with age-related hearing loss utilize temporal cues. Those who have studied auditory nerve fibers will recall that the auditory nerve fibers encode frequency as well as temporal information. How does this change with aging and how can we address these changes clinically? I am also interested in aural rehabilitation training programs. Brain-training programs are popular these days, and will likely grow in popularity, but we don’t know a lot about how effective they are over the long term.
9. What do you foresee the biggest difference will be for audiology in the next 25 years?
This is a fun question for me, because I’ve seen so many changes in the past 18 years. I started fitting hearing aids in the days where hearing aids were all analog, acoustic properties were modified with trim pots and/or by making physical modification to the hearing aid/ear mold, and Starkey was passing out buttons at AAA that said “Just say No to crummy peak-clipping”. I wouldn’t be surprised to see amplification options in 25 years bear little resemblance to what we have today. I can see aural rehabilitation/aural habilitation (do they still call it that?) changing significantly as various brain-training programs are developed and researched. Who knows, someone may have figured out how to regenerate hair cells by then!
Audiology has always been a research-based profession. In 25 years I expect that we will have an even better understanding of what are the best practices and most efficacious treatments.
Professionally, I think audiology has a solid future. It’s going to change a lot, without question, but I think audiologists will always be needed. We have always had strong visionaries in leadership positions at the American Academy of Audiology and other professional organizations, and for that I am grateful. When I was in graduate school the first time, a clinical audiology doctorate was just something people were talking about. Now, a doctoral degree is the minimum standard in most if not all states for licensure, and the minimum educational criterion for professional membership in the Academy and ASHA. Over the next 25 years, I have no doubt that the Academy will continue to improve availability of quality hearing care in terms of billing and coding issues and access to audiologists.
10. Do you have any advice or wisdom to offer current AuD/PhD students in the field of audiology?
I’m still early on in my program, so I’ll repeat advice that was given to me at orientation. A recent PhD graduate reminded us to enjoy our time while we are here. My life experience tells me that she is right; the time spent at university at the beginning of one’s career is indeed a special time. I would also remind people to appreciate the opportunities we have as students of higher learning. It really is a privilege and one not available to everyone. I would advise AuD students to gain as broad an education as possible and really pay attention in your core classes even if they are outside of your intended area of expertise. Things are constantly changing in clinical audiology and the more you learn now, the more options you will have in the future. Learn as much as you can about business, even if you don’t plan to go into business yourself. I would also encourage doctoral students to get and/or stay involved with state and national associations, even if just as a member. I also think it’s important to stay abreast of licensing and other professional issues.
11. What are a few of the main differences you have noticed between being in a clinical graduate program and being in a PhD program?
My clinical program was so many years ago that I probably can’t really accurately compare the two experiences! I remember spending a lot of time finding and researching articles and studying, and I’m doing a lot of that now. Since audiology does have a research base, there will naturally be similarities. The obvious difference is that as a PhD student, I’m not spending time gaining clinical skills and when I was a clinical student, I did not spend time gaining research skills. I would have loved to have gone to a program where people were doing research, but the program I attended wasn’t set up that way. One of the things I like about the speech and hearing sciences department at Indiana University is that undergraduates and AuD students also have opportunities to spend time in a lab.
One thing I find different about a research focus after being a clinician for so long is that I find in some of the papers I read that individual differences are glossed over. I am glad that many researches ARE interested in individual differences. It’s great to note trends and maybe even to find out how the majority of people do something, but that guy who didn’t perform like the others on the task is still going to show up in someone’s clinic!
12. What is your favorite factoid about yourself?
I am also a mom to an elementary-school-aged daughter. She is happy that we have moved somewhere with “real” weather. We lived in California before, and she thought the weather there was boring. I’ve enjoyed having a front row seat in observing her development and language acquisition!