PhD Spotlight: Riley DeBacker
Name: Riley DeBacker
Program: Ohio State University
Mentor: Eric C. Bielefeld, PhD
1. Can you tell us a bit about your educational and clinical background?
During my undergrad, I knew that I wanted to be involved in research and had a passion for teaching so I got involved in a lab in the linguistics department here at Ohio State. This was one of the best experiences I could have hoped for because it taught me that I DEFINITELY didn't want to do linguistics research (no offense to the wonderful Dr. Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, who has been a superb mentor to me since then). From there, I stumbled into speech and hearing, dead set on pursuing a clinical education and having left research firmly behind me. It was in this department that I heard the guest lecture from Dr. Bielefeld that got me interested in work on ototoxicity that led me to his lab. I didn't lose that passion for clinical interaction, however, and that's led me into the AuD as well as the PhD.
2. Where are you currently pursuing your PhD, and what is your topic of research?
I'm pursuing my PhD at Ohio State University, studying ototoxicity and auditory physiology. I've previously done some work with cisplatin, a chemotherapy agent, but am now concentrating more on exposure to antiretroviral drugs.
3. How did you secure a mentor? What did that process look like?
I asked! Dr. B came into one of my undergraduate classes to give a guest lecture and afterwards I walked up to ask if he was interested in taking on an undergraduate research assistant as a volunteer. I started the process helping in the lab with other projects, but within the first year we worked together to design the project that would become my undergraduate honors research thesis. When I went on to apply for the PhD, however, I also looked at other individuals that were doing interesting research and cold emailed them to request phone interviews to discuss potentially joining them as a PhD student. Ultimately, I decided that OSU's offer was the best and so I chose to stay here.
4. What stemmed your interest in your current topic of interest to study?
Like many people in the physiology branch of hearing, I started by being fascinated at the idea of regrowing hair cells. Once I started in the lab, however, I became simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the idea that children undergoing chemotherapy treatment could be more vulnerable to hearing loss later in life and so I chose to investigate that. From there, I expanded my interest to include a wider range of pharmaceuticals, but I haven't lost my fascination with the effect that the medicines we take can have such an effect on our hearing.
5. What would you like to pursue in your career after you achieve your PhD?
When I was growing up, I always said that I wanted to be a teacher. As I grew older, I realized that I had some additional interests on top of that which drove me towards the PhD, but teaching remains my primary goal. As such, I'd like to continue working in a university setting either as a clinical or research faculty member.
6. Tell us about being both an AuD and PhD student concurrently, is it the best of both worlds?
I'd say that I don't sleep, but I know that's true of most doctoral students. I think that the AuD/PhD has some of the best and worst aspects of both degrees. I have found myself incredibly lucky in that I work primarily with animals as research subjects, making it far easier to schedule testing around my clinical and class schedule. Working with humans makes that less flexible and so I certainly appreciate that "perk" of the work that I do. One definite down side is trying to balance the additional coursework and lab requirements on top of an already packed schedule of courses and clinical rotations. I literally couldn't do it without an outpouring of support from my clinical faculty and PhD advisor, and so I can't stress enough that anyone considering the combined degrees should proactively sit down with all of the involved parties to discuss that relationship and the trade-offs or extra obligations that you're agreeing to.
7. Do you have any advice for students who have an interest in research?
Honestly, don't rush jumping into a PhD lab without really understanding the breadth of our field. I am very lucky that I got early exposure to research that I am passionate about and that as my interests changed, my advisor was willing to stretch outside of his comfort zone to accommodate them. I know colleagues who didn't have the same good fortune and so I'd encourage prospective students to dip their toes into as much of audiology as possible before decided what they'd like to spend the beginning of their career exploring.