So You Want to Be a Research Audiologist?
Dr. Zalewski received his undergraduate from The Pennsylvania State University, his Masters from The University of Maryland, and his PhD from Gallaudet University. He works as a clinical research audiologist with the National Institutes on Deafness and Other Communicative Disorders (NIDCD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Zalewski is co-investigator on many NIH protocols from over 15 of the 27 institutes located within the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. He is involved with the investigation and publishing of the auditory and vestibular phenotype of many rare diseases and genetic syndromes. His primary interest is in vestibular physiology and balance disorders. Dr. Zalewski also enjoys an adjunct faculty appointment at the University of Maryland and Gallaudet University. He is a current board member of the American Balance Society and a member of the SAA Advisory Committee for the American Academy of Audiology.
1. How did you get into the profession and specifically into research?
The field of audiology is a second career for me. After working nine years in another industry, I returned to school to pursue a career in Speech-Language Pathology only to find myself drawn to hearing science (not an uncommon story among audiologists). In retrospect, science has always been an interest of mine. As far back as middle school, science fairs were the highpoint of every academic year. Although I began my career in audiology as a clinician, it was not long before my love for science drew me to a career in research (actually, truth be known, my current position has allowed for a strong focus on both research and clinical care). For a little over a decade now, I have had the distinct pleasure of having a career with National Institutes of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). My specific interests are investigating the hearing and vestibular phenotype of rare diseases with a particular emphasis on vestibular function.
2. What is a typical day in research audiology like?
A career in research can take many forms from classic bench research to field research. Research in hearing and vestibular science can also present in many forms from the bench to the bedside. I have the distinct pleasure of knowing and, at times, working with brilliant bench researchers who can spend hundreds of hours studying the cellular make-up of the inner ear without ever once seeing a patient. For me, my time spent peering down a microscope has been essentially non-existent. A typical day for me is spent doing “bedside” research, seeing multiple patients in a single day; each patient having a unique and often rare disease. Our research mission is simple: to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of the hearing and balance systems, and disseminate and apply that knowledge towards the diagnosis, prevention, management, and re/habilitation of communication and balance disorders.
Although characterization of the hearing and vestibular phenotype often takes time and particular attention to each patient, much of our efforts also focus on the planning and development of methods that underlie each research protocol. Prior to studying a specific disease or treatment effect, it is imperative to ask the right questions; to determine the best procedures (clinical measures) that will comprehensively detail the overall hearing and vestibular phenotype for that disease. This is often accomplished through collaborative meetings in order to develop a research plan that is both thorough and efficient. One thing about research is you rarely get a second chance to collect data; so ensuring sound and comprehensive methods prior to the start of any study is well worth the effort. It is important to realize that this is true of any research, not just our research.
Finally, a good bit of time is spent on the analysis and publication of our research findings. Research data can be damaging if it is not accurate and it is useless unless it is published. This is true of any research. So attention to detail is critical when working with data – and this is never a simple process. This is often the less glamorous part of research as countless hours are often spent working with a database file ensuring that the correct analyses are being conducted in accordance with your hypotheses and research questions.
3. What do you like most about working in research?
There is so much planning, execution and analysis that go into the research process that the biggest thrill is seeing the finished manuscript published. However, I would be remiss to leave my response at that. I must mention some other attributes that I enjoy about research. It is an absolute pleasure to work with patients and much of the credit that is assigned to our research must go to our research participants. I also thoroughly enjoy the point at which data comes alive with graphs and figures. It is then that the story begins to visually unfold. Being a visual learner, this is often a personal highpoint in the research process. Working with statistics can also be a very exciting process as conclusions regarding your research questions and hypotheses are finally revealed. Although working with statistics can be complicated and even confusing, it is often one of the most electrifying parts of research.
4. What are some challenges of research audiology?
Research can be, by its inherent nature, very challenging. Albert Einstein once said, “If we knew what we were doing, they wouldn’t call it research”. That about sums it up. The biggest challenge to research is trying to determine and control for the unknown or confounding variables. It’s about predicting the unforeseen variables, which is never easy to do. But I am now going to do something a good researcher must always do; turn this “challenge” into a positive. There are two ways research is really exciting; proving something you knew was going to be true (affirmation), and discovering something you did not think was going to be true (surprise). Sometimes it's the later that comes from those unexpected or unforeseen variables.
Of course, research can also be very challenging and, at times, disappointing when your results fail to lead to a significant conclusion. However, non-significant results are how many projects continue to evolve and grow. When your data fails to prove your hypothesis, it often produces a series of alternative hypotheses. If there is nothing else that I have learned from research, it is this: questions will forever lead to more questions and ultimately more answers. Sometimes they are expected. Sometimes they are unexpected. Sometimes they are groundbreaking. Sometimes they are null. But in the end, there will always be more questions, which will undoubtedly enrich our understanding of science.
5. What inter-professional roles do you play?
Some of the best research comes from a collaboration of minds and (often) research facilities/institutes. Collaboration is, at its heart, a recursive process by which two or more people or organizations work together to achieve a common or shared goal. It is a process that relies heavily upon each person’s unique contributions and expertise to achieve something greater than if each organization acted alone. In short, the greatest inter-professional role you play is being the expert within your field. It is critical that your contributions reflect this expertise and that the decisions made during the collaborative process protect the hearing and/or balance outcome measures that are critical to the research question(s) being investigated.
Most importantly, you are the expert within your specific field of study or clinical practice. As a clinical research audiologist, it is my responsibility to serve as the expert in hearing and vestibular health care as well as ensure that the research methods employed are appropriate and rigorous. This means I am responsible for determining which clinical measures are appropriate as well as how each measure will contribute to the outcome of the study. As the expert within your field, you have a responsibility to communicate the strengths as well as potential concerns to any other scientists in the study. Research would not be possible if it were not for collaborations.
6. Any tips for students wanting to work in research audiology?
I believe certain attributes create good researchers; a natural curiosity, an insatiable appetite for knowledge, an ability to see both the forest and the trees, having patience and being detail-oriented, and having the ability to ask good questions. Neil Armstrong once said, “Research is creating new knowledge”. For a few years I viewed research to be a means to an end; a process to achieving an answer to a question. After a few years, however, I came to realize that research is much more than that. It is a creative process. One that benefits from a creative mind but demands a structured thought process. Although some may view these attributes to be paradoxical, they effectively complement one another. Discovery is often the product of curiosity, but it often requires good sound methods to prove its existence. Such dogma has certainly made its historical mark in hearing and vestibular research; the discovery of the traveling wave, the discovery of otoacoustic emissions, the discovery of the caloric response, and more recently through the ongoing discoveries of different genetic hearing losses.
Having had the opportunity to experience both the clinical and the research side of audiology, I have come to realize that both research and clinical care offer their own unique perspectives. Hearing and balance research affords the opportunity to provide clinical care but does so in an environment that is very structured, often with very specific goals and outcome measures. Any research requires a detail-oriented mind with a good amount of patience and practicality. Discoveries do not occur overnight and often take many years of diligence.
For those thinking of a career in hearing and vestibular research, attributes such as these are often indispensable. But above all, teamwork is vital. Never forget that research is almost never a singular endeavor or an isolated achievement. Collaboration is often critical to the process.
7. Any other advice for students?
Always be curious. Never stop reading. And whatever you choose to do, try to make a difference. Never forget that learning is a journey, not a destination.