By Deane Morrison
Evelyn Davies-Venn describes herself as a shy kid who flunked kindergarten, but also got a second chance.
“Quite frankly, many second chances,” says Davies-Venn, who also credits perseverance and great mentoring with helping her become an assistant professor in the University’s Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences this year.
An audiologist and hearing researcher, she is out to make life easier for people with hearing loss.
“Hearing loss can be invisible, but communication is a crucial aspect of life,” she says. “It’s very hard to fit in when you have a health problem that’s not visible.”
In 1997 Davies-Venn and her family immigrated to Minnesota from Sierra Leone. She remembers arriving in the middle of March and finding it strange to see a high sun that couldn’t melt snow. And when she came to the University as a freshman, the pre-med student felt lost for a while.
But she got another second chance when a CLA administrator advised her to take a career exploration class. So she did, and “audiologist” ranked as her number one career match. When she took a hearing science class, that sealed the deal.
“I was attracted by the combination of science and helping people,” says Davies-Venn. “The rest is history.”
Help from McNair
In the summer before her senior year, Davies-Venn held a McNair Scholarship that supported her work in the lab of Robert Schlauch, her undergraduate adviser, who chairs the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences.
The federally funded TRIO McNair Scholars program assists eligible first-generation undergraduate students from low-income families and underrepresented groups to prepare for and to enter graduate programs leading to the Ph.D.
“The scholarship launched me to do research. It ignited my interest in research and made me realize that I could pursue a Ph.D.,” she says.
“I knew right away that she would be successful as a hearing scientist because she is intelligent, she’s willing to put in lots of hard work, and she has a passion and excitement for that work,’ says Schlauch. “She showed so much promise that I was able to write a strong reference letter for her to be admitted with a full scholarship to one of the top programs in the world for hearing science and audiology at the graduate level—the University of Washington in Seattle.”
At Washington, Davies-Venn held a two-year McNair graduate fellowship and earned an M.S. in audiology, a doctor of audiology degree, and a Ph.D. For her dissertation, she studied what factors cause some people to love their hearing aid and do well with it, while others using the same device have a much worse time.
During a postdoc at Purdue, she studied how the hearing system responds to help us hear in noise.
“It dynamically reacts to the environment, Davies-Venn explains. “That makes it more flexible, but also harder to fix.”
Committed to better hearing
Back at the University of Minnesota for a second postdoc, Davies-Venn extended her work on individual variances to patients with cochlear implants. With professor Andrew Oxenham she studied how to improve spectral processing--the brain’s processing of different frequencies--with the goal of helping those with implants perceive speech in the presence of noise. With professor Peggy Nelson she studied the role of spectral processing in explaining different outcomes for patients with the same amount of hearing loss.
“What drives me is the feeling that my work as an assistant professor in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences can make a difference in the lives of students and for people with hearing loss,” Davies-Venn says. “I want to eventually use knowledge about factors that drive individual variance to improve outcomes by optimizing the design of sensory aids and customizing the auditory rehabilitation protocol for individuals with hearing loss.”