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Hear, hear

New spring graduate improving hearing test results for N.L.

special feature: Student success

Part of a special feature celebrating the success of Memorial's graduates. This feature coincides with spring convocation 2017.

By Melanie Callahan

Bethany Power, from the small town of Lourdes on the province’s west coast, is concerned with how Newfoundlanders and Labradorians perform on standardized speech-in-noise (SIN) tests.

Ms. Power is one of nearly 170 Memorial graduates who will cross the stage at Grenfell Campus’s May 18 convocation ceremony. Ms. Power will graduate with a bachelor of science (honours), with a major in psychology.

Bethany Power
Bethany Power
Photo: Lori Lee Hollett

SIN tests are developed to assess a person’s ability to understand speech in a noisy environment. Background noises can impede the ability to hear and understand speech, particularly for older adults.

Accordingly, having the ability to accurately assess this ability is critical for identifying people with a hearing difficulty. Residents of this province speak in unique, geographical dialects.

Ms. Power has learned through her research that these dialects may, in fact, have a negative impact on performances on standardized SIN tests.

“There has been little research on the impact of dialect using a standardized clinical assessment,” said Ms. Power.

“The speech dialect in standardized SIN tests used in Canada is similar to the mainland Canadian English dialect that is quite different than the Newfoundland dialect of English.”

Impact of dialect

For Ms. Power, this suggests that a “newfound” set of norms is needed for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians on existing SIN tests and highlights the need to develop a SIN test that uses the Newfoundland and Labrador dialect of English.

“I have always had an interest in neuroscience and the brain’s role in how we function,” said Ms. Power.

Bethany Power prepares a participant for a hearing test.
Bethany Power prepares a participant for a hearing test.
Photo: Lori Lee Pike

“As a Newfoundlander, I am well aware of my own dialect and was curious as to whether dialect could impact brain processes like auditory processing. After much discussion with my supervisor, we agreed it would be interesting to research the impact of dialect on standardized speech-in-noise tests.”

Hearing in older adults

Ms. Power’s supervisor is Dr. Benjamin Zendel, Faculty of Medicine, and Canada Research Chair in Aging and Auditory Neuroscience.

Dr. Zendel runs a state-of-the-art auditory electroencephalography (EEG) laboratory at Grenfell Campus called the Cognitive Aging and Auditory Neuroloscience Laboratory (CANNLab).

The goal of his research program is to improve hearing abilities in older adults. He is investigating the impact of age on how the brain processes both speech and music.

“This summer we are extending on this research to further study the impact dialect has on speech-in-noise task performance.” — Bethany Power

Past work by Dr. Zendel demonstrates that older, lifelong musicians are better at understanding speech in background noise compared to non-musicians.

“Dr. Zendel has taught me so much about the research process, how best to handle possible setbacks, has provided guidance and has been very supportive,” said Ms. Power.

“I cannot express the gratitude I have for the opportunities and lessons I have availed of working with Dr. Zendel. He supervised my honours thesis and this summer we are extending on this research to further study the impact dialect has on speech-in-noise task performance.”

Student Internship Award

This summer, Ms. Power will strive to decipher what aspect of dialect is impacting performance on speech-in-noise tasks as a recently named 2017 University Summer Student Internship Award winner.

“I am very excited to have Bethany continue her work in my lab over the summer,” said Dr. Zendel.

“Her discovery will have a long-lasting impact for my research because I use speech-in-noise tests regularly to assess people’s hearing abilities. More importantly, her discovery has the potential to improve clinical hearing assessments for people in this province.”

From left are Dr. Ben Zendel and Bethany Power.
From left are Dr. Ben Zendel and Bethany Power.
Photo: Lori Lee Pike

For her part, Ms. Power says she was able to learn from some of the best educators and researchers in their respective fields.

“My interest in science and my passion for helping to improve the quality of life for others was encouraged and strengthened by both faculties of psychology and biology. This certainly shaped my interest in biological and cognitive psychological research.”

Following the summer internship, Ms. Power will enter Memorial’s School of Medicine where she will pursue her life-long dream of becoming a doctor.

“As a result of my interest in neuroscience and the province’s aging population, I aspire to pursue a specialty in geriatrics,” she said.

“I yearn to unearth more in age-related diseases that hold drastic implications for our province and I am eager to learn of development in potential treatments for neural deficits present in the elderly. My ultimate goal is to make a positive difference for the people of our province.”

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