Speech Perception Laboratory

The Speech Perception Laboratory is directed by Dan Fogerty, PhD.  Research projects in the laboratory seek to maximize speech understanding in complex and adverse listening conditions, with a particular focus on factors involved in aging and hearing loss.  Laboratory projects work to define the acoustic and linguistic properties of speech that determine speech understanding, as well as identify the individual auditory and cognitive abilities of the listener that underlie speech understanding. The laboratory is supported by the National Institutes of Health.

AHS media relations specialist Vince Lara, speaks with Department of Speech and Hearing Science associate professor Dan Fogerty about why he choose Illinois, teaching during a pandemic, and his research on the interaction between speech and noise.

Full Transcript

VINCE LARA: Hi, and welcome to another edition of A Few Minutes With, the podcast that showcases Illinois College of Applied Health Sciences. I’m Vince Lara and today I’m speaking with SHS associate Professor Dan Fogerty about why he chose Illinois, teaching during a pandemic, and his research on the interaction between speech and noise. Dan, Thanks for being on the podcast. I appreciate it. You’re a Wisconsin guy, but what led you to teach at the University of Illinois?

DAN FOGERTY: I think it can be summarized in probably one word here, and that’s opportunity. Illinois has a long history of excellence in speech and hearing research and teaching and that tradition continues today. I see Illinois as a place where I can grow my research program.

I can attract high quality students and interact with them, as well as interact with experts who share related interests. Both within the departments and across campus. And so I think there’s a real collaborative atmosphere here at Illinois that I think is both important and rewarding.

VINCE LARA: Dan, did you always want to teach?

DAN FOGERTY: So I started out my career as a speech language pathologist. So the clinician who was focused in helping people attain functional skills for communication. And in many ways therapy is a form of teaching, although at the time I certainly didn’t think of myself directly as a teacher. The times that I felt most successful when I think back, are when I’ve helped someone overcome a challenge that they’ve had and in order to do something that they value. It has often been in the form of helping someone gain knowledge or skills to help them do something. And this happens both inside and outside the classroom where I have the opportunity to do just that.

So I think I am doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do but I didn’t always know what to call it, what career to find it in, or even if I should call it teaching, but it certainly is.

VINCE LARA: What’s teaching been like in a pandemic? What sort of challenges have you experienced?

DAN FOGERTY: I’ve been teaching for a number of years and one of the things that I miss the most is the classroom environment. There’s an energy in the classroom where students are working together to solve problems. And while many of those activities or learning objectives can be translated to an online environment, for me, it’s been difficult to create and feel a sense of community. But on the other hand, the pandemic has really forced an opportunity to be creative about teaching. To re-evaluate things that I’ve done before, to seek out resources and how I can do things better. So through this process I’ve learned a lot. And I think that many of those tools and resources that have been discovered or created during this time was will still stay around and can still be used to enhance interactivity and engagement of courses, both online and in person in the future.

VINCE LARA: Commonly Dan, I find when I do these interviews, researchers had some sort of experience that they’ve had that inspires their research and I’m wondering what that was for you.

DAN FOGERTY: There have been the experiences that I’ve experienced both as a clinician and really just as an individual with members of my own family, where people have difficulty hearing. That poses significant challenges for them to participate in the life of others.

And this is a very common problem. So nearly one in three people between 65 and 75 have hearing loss. If you go over 75, half of individuals have hearing loss. And that hearing losses associated with cognitive decline later in life as well.

The good news is that hearing loss is also one of the largest modifiable factors for preventing dementia. Modifiable means that we can do something about it. We have the knowledge and the tools now to improve communication and cognitive function later in life. It involves protecting our hearing and it involves using appropriate hearing devices like hearing aids.

And in addition to just hearing loss, made listening environments are complex, they’re challenging. Think about going to a restaurant but there’s a lot of noise, or even trying to type at the TV on in the background. Listening in noisy environments presents even more challenges. Particularly, to those who have hearing loss, but really for anyone, even those who don’t.

Anyone can have difficulty with communication. And so what inspires me is that there is a real opportunity here. An opportunity to address a problem that so many people have difficulty with, to improve our ability to communicate with each other, to prevent cognitive decline. Communication is really central to our human experience and we can do something to increase access to that.

VINCE LARA: My background is communications, and so often in communications we talk about separating the noise from the message in order to facilitate communication. Is that similar to your research on interactions between speech and noise?

DAN FOGERTY: I think this is an interesting comparison. So we can think about noise really coming in two different types. We can think about noise as a purely acoustic signal. So you can think about road noise or the roar of a lawnmower or a hairdryer. And in the presence of that noise it can be hard to understand speech because these noises in the background mask the speech. They cover it up.

But in many cases, the noise that we hear can have its own meaning as well. So let’s say we’re in a lecture hall and we’re trying to listen to someone present but there are a couple of people in the back who are talking. In that context, we can think of that background speeches and noise that covers up what we’re trying to listen to, the presenter. But the people in the back of the room are also communicating real meaningful information.

And so we can also have competition from that meaningful information. So this is a sensory task, listening to speech that is partially masked by some other signal. But it’s also a cognitive task, one where we’re trying to find the message and separated out from competing sources of information. And I think it’s that latter task that we can really draw some parallels here.

So how do you hear the message you are trying to find when there are so many other sources of information that can be competing for your attention.

VINCE LARA: Part of your research looks at factors that predict how people perform in noisy conditions. And I’m wondering, what does that entail?

DAN FOGERTY: So it entails these sensory abilities. The ability to detect, to process sound, to detect moments in time when the intended speech pops out above the background noise. But it also entails certain cognitive and linguistic abilities. So this can be the ability to attend the message, to inhibit competing messages, to hold information in memory, and be able to use that information to facilitate future understanding and processing.

And these abilities can also interact with our previous experiences and skilled language as well.

VINCE LARA: Dan at an R1 university, research is always going on. You always have that next project you’re working on while you’re working on projects that are currently in front of you. So what’s next in your research pipeline?

DAN FOGERTY: So we already know a lot about the types of conditions that make it difficult for us to understand speech, and general principles that we can employ to improve understanding for groups of listeners. But people can have challenges understanding speech for different reasons and therefore, they can make different errors in understanding the message. And those errors have real consequences in terms of the actions someone might take.

So you can think about someone misunderstanding health information from their doctor. So I’m interested in identifying not just if someone is having difficulty, but why they’re having difficulty. How it might be different from someone else who might have the same level of performance, in terms of understanding it but they’re having different errors, different underlying sources that are resulting in that difficulty.

And this can lead to potentially different consequences for the individual. So I want to be able to characterize those individual differences and really look at what we can do to intervene on an individual level to maximize speech understanding.

VINCE LARA: My Thanks to Dan Fogarty. For more podcasts on Illinois College of Applied Health Sciences, search A Few Minutes With on iTunes, Spotify, iHeart Radio, radio.com and other places you get your podcast fix. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.