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Kostas Kokkinakis

Mentor Spotlight | August 2014

Department: Speech-Language-Hearing: Sciences and Disorders

Describe your research in a few sentences that we can all understand: My research lab is presently investigating novel ways to enhance cochlear implant users' speech perception in noise by relying on binaural hearing models that can be easily integrated into existing cochlear implant devices.  

 


Q: How did you first get interested in doing research?

A: Actually, it wasn't until my senior year as an undergraduate that I discovered how fulfilling research could be. As part of a summer class in my undergraduate program, we were split in groups of five and were given a short summer research project on biomedical engineering. That summer my group ended up investigating the so-called “cocktail-party effect,” which describes the unique ability to tune our attention to just one voice from a multitude of many other interfering sounds. I still remember how fascinating it was to learn about the differences between normal-hearing and hearing-impaired individuals and how different those two populations are in segregating voices of interest amidst the cacophony of many. My group and I wrote a small computer algorithm which simulated hearing loss and its effects on being able to focus on a target speech when confronted with many other interfering sounds. This exercise was instrumental in making me realize how research combined with engineering can be used to improve people’s lives. Another important catalyst in my fascination with research has always been the tremendous encouragement that I have received from several professors.   

 

Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?

A: Our students can get hands-on experience by practicing “active learning” through research. Every semester, we expose students to a variety of research projects that are being pursued in speech-language-hearing sciences and disorders and other related areas. I’d have to say that the most important distinction between classes and research is the concept of learning by action. This type of learning does not always happen during traditional coursework. Instead, one of the best ways to develop strong skills is practice: trying something, seeing how well or poorly it works, reflecting on how to do it differently, then trying it again and again, and again until it works better.  I am a strong believer in learning to come up with simple and elegant ways to address complicated problems. Students who participate in undergraduate research engage their intellectual curiosity, satisfy their thirst for discovery and, most importantly, are provided with an outlet to showcase their creativity.  

 

Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?

A: Trying to formulate important questions and then develop the means to answer those questions. In my line of work, we also get to test strategies that we develop in the lab with hearing-impaired individuals fitted with hearing aids or cochlear implant devices. It is always a very rewarding feeling to discover that by relying on our software, people fitted with such devices can understand speech more clearly and can therefore communicate with other people in noisy environments with reduced effort. For the hearing-impaired, being able to function in such settings is essential to maintaining social and family relationships, participating in society, and engaging in leisure and recreational activities with others. 

 

Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?

A: They should get involved early on by contacting professors working in areas of their interest. I can’t stress enough the importance of keeping options open and envisioning different ways to get involved in research at different stages of their undergraduate years. I always tell my students to be on the lookout for opportunities to engage in research, even in small ways, as even those can trigger greater opportunities that might come later.

 

Q: For many students, doing research is the first time they have done work that routinely involves failure and the need to troubleshoot problems.  Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected?  Have you developed any tricks or habits that help you to stay resilient in the face of obstacles?

A: I can’t recall a specific example, but it does happen a lot. I can share with you what I’ve learned from those difficult times when things are not working as planned.  When things are not going my way, I always remind myself of a quote by Thomas Edison, who said: “I have not failed, I have simply found 1 million ways that don’t work.”

 

Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?

A: I’m sort of an amateur runner, and have been since graduate school. Running is a great way to relax and reflect on the day. All I need is an open road and my running shoes.


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