School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Rachel Wayne

Ph.D candidate, Psychology

Rachel Wayne at Queen's TedEx talks

Rachel Wayne at Queen's TEDX talks

Hearing and Cognition Researcher has Advice Worth Spreading

by Sharday Mosurinjohn

​September 2014

One of the tasks of any researcher is to not just identify the elements of a given system or process, but to come up with an explanation for why they interact in the way they do. For Psychology PhD candidate Rachel Wayne, a major step in her growth as a researcher came when she began to theorize the experience of graduate education itself. Specifically, Wayne, who is hard of hearing, started to think about the social dynamics of doing research about hearing, cognition, and communication and the fact that disability advocacy “wasn’t necessarily easy to do within research itself.” What she came up with was an idea worth spreading, so, after exploring some of her thoughts in a series of blogs for the science website PLOS (The Public Library of Science), she pitched it to the upcoming Queen’s TEDx panel.

For some time already, giving a TED talk had been an item on Wayne’s bucket list—a document that continues to grow long with travel and adventure sports. After seeing (then) fellow Gradifying writer and friend Atif Kukaswadia give a TEDx talk on science as storytelling, Wayne thought “why not now?” It took a long time to figure out exactly what she was going to say, recalls Wayne, and finally after lots of debating, about two or three days before the audition, she wrote the whole thing in an hour. “The contents of the talk had been incubating, you could say, and it unveiled itself in that moment of stress before the deadline.” Wayne presented her talk to a panel of student judges, one of whom had seen a guest lecture she had recently given to a cognitive psychology class and suggested that she incorporate some more of the examples she had used to make her topics tangible in that lecture. Equipped with that feedback, Wayne was ready to step outside of her comfort zone and in front of the camera lens.

It wasn’t only that the TEDx audience is a very different kind of audience from the one in a classroom or conference—“you could say you have a responsibility to keep them entertained in a way you don’t have to in a class”—but the performance is immortalized online, too. The pressure is intensified by the fact that TED wants speakers to memorize their talks. “I couldn’t memorize my 18 minutes completely, so I had cue cards up there with me, but as I got into the talk, at some point, I stopped using them as I became more engaged with the audience.” The advice Wayne would give to other prospective speakers is: “focus on the message itself and not so much on having a script, because that’s key to speaking about your work—at different moments in your career, you’ll have to speak on the fly without your presenter view notes in PowerPoint, and sometimes the script gets in the way of your connection with the audience.”

The things Wayne addresses in her talk are mirrored in her delivery of the talk itself, she explains. “I put myself through the experience I was trying to describe.” Specifically, Wayne attempted to openly confront the shame and stigma of being hard of hearing and how that can be internalized. For her, it was hard to watch the video knowing it was very personal and that friends, family, and colleagues were watching it too. But, she reasoned, the feeling of embarrassment only lasts a couple of days, and focused on the importance of the message: “if I’ve had these experiences of shame, then surely others are having them and it’s important to ask: what does that say about our society as a whole? And what does that say about how people treat people with disabilities and think about people with disabilities?”

Wayne has gone on to do further media training, including mock TV and print interviews with Queen’s marketing department. Reflecting on her choice to pursue this kind of professional development, Wayne observes that people who are going to pursue media training are probably the ones who already have some of these skills while the ones who really need it the most are less likely to see themselves in such opportunities.

With training as both a clinician and a researcher, Wayne can’t be sure yet what will happen after graduation, but what she does know is that “media communication skills are not specific to talking about research. They’re about being able to present yourself effectively and get your message across.” Similarly, she says, “in a clinical program the most beneficial thing to be learned is that the skills are transferrable. Even if you never do therapy, clear communication skills will help you in life—you never work in isolation.”

At this point in her studies, Wayne has logged hundreds of clinical hours and has a several different research projects on the go. The overall theme of these studies has to do with how different cognitive processes support speech communication.

“If you and I are talking in a loud coffee shop, for instance, you might not catch every word that I’m saying but because you know what we’re talking about and you have a command of the language, you can usually keep up. But when people have a hearing impairment or they get older, it becomes harder and harder to do that,” she explains. Since hearing is more effortful and tiring under these circumstances, researchers like Wayne and her supervisor Dr. Ingrid Johnsrude are theorizing that maybe people who are better at comprehending degraded speech are people who have better cognitive ability, but it’s not clear yet all the factors at play in this complex issue.

Comprehension could be related to how fast the listener can process information, how much information they can hold at a time in their working memory, or it could have to do with their verbal abilities or their attentional capacity. “It’s complex,” says Wayne, “because all of these factors interact with how well you can hear and right now the way we measure how well you can hear doesn’t necessarily correspond to the deficits that people report having.” There are two major dimensions to hearing: sensitivity and acuity. Wayne makes the analogy that sensitivity is like the brightness of an image whereas acuity corresponds with its sharpness, or clarity. Currently, audiologists use measures that test for hearing sensitivity, but sensitivity isn’t what people are complaining about necessarily.

While these particular studies are still far from yielding conclusions, Wayne is a firm believer that emerging researchers need to recognize that, when their ideas are well formulated, they have to take responsibility to advocate for their work. “If it’s important to you it’s likely going to be important to someone else.” Whether it’s for funding or for public interest, Wayne recognizes that it can be difficult to be an advocate for your own work. “As graduate students, we’re taught to be tentative, but what the public wants is conviction.” Giving the example of climate change deniers and anti-vaccination advocates, she notes that, otherwise, the alarmists can be perceived as more convincing than scholars and scientists, as one of her professors talked about. “We researchers can reserve the right to change our minds as new information becomes available, but we should keep in mind that these opinions we hold are based in careful reasoning. It’s our responsibility to communicate important findings to the media and the only way to learn how to do this effectively is to practice.”

To watch Rachel Wayne’s TEDx talk “Invis-abilities: The Elephant in the Room,” click here.

To read her PLOS blogs, see: Pardon Me? How to Enable Successful Communication with the Hearing Impaired (Pt. 1), Insights into Coping with Hearing Impairment Within Post-Secondary Education (Pt. 2), Strategies for Hearing Impaired Students, Educators, and Colleagues and The Bigger Picture (Pt. 3).

Rachel Wayne giving her TEDX talk

Rachel giving her TEDX talk at Queen's