MIT model explains how the brain can learn novel tasks while still remembering what it has already learned.
The Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology has started a unique doctoral program aimed at producing broad-based researchers interested in the science and engineering of speech and hearing.
Eight first-year students are currently studying in the program, which is supported by a $4.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Eventually a "steady-state" enrollment of approximately 50 students is anticipated. The program has an affirmative action orientation and actively seeks minority and disadvantaged students.
The program is a vehicle for focusing the interdisciplinary scientific and engineering expertise in speech and hearing at four internationally respected organizations: MIT, Harvard Medical School, the Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary and the Massachusetts General Hospital. There are 60 faculty members, about half from MIT and half from Harvard. In addition, students may work with other investigators if approved by their academic advisors and committees.
The new effort is headed by Nelson Yuan-Sheng Kiang, a specialist on the neurophysiology of hearing. Dr. Kiang is the Eaton-Peabody Professor of Communication Sciences in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. He is also a professor of physiology in the Harvard Medical School's Department of Otology and Laryngology. He directs the Eaton-Peabody Laboratory of Auditory Physiology at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and is a neurophysiologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital.
There are more than 250 graduate programs in the United States related to speech and hearing, but almost all of them are geared to training paraprofessionals, such as audiologists or speech pathologists, Dr. Kiang points out in explaining the need for the new MIT-Harvard program. "There are no programs, except our new one, geared specifically to train scientists and engineers to do the basic research from which will flow the work of the practitioners" he says.
"Boston and Cambridge have the largest concentration in the nation of scientists studying hearing and speech, and most of them came into the field adventitiously through their research interests. That is, they didn't start their careers with this field in mind, but were led to it as their work unfolded."
The new program's goal is to create a core of researchers specifically and systemically trained in the speech and hearing science. As graduates of the program move into research positions in academia, medicine, industry or government, they will attract colleagues and students to the growing ranks of scientists and engineers focusing on these particular problems.
The program is currently seeking an associate professor in speech and hearing sciences and will soon place ads in college newspapers to recruit new students. Students will receive full tuition and a stipend for four years under the NIH grant and through private donors. After the fourth year, students will be supported by the research laboratories in which they will be doing their thesis work.
The curriculum calls for students to be introduced at the outset to a variety of research laboratories that take different approaches to studying speech and hearing sciences. Eventually each student will select a research advisor and a project that will form the basis of a PhD thesis. Among the disciplines represented by the faculty are electrical engineering, computer science, anatomy, physiology, cellular and developmental biology, neurosciences, neurochemistry, cognitive sciences, linguistics, genetics, otolaryngology, pathology, and neurology.
Among the subjects specially developed for the program are:
1) Research Methodologies in Speech and Hearing. 2) Acoustics of Speech and Hearing. 3) Anatomy of Speech and Hearing. 4) Signals and Imaging. 5) Physiology of the Ear. 6) Speech Production and Linguistics. 7) Auditory Perception. 8) Central Auditory Processing. 9) Clinical Aspects of Speech and Hearing.
Students are required to pass a general examination covering the material in these courses and to qualify as well in some other discipline such as physics, electrical engineering, genetics, chemistry of medicine.
The application deadline is January 15 although late applications will be accepted up until the admissions committee meets in February. For more information, contact: Keiko Oh, Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, x3-1445 or Professor Kiang, Eaton-Peabody Laboratory, Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary, 573-3745.
A version of this article appeared in the December 9, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 16).