Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders
Varsha Rallapalli is a research assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders in the School of Communication. She earned her AuD and PhD in audiology from Purdue University and was a postdoctoral trainee at Northwestern University for 3.5 years. Varsha’s research focuses on understanding the role of cognitive abilities in helping hearing aid users communicate more effectively in noisy environments, with the ultimate goal of prescribing appropriate hearing aid settings for adults with hearing loss so that they can experience successful communication in everyday listening situations.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
My research focuses on personalizing hearing aids for older adults to improve their experience and outcomes. Hearing aids are the typical rehabilitative option for hearing loss, but people continue to struggle in noisy environments even with hearing aids. Recent studies have shown that an individual’s cognitive ability should be considered in the selection of hearing aid settings. However, much of this work has been done in contrived lab settings without much consideration to realistic environments. The goal of my research is to understand the role of cognitive abilities in helping hearing aid users communicate more effectively in noisy environments.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
I was largely inspired by my mother (who is an educator) to choose a career in the field of communication sciences and disorders. At a young age, she encouraged me to volunteer with individuals with disabilities that in turn helped me recognize the need for professionals in this field. That eventually led me to take up a clinical degree in audiology to help diagnose and rehabilitate individuals with hearing problems. During this clinical training, I came across individuals who had similar hearing profiles but very different experiences with hearing aids. This experience inspired me to pursue research to understand the source of these differences so I can provide a more tailored treatment to individuals with hearing loss.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
The most rewarding aspect of my research is my interaction with the patient during data collection, especially when they relate to the research question and express excitement about the potential outcome of the research. The most challenging aspect of my research is also the patient, being able to keep in mind their individual abilities and their life experiences, which will ultimately determine the success of rehabilitation.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
Ultimately, I hope the research leads to a stronger evidence-based approach for customizing hearing aid settings based on an individual’s hearing and cognitive abilities. This will potentially translate to successful communication for adults with hearing loss.
I chose Northwestern for my postdoctoral training primarily because of my mentor, Dr. Pamela Souza, who is a leading researcher in hearing aids and cognition. My goal was to gain a translational research experience under her mentorship and to develop as an independent researcher. The infrastructure, both in the lab and the University, is exceptional in terms of research, collaboration, funding support, and professional development. An added bonus is that Northwestern is in Chicago, a city I have come to love.
How do you unwind after a long day?
I like to unwind by spending time with my husband, catching up on a TV show or a movie together.
What inspires you?
The logical process of research, particularly, being able to break down a complex problem through an organized and systematic approach.
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
To identify one or two people who can be a sounding board. This can be a mentor, a friend, or a family member. Being able to regularly talk through your plans and challenges with someone can make a phenomenal difference in how you approach your research and your work-life balance.
Published: April 27, 2021
If you know a graduate student, postdoctoral trainee, graduate faculty member, staff member, or a member of our TGS alumni population who would make a great candidate for our TGS Spotlight Series, please complete this brief TGS Spotlight Series Nomination Form.