James Madison University

The Ruth Symposium 2012

Students and Faculty Host Annual Audiology Conference

By: Hannah Austin
Posted: November 26, 2012

Everyone knows Harrisonburg is the “friendly city,” but most people are unaware that they are living in the “ear city” as well. Not only is James Madison University home to the only audiology training program in Virginia, they also host the annual “Ruth Symposium,” a two-day educational conference for professional audiologists and students. The symposium is the only one of its kind on the East Coast, and an important opportunity for professionals to continue their education, learn about new industry technologies, and hear lectures from world-renowned researchers. On October 19 and 20, over one hundred students, professionals, faculty, and invited guests gathered in Montpelier Hall for the third Ruth Symposium.

Although this year marks the third “Ruth Symposium,” it is actually the twelfth year that a gathering of the sort has taken place at JMU. In 2000, Dr. Roger Ruth, JMU faculty and internationally known audiologist researcher, initiated the “Innovation in Clinical and Communication Sciences.” The event included professional educational opportunities and speakers in both audiology and speech pathology. However, following the death of Dr. Ruth in July 2009, the college's Communication Sciences and Disorders department wanted to find a way to honor their friend and colleague.

Dr. Ruth's main area of focus as a researcher was in objective procedures for measuring hearing loss. He was one of the first in the country to use electrophysiology, which diagnoses hearing loss in infants or others unable to communicate with their doctors. As a professor, Dr. Ruth was a strong believer in professional education, and had been instrumental in planning conferences at the University of Virginia before transferring to JMU. The department decided to honor both of his interests by re-naming the symposium and narrowing its focus to only audiology, reflecting Ruth’s work in the field and the classroom.

Although the split made for a smaller conference, the numbers of paying registrants has continued to grow, doubling in the last year. Before the symposium was in place, local professional audiologists could obtain continuing education credits by reading academic journals and completing online work, but there was no place for them to gather and share knowledge.

Dr. Brenda Ryals has been teaching in the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department at JMU for 23 years, and has become an integral figure in the planning of the Ruth Symposium. She believes the conference offers an invaluable resource to professionals in the area.

“When you go to conferences where there are other people around you, and not only listen to lectures, but talk to your colleagues, I think you get more out of it then sitting in front of a computer,” said Ryals. “You get that utter intangible that is not there when you are by yourself.”

As well as being a proponent of professional education, Dr. Ruth strongly believed that students should be active agents of their own education. The symposium has come to reflect that, as over the years students have become responsible for a vast majority of the work, putting together the conference, inviting speakers, and handling all details with the mentorship of faculty. This year, graduate students Andrea Luizzo and Katie Sabri worked with Dr. Ryals to plan the educational portion of the conference and with Dr. Ayasakanta Rout for the industry segment.

Luizzo shared her detailed responsibilities, saying, “I was the main contact for all conference happenings. This included corresponding with invited speakers, faculty, student presenters, and industry manufacturers. Additionally, Katie, Dr. Ryals, and myself all worked together to advertise, plan for the room and catering, and invite researchers. I think the most difficult part for me was juggling my academic requirements, as I was also working full-time. To say the least, I learned to manage my time.”

The hard work paid off, and besides serving as student coordinator, Liuzzo won the “Ruth Student Research Award,” a competitive scholarship with an application process that includes writing a proposal, providing support letters, and creating a budget. Luizzo plans to use the funds to attempt to find a “behavioral paradigm for mouse hearing,” but hopes to work in pediatrics after completing her Au.D. dissertation at JMU. Also honored at the conference was Dr. Diane Schwalbach, co-founder of local business Audiology Associates, who received the “Distinguished Alumni Award.”

The two-day event began with an exhibit of updates in industry, during which representatives and manufacturers displayed and explained advances in hearing aids, cochlear implants, and testing equipment. Because this portion of the event is company oriented, with possible industry biases, it does not count toward continuing education credits; however, it was widely attended. As Ryals said, “It is an important component because students and clinicians need to see the most advanced diagnostic and rehabilitative equipment that is available.”

Following the exhibition, lectures began with keynote speaker Dr. Lisa Hunter, a professor at the University of Cincinnati and audiologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. She spoke on one of the top problems in audiology today, which she is currently researching on a grant from the National Institute of Health. In Virginia and various other states, it is mandate that doctors test an infant’s hearing within 2-3 days of birth. Nationally, more than half of the infants who do not pass the screening test fail due to a middle ear problem, such as blockage, that will most likely clear up on its own. Currently these infants are categorized with others who will experience permanent hearing loss, a distinction Hunter wants to identify at the time of the first screening, in order to spend resources efficiently on those with the greatest need.

Other invited speakers included Dr. David Moore, the director of the Medical Research Council Institute of Hearing Research in Great Britain, who spoke on the phenomenon of “hearing” versus “listening.” Dr. Todd Rickets, of Vanderbilt University, spoke on hearing aids and design, as did event planner and internal speaker Dr. Rout. The second internal speaker, Dr. Lincoln Gray, spoke about a research grant he is currently working on with a physician colleague. After his partner does a surgical restoration of children born missing an external ear, a phenomenon known as atresia, Dr. Gray measures how their brain adapts and responds to the restored hearing. Lastly, two graduate students, Verleyne Andrews and Bethany Magee, presented their dissertations.

Luizzo said that even she was impressed with the quality of the symposium this year. “These are big names,” she said. “Therefore, we were able to offer our participants some really high quality information. Considering that audiology is a dynamic field that is constantly evolving, the Ruth Symposium is incredibly influential in bringing the most up to date information to our professionals, students, and faculty. It was a one of a kind experience.”

While the conference has grown in size and quality over the years, it has done something even more important in honoring the memory of Dr. Roger Ruth. His groundbreaking work in audiology and lifelong love of learning are alive and well in the objectives of the Ruth Symposium.