James Madison University

Ryals Granted Highest Honor by ASHA

By: Brett Seekford
Posted: December 8, 2014

Dr. Brenda Ryals, a professor of audiology in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, was awarded the Honors of the Association, the highest honor given by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

A momentous achievement, Ryals is being recognized for her contributions to the field of audiology. She recently sat down with ASHA to discuss her career. Her responses reveal her dedication to her research and responsibilities as an academic.

PHOTO: Brenda Ryals award

Ryals credits her parents, who instilled in her a passion for excellence and education. “I would never have even thought about attempting a professional life without the advocacy and support of my mom. She lifted me up, set high standards and always believed I could do anything,” she stated. “My dad's curiosity and quest to find out about anything and everything from languages, to philosophy, to mathematics and roller skating has been a role model for my life.”

Her 2014 commencement address to the College of Health and Behavioral Studies brought her back to when she was a freshman considering college majors: “I knew right from my freshman year that I wanted to study communication. . . . So I majored in CSD and became an Audiologist and got a job testing hearing and trying to help people who were having problems hearing.”

It was during her time as an audiologist that she discovered her love of research. When a mother questioned whether her infant son was suffering from hearing loss in 1973, Ryals used every test available to find out – but the state-of-the-science just wasn't very good at that time for testing infant hearing.  Eventually she referred the baby to Johns Hopkins for electrophysiological testing and then began working with a neonatologist to discover new and better ways to determine whether very young infants could hear.  This experience jumpstarted her deep interest in research.

“I wanted to do more research. This was not something I saw coming,” Ryals said. “I didn’t plan this goal. But intellectual curiosity and a desire to do the best by my patients just logically led me there.”

It was only about a decade later, after establishing a passion for research, that Ryals made a significant discovery. “This was a very special year for me personally and professionally,” she explained. “That was the year that I co-authored an article in journal Science reporting the discovery of hair cell regeneration in adult quail.  This finding changed the way the hearing science community thought about the permanent nature of sensorineural hearing loss forever.”

The discovery of hair cell regeneration in birds disproved the belief that the ears of birds and mammals functioned much the same way after injury. In fact, while mammals lost hearing as a result of damaged  hair cells, birds could regenerate these cells to recover hearing. If this regeneration could be made to happen in mammals and humans it could provide a cure for permanent hearing loss.  Her discovery truly revolutionized the field. 

In terms of what she sees as the most rewarding aspects that she will take away from her professional career, Ryals cites both her students and her role as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Ear and Hearing.
She enthused, “I have to say that over the last 25 years at JMU my life has been so enriched by these intelligent, curious, articulate and generally just very cool students.”

Ryals went on to discuss her editorship of Ear and Hearing: “In that role I have the privilege of working with an outstanding Editorial Board, filled with dedicated, generous and incredibly smart audiologists, hearing scientists and otolaryngologists. . . . It is both my joy and my honor to continue to serve with these outstanding colleagues.”

While Ryals has had many achievements as a professor and audiologist, she has also learned much about the field along the way. Through this dedication, she has established a love for audiology primarily because of the people – her colleagues and friends at JMU. “Why have I stayed in the field of communication sciences and disorders for more than 40 years now?And the short answer to that question is the people,” she stated. “My students and colleagues have challenged me every day and continue to make me a better person.”

Going forward, Ryals plans to look at hair cell regeneration from another angle.  Birds use vocalizations to communicate and so make a perfect model to understand how new hair cells affect how their world sounds.  While other scientists are now studying ways in which hair cell regeneration can be applied to mammals and humans, Ryals is looking to the even more longterm outcome - . “What happens to perception when you get a new hair cell? That’s what I’m trying to find out,” she said. As exhibited by her life, Ryals’ quest for knowledge and research is insatiable.