Helen recently graduated from the University of Oxford with both a BA in Physiology and Psychology and an MSc in Neuroscience.
She lost all her hearing after contracting meningitis when she was 19 months old, and was one of the first children in the UK to receive a unilateral cochlear implant (CI), at the age of three. Thanks to the cochlear implant, Helen was able to overcome a three-year language delay; by the age of eight she could speak fluently, with a normal voice. At that young age, Helen made up her mind to study at the best universities in the UK so that she could become involved in cochlear implant research.
Helen’s primary goal in life is to use science to help other CI users.
Five minutes with Helen Willis...
What motivates you to try and improve the world of people who are deaf, or have tinnitus or hearing loss?
I feel that I owe a debt to the incredible life-changing technology that is the cochlear implant. I believe the best way I can repay this (partly, at least) is by finding ways to improve the outcomes for CI users like myself. I hope that, with my personal experience, I'll be able to use my special insight and understanding to make a positive contribution. I'm passionate about helping other CI users gain the maximum benefit from the technology.
What do you hope your research will achieve?
Through my research I aim to develop an accurate tool to assess 'listening effort'. Listening effort is how we describe the cognitive resource someone has to expend to extract auditory information of interest from an increasingly noisy world of sound.
A common, but often underestimated, complaint amongst people with hearing loss is the huge effort it takes to listen. This can be the case even for mild hearing loss. It's a problem shared by CI users (though someone with a cochlear implant may be thought to be free of listening problems because their audiogram becomes similar to that of someone with minimal hearing loss).
Worryingly, chronically increased levels of listening effort have been associated with negative health consequences. Despite the importance of listening effort being increasingly acknowledged by research, the current emphasis of clinical assessment (particularly for cochlear implant rehabilitation) is on speech comprehension. A tool capable of quantifying listening effort would enable us to assess it in the clinic: this would help us gain a better understanding of the impact the cochlear implant has on its recipient's ability to process sound information and, therefore, their capacity to improve (this will help to promote better rehabilitation outcomes).
What does Action on Hearing Loss funding mean to you?
I am inordinately grateful to have been awarded this funding. At a personal level, it has enabled me to begin repaying the debt that I feel I owe to the cochlear implant technology (I would certainly not be where I am today, with the opportunities I have had and my academic achievements, without it). Ultimately, having the funding means that I am also able to contribute to the research into making sure that all CI recipients get the most from the technology – and fulfil their potential.
Find out more about Helen Willis's research project.