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News | Aug. 16, 2023

College student calls summer internship at Walter Reed ‘rewarding’

By Bernard Little

Lexi Olson, an undergraduate summer research assistant in the National Military Audiology and Speech Pathology Center at Walter Reed, exudes a youthful excitement and enthusiasm as she discusses her experience at the President’s Hospital.

“This has been a great opportunity educationally speaking,” said Olson, who will be entering her senior year this fall when she heads back to the University of Minnesota, where she is majoring in speech-language-hearing sciences.

“It’s an opportunity to work with different minds and learn some new perspectives,” Olson said of her internship. “Definitely being attached to a military facility is a new world for me, and it’s a different approach to research that I wasn’t familiar with until coming here,” she added.

A Wisconsin native, Olson explains that there’s a continuum that has run through her education leading her to people who are passionate about their work, which sparked her interest in audiology and speech.

“I had originally taken a class just to fill a requirement, physics and biology, but it ended up being specifically for voice. The person who taught it, Matthew Winn, was so invested in the topic and really appreciated not only the topic itself but teaching it to other people, which kept me coming to class, even during the pandemic. Because of that, I was able to work with him and he’s now one of my mentors. He was the one who found me this [summer internship] opportunity.”

The opportunity is made possible through ORISE (Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education), which connects the most talented and diverse college students, recent graduates, postdocs, and faculty to STEM internship and fellowship programs closely aligned with the interests of a variety of research facilities, including those at federal agencies. Working through ORISE and the Defense Centers for Public Health at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland, Olson has been able to assist in a number of research projects taking place in the Audiology and Speech Pathology Center while stationed at Walter Reed.

“I appreciate all of the passionate people who are here,” said Olson, who is listed among the researchers on the project “Developing Practical Hearing Protection Evaluations for Military Populations.” In addition to Olson, other researchers on the project includes Douglas Brungart, Matthew Makashay and Daniel Shub. The project explores the impact of poorly fitted hearing protection on service members and possible ways to improve hearing protection efficacy via testing.

As an intern, Olson also assist in data collection for other projects, including one involving the impact of aging on hearing. She has also assisted in research exploring how to make hearing testing more accessible for service members in the field for lengthy periods or those assigned to environments where they are exposed to blasts and other loud noises that could compromise their hearing.

Hearing protection should be important to everyone and not just service members, Olson explained. “I’m a frequent concert goer, so I know that not only should you wear hearing protection, but the hearing protection should be well fitted and inserted properly,” she shared. She has also been involved in research concerning how different protection devices when worn properly, impact hearing.

Olson’s project points out that hearing loss is within the top three service-connected disabilities, and that her internship at Walter Reed has afforded her the opportunity to work with a variety of equipment she wouldn’t have otherwise been able to utilize.

“I really appreciate that with the work being done here you can see it used at different places,” she added. “The protocols developed here, if they are approved and deemed important, they can be implemented into the hearing conservation program immediately. They then can be spread to other sites. It’s ultimately practical. It is very important to preserve hearing rather than lose it and try to get it back.”

Olson said once she earns her degree it could open up a number of avenues for her to pursue, but her current interest is in the area of hearing, with research and clinical work using the cochlear implant for people with profound hearing loss. “Here [at Walter Reed], I got to observe a cochlear implantation,” she shared. She explained that the inside component of the neuroprosthesis is surgically implanted in the person’s skull near the inner ear (cochlea), which stimulates the cochlear nerve. The outside component, the sound processor that includes microphones, is generally worn behind the ear. “It’s constantly developing and improving, and I want to be a part of that process,” she added.

“I also really love the patient population here,” Olson said. “They’re really kind and you get to see over time how they improve because one of the common misconceptions is that once you get the implant you are able to hear right away. That’s not the case because you have to learn a new way of hearing. As a clinician and researcher, you get to see that improvement over time, and that’s really rewarding.”
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