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Raising a Helping Hand to Teachers Who Lose their Voice

Eric Hunter at computer

Eric Hunter, Ph.D., Named an MSU Foundation Professor

Rooted in interdisciplinary training and a desire to improve ailing voices of teachers, Dr. Eric Hunter has fostered and built teams to conduct important research to support professionals who rely on their voice. Now, he is an empowering figure in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at MSU, where he has recently been recognized as an MSU Foundation Professor.

“MSU Foundation Professors are internationally recognized researchers,” said David Washburn, Executive Director of the Michigan State University Foundation. “Their scholarship and contributions to their fields represent a level of engagement and accomplishment that the foundation is proud to support.”

Hunter serves as the Associate Dean for Research in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, and the Director of the Trifecta Initiative for Interdisciplinary Health Research (a joint research initiative of the College of Engineering, the College of Nursing, and ComArtSci.)

In addition to university administration and teaching, Hunter’s research takes him to the nexus between physical science and the science of communication. He uses a technical approach to study the physics of sound, also referred to as acoustics, applying his findings to speech, hearing and general communication.

Building Upon Multiple Disciplines

Hunter’s expertise combines an understanding of the technical aspects and tools of voice science, acoustics, signal processing, and biomechanics with the research from behavioral sciences, psychology, and linguistics in order to better diagnose problems with voice function.

“By nature, voice science is an interdisciplinary field,” said Hunter. “By creating interdisciplinary teams, there is the real potential to answer complex questions using the unique tools from each field of study.”

A large component of Hunter’s work focuses on occupational health, where research can make a real difference in people’s lives. With his research questions, Hunter aims to help teachers and others who struggle with voice issues to find better diagnoses and paths to recovery. He has published more than 90 papers and book chapters and has been a part of more than 250 presentations, always ensuring his graduate students are named for their contributions.

In the basement of the ComArtSci building, the unique facilities have resources that are found at few other locations across the country. His laboratories boast both a large acoustic reverberation lab, which can be filled of echoes, and an anechoic room, which has no echo because the room absorbs nearly all sound, both of which have been key to his past and future research.

Hunter’s current facilities are slated to be modified to create what’s known as an immersive reality infinite room – a room that appears to have no end with variable acoustics for added reality. Once the modifications are complete, the research projects conducted here could stretch across many disciplines, with the potential only limited to researchers’ imaginations.

“Building on our previous work, our next research will simulate classroom risk factors and interventions in both real and virtual spaces. Specifically, we will merge virtual reality technologies that are found in our college with previously used real-time auralization systems and acoustic simulations, like those that can be found in the anechoic or reverberation chambers. By doing so, we can elicit ‘teacher voice’ in controlled settings without disrupting a classroom, allowing us to make significant strides in our efforts to ask health-related voice questions, thereby helping to improve teachers’ voices.”

Giving Teachers Back their Voice

For the last 15 years, Hunter has studied occupational voice use, particularly examining voice disorders in elementary and secondary school teachers.

“My parents were both teachers, and I saw how their voice problems impacted them. But another driving force is my fifth grade teacher. She was quite experienced, but we were a very rowdy and unruly class. Well, mid-way through the year, she lost her voice. I didn’t have a sense of why at the time,” said Hunter. “Now I understand that a common cold or an upper respiratory infection is sometimes all it takes to push teachers, particularly those who have a loud classroom of students, into something that can grow into a real voice disorder.

And, without a healthy voice, classroom management and learning are significantly reduced.”

One way to promote voice health in teachers is to use other forms of classroom management. For those whose regularly suffer from voice problems, however, more study is needed to understand why they are prone to issues.

“Schoolteachers’ voice problems are a significant public health issue, not only because these problems occur so frequently but also because they undermine education in the classroom,” Hunter said. “My current research explores what environmental, physiological or behavioral risk factors contribute to one teacher having more problems than another one. My goal is to ascertain why some teachers are more resilient than others.”

While many voice problems stem from immutable physiological factors like lung size or age, Hunter said that many others may surprisingly come down to modifiable behaviors as simple as water or caffeine intake. Therefore, his research gives teachers practical solutions to reduce their higher risk of voice problems.

“These interests have become more personal over time as I face chronic voice loss,” said Hunter, who speaks with humility and a soft voice. “The questions I explore about schoolteachers are also ones I wonder ask as I’ve gotten older and work to maintain my own voice and recovery.”

Creating New Opportunities for Research at MSU

Many of Hunter’s contributions are evident in his leadership and the way he has united researchers across disciplines. In his roles directing research for ComArtSci and Trifecta, Hunter looks for ways to build upon the strengths of a program as a whole, while connecting researchers who bring different types of expertise to the same topic.

“How can we increasingly bring people together from different disciplines who have the same goal?” Hunter said the trick is to encourage interdependence in research activities, while also letting researchers sustain independence in their field. “The specialties and the expertise come from being independent, but the big questions are solved by being interdependent and working together.”

With more than seven years on the faculty at MSU, Hunter has witnessed Spartans Will in action. Whether students, faculty or staff, he said Spartans are always ready come together in pursuit of a common goal.

“A lot of places say they want to do interdisciplinary work and they try, but this is one of the few places that it’s more ingrained in the nature of the people to find a way to get things done,” said Hunter. “We may not be able to outspend other universities, but we can connect one specialty and another specialty and do something that nobody is doing.”

Hunter sees this commitment in the faculty, but even more so in the university staff, who have carried on a long tradition of collaboration at MSU.

“Nothing is ever universal across every college, but it seems to exist here at ComArtSci at a higher percentage than anywhere I’ve been,” said Hunter. “If there’s something we want to do, we’re going to figure out a way to do it.”

The MSU Foundation Professorship was established in 2014 through the generosity of the Michigan State University Foundation. In addition to the permanent title, honorees are typically provided with five years of supplemental scholarly funding. Hunter joins 49 of his peers who have previously been named MSU Foundation Professors.

To view the full roster of MSU Foundation Professors or learn more about the nomination process, visit the Office of Research & Innovation website.

By Melissa Priebe via College of Communication Arts and Sciences

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