An Unscheduled Life
Dr. Ron Chambers was one of three sons in a farming family in Texas. His mother always knew that he was the scholar in the family, in love with learning and good at it. She always knew that he would be the first in his family to go to college. He says happenstance led him to careers in audiology and academia, a “good gig” that he has enjoyed for more than three decades and from which he recently retired.
As a student at South Plains Junior College and Texas Tech University, he took a broad array of classes in many different fields, interested in everything. Eventually, the powers that be said, “You have to choose a major to continue your studies.”
“I had taken a course in speech and hearing. I liked it and the instructor encouraged me to stay in the field. So I said, ok!” Dr. Chambers recalled.
He went on to complete a master’s degree in audiology, the maximum degree required at the time for professional practice. He went into clinical practice, but knew he wasn’t finished learning yet. Dr. Chambers had every intention of pursuing a PhD, and he began his work toward a doctoral degree in audiology at Purdue University after just two years of professional practice. He had no intention of becoming a professor, however. He had become fascinated with auditory electrophysiology, which was just gaining strength as a diagnostic technique in clinical audiology. After completing his PhD, he accepted a post-doctoral position at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, joining the Cognitive Psychophysiology Lab of Dr. Emanuel Donchin, a pioneer in the field of cognitive neuroscience.
Dr. Chambers spent a year In Dr. Donchin’s lab, investigating electrophysiological measures of evoked responses in advancing age. When a faculty position opened up in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science, his mentors strongly encouraged him to apply and he said “ok” once again. Thus began Dr. Chambers’ 38-year career in SHS.
Teaching, research, service—all part of the job
Dr. Chambers pursued his interest in measuring electrophysiological brain potentials evoked by auditory stimuli throughout his nearly 40-year career. He has studied the physiologic basis of perceived pitch, the effects of aging on auditory cortical evoked potentials, and the appearance of evoked potentials from both peripheral (brainstem) and central (cortical) auditory structures in individuals with cochlear implants. He participated in some of the earliest work in this area, when cochlear implants consisted of a single electrode that stimulated just one area of the auditory nerve. He also has examined the effectiveness of steady-state auditory evoked potentials in predicting the degree and frequency of hearing loss, and the characteristics of evoked potentials elicited by a relatively new type of acoustic stimulus referred to as the chirp.
“My goal has always been better understanding of the physiologic processing of sound in individuals with normal hearing and those with hearing impairments,” he said. “These evoked brain potentials are common clinical measures now. They enable us to detect hearing difficulties in infants and have an intervention plan in place by the time they’re six months old.”
His research has involved many PhD, AuD, and master’s students and for the last 15 years, his teaching has focused on graduate students. Prior to that, Dr. Chambers also taught a variety of undergraduate classes, and he has always included undergraduates as members of his lab. Working with students will be one of the things he most misses about being a professor.
“I love interacting with students and talking with them about how we hear, the details of auditory processes, how hearing loss affects the quality of life for patients and their conversation partners, and the singular role of audiologists in serving people with hearing loss,” he said. He enjoys seeing all students learn and blossom, he says, and encourages former students to stay in touch.
Dr. Chambers contributed significantly to graduate education in SHS when the required degree for entry into audiology practice was elevated from a master’s to a professional doctorate. Dr. Chambers took charge of creating the Doctor of Audiology degree program in SHS, developing and adding to the existing curriculum courses on the electrophysiological indices of audition, advanced audiologic assessment, hearing conservation, medical audiology, and auditory processing disorders.
“We added a lot more clinical experience, and were able to add courses that went into more depth and addressed more advanced issues than we were able to in the master’s program,” he said. “When students graduate from the AuD program, they’re supposed to be ready to hang up their shingles, and they are.”
He also contributed extensively to the department as an administrator, serving as associate head, acting head, interim head, and head for 11 years. With the support of the College of Applied Health Sciences, which SHS had joined in 1991 from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Dr. Chambers oversaw the growth of the tenure-track faculty as department head. It was during his leadership that the graduate program in audiology transitioned from a terminal master’s to a doctoral degree. He also is proud of spearheading an effort that added courses in American Sign Language to the undergraduate curriculum.
He believes service—to the department, the campus, and the profession—is essential to an academic career, as long as it is kept in balance with teaching and research responsibilities.
“Through these experiences, I learned more about the college, the university, and the professions of audiology and speech-language pathology as vehicles for public health,” he said, “and in the process, broadened my vision and gained greatly in self-confidence.”
“Somebody asked me what I was going to do in retirement and I said, ‘Have an unscheduled life,’” Dr. Chambers said. “I won’t have to look at a calendar every day. I’ll go with the flow again.”
He said he once read that life has three acts. Act I goes up to age 30, Act II goes through age 60. In both those acts, law of averages willing, you know that when the curtain comes down, it’s going to come back up.
“But when you get to Act III, it’s the final curtain and you never know when it’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s time to look at other things in the world, a chance to do more reading. Maybe I’ll write a novel.”