Research Highlights / Full Story

Fulfilling a Need

Peter Hauser is a strategist—executing a carefully orchestrated plan to establish his Center on Cognition and Language at RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf as the premier location in the world for researching how deaf people develop, learn, grow, and live.

Hauser is inspiring an army of dedicated and talented student and faculty researchers to follow his lead and make a difference in the education, health, and wellness of deaf people for generations to come. Back in the early 2000s, Hauser was the first-ever practicing deaf neuropsychologist to work alongside physicians in diagnosing conditions such as learning disabilities, attention disorders, dementia, and depression in deaf and hard-of-hearing patients. But as Hauser’s career progressed, along with an increasing clinical workload, he realized that diagnoses were often made based on decades of studies of only hearing subjects. Further investigation revealed a significant lack of research using deaf and hard-of-hearing subjects.

“There was and still is a dire need for research on deaf individuals’ language, cognitive function, memory, and intelligence, which all play a role in understanding and diagnosing conditions and understanding how we learn and develop,” said Hauser. “There were times that I thought to myself, ‘How can I diagnose my deaf patients when the only basis for understanding I have is using irrelevant research?’ And while I truly loved working one-on-one with patients and physicians, I felt that I needed to impact the physical and mental well-being of deaf people, as well as their access to education, in a different way.”

After years of writing grants to secure funding and conducting his own research, Hauser created NTID’s Center on Cognition and Language in 2016—the only center of its kind in the world led by a deaf director and staffed primarily by deaf researchers. The center produces interdisciplinary and collaborative discoveries on the cognitive, language, and socio-cultural factors that affect deaf individuals’ learning, well-being, and health, and equally as important, shares these discoveries with other researchers, hospitals, schools, and clinics. Research projects are funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and NTID.

“I would dream of starting this research center, and some days I didn’t think it would ever happen,” said Hauser. “But every day, I made little decisions based on closing in on that dream.”

Hauser is also passionate about developing future generations of deaf researchers and scientists in social, behavioral, and biomedical research disciplines and provides mentorship programs for deaf scholars. The center is home to two NIH-funded training programs committed to fostering aspiring deaf scientists’ development by providing outstanding mentored research experiences and one NSF-funded program to broaden the participation of deaf students in sign-language research.

Building an Army

RIT student Sarah Kimbley began her work in the center as an undergraduate. She works in the center’s Deaf x Lab, Sign Language Lab, and the Deaf Health Lab, and this fall is a scholar in the Rochester Bridges to the Doctorate program, which selects top RIT graduate students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing and wish to pursue a doctoral degree.

Kimbley, an experimental psychology graduate student from Lakeland, Fla., is working on several projects including studying health literacy and understanding individuals’ feelings about being deaf. She is also comparing temporal sequence processing in deaf children and how language acquisition and audition may mediate neurocognitive functions like working memory, executive function, and sequence learning.

“Researchers claim deaf children with cochlear implants have a cognitive deficit that is due to a lack of auditory input,” said Kimbley. “However, our research proposes an alternative explanation. Language deprivation has a greater impact than auditory deprivation. In other words, not being exposed to language within the first five years can be harmful for cognitive functioning. We are predicting that our developmental study will show us that language fluency will have an impact while hearing level has little or no impact on cognitive functioning, specifically temporal sequence processing.”

The center staff works with and mentors students at all educational levels from first-year to graduate students, and beyond.

Tiffany Panko ’08, ’09 (applied arts and sciences, MBA) is a post-doctoral fellow in the center who graduated from RIT with concentrations in premedical and psychological studies and from the University of Rochester in 2016 with a medical degree. The Rochester native has studied and worked alongside Hauser off and on from as far back as 2004.

“I just can’t seem to get away from Peter,” jokes Panko. “As an undergraduate, I was in a class that he taught—Biological Basis of Mental Disorders, which was the class where I realized that I could blend my love of psychology with medicine and working with people. Last year, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my residency, so I contacted Peter and he told me that he could really use my expertise in the Deaf Health Lab. I’m working on a big five-year project that connects Rochester, Chicago, and Flint, Mich., and more than 1,000 deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing people. All of these areas provide racial, ethnic, and economic diversity—rich research environments.”

The project, a partnership with the University of Michigan, will provide information on how to better provide preventive health and health care information to the diverse deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Eye trackers in the lab help Panko and others study how deaf users navigate health websites. The goal is to gain information on how different groups within the deaf community learn differently in order to customize how information can be delivered to these marginalized populations.

“I have learned so much about psychology and academic research during my time working here in the center, but more importantly, I have learned to become more confident in myself and my ability to achieve my goals,” added Kimbley.

Kimbley and Panko, who is also deaf, are just two of the 14 students, four staff members, and seven NTID faculty members who support Hauser and the center’s labs through their research.

“We bring together experts from different levels of education and different backgrounds including, but not limited to, linguists, physicians, cognitive scientists,” he added. “We bring them together for the first time in the same environment. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We are creating new types of science that just aren’t possible without this one-of-a-kind collaboration.”