Marc Brennan joins audiology faculty in SECD

Marc Brennan

Marc Brennan joins audiology faculty in SECD

20 Sep 2017    By Kelcey Buck

Perhaps Marc Brennan was destined to be an audiologist. After all, he knows firsthand what his patients are going through. Now he’s sharing that knowledge with students and pursuing research he hopes will improve auditory perception in hearing aids as an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

Born with a hearing loss, Brennan was not diagnosed until he was three or four years old. And then, only thanks to his mother’s persistence. 

“My mom noticed that I would sit close to the TV and seemed like I wasn’t always paying attention,” Brennan said. “I was actually in a special education class because of my delayed speech. The nurse there felt like my hearing was fine and the reason I didn’t pass the hearing test was just because I was difficult during it. Luckily, my mom ignored them and took me to an audiologist.”

Brennan got fitted for hearing aids and was excited to wear them. But it wasn’t until college that he circled back to audiology as a possible career.

“I liked aspects of engineering and business, but I felt like audiology combined a lot of the things that I liked into one program. It has technology, which is kind of the engineering part of it. I liked business because it’s numbers, and in audiology, especially with the research I do, there’s a lot of data analysis.” 

Ultimately it was the people side of audiology that really drew him in. 

“I wanted to interact with people. The idea of being able to help people really appealed to me. And I thought the fact that I could bring a personal experience to that would really help. I have found that patients and families really respond well because I do have that personal experience.” 

After completing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communicative disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Brennan completed a year-long clinical fellowship at Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha. It was there that he truly recognized his passion for research.

“Boys Town fostered my interest in research that started at Madison,” Brennan said. “I was drawn in by the close collaboration that Boys Town has between research and clinic.” 

From Boys Town, Brennan headed to the VA at Madison and then to the University of Washington, where he completed his doctorate in speech and hearing sciences under the guidance of Pamela Souza. 

“She does a lot of research on hearing aids and different types of signal processing with hearing aids, and how that affects perception,” Brennan said. “I learned a lot from her and from all my dissertation advisers.”

Brennan returned to Boys Town for his postdoctoral fellowship in 2011, then joined the research staff there in 2014. When an assistant professor position in UNL’s Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders opened up this semester, Brennan was eager to pursue the opportunity.

“What appealed to me was the ability to teach and interact with students. I think it’s really important to foster that next generation, and think about things like developing critical thinking and the ability to do evidence-based practice.” 

In addition to his teaching duties, Brennan is looking forward to getting his research lab up and running in the Barkley Memorial Center. His research focuses on how people perceive sound, and in particular how people with hearing aids perceive sound.

“We know a lot about the auditory system and how it works,” Brennan explained. “We know a lot about people’s ability to hear really small changes in speech and things like that, and use that to decode speech, but we don’t really know what the hearing aid is doing with that, especially at a really basic level. My goal is to fill that piece of it.”

Brennan gives the example of playing a noise and inserting a silent interval of varying length into it. People with hearing loss need a longer interval than people with normal hearing, but how the use of hearing aids impacts the ability to distinguish the silent interval is relatively unknown.

“If we knew how people with hearing aids could hear sounds such as that, then we might be able to modify hearing aids so that they could recognize those sounds better, and hopefully that would lead to better speech recognition.”

Brennan is especially interested in applying his research to help children with hearing loss.

“Kids are sort of unique. They are still developing those skills and they had had reduced access to those sounds at a very critical age during development, so it’s not clear to us whether we can restore those sounds to the extent that we can for adults.” 

Brennan has a lot of goals for his future at Nebraska, from teaching to service to research. An active member of the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (NCDHH), as well as the Nebraska Speech-Language-Hearing Association (NSLHA), he is looking forward to continuing that service and encouraging his students to get involved too.

“I hope to make a career and stay here forever. I want to develop future leaders in our field. I want to get them excited about advocacy, meeting with our legislators and advocating for things that not only help the field, but also the patients that we’re serving. I think it’s really important to do that.”

Special Education and Communication Disorders