Alumni Q&A: An Interview with CSD Alumna Gail Whitelaw

Gail M. Whitelaw, Ph.D., graduated from Michigan State University in 1983, with a degree in Audiology from the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders. Whitelaw works as the Clinic Director, Clinical Associate Professor, and Audiologist for Ohio State University. She provides essential services for patients and provides clinical education opportunities to graduate students.

We invited her to share her experiences with ComArtSci and Michigan State University.

Q. When you look back at your life and work so far, what gives you the most pride?  
A. From a work perspective, creating solutions to enhance the quality of life for patients and their families makes me incredibly proud of what I have been given the opportunity to do in my career. The impact of hearing loss on the life of a person and their family is so significant and the role of the audiologist in their life is amazing and humbling.  Additionally, preparing the future of audiology with the opportunity to teach the AuD (Doctor of Audiology) students is one of my favorite aspects of my work and I am incredibly proud of our current students and of our alumni--we work to prepare our students to be exceptional audiologists and we expect them to be leaders in the field.

Q. What inspires you to work toward your goals and accomplishments? 
A. Our patients are my greatest inspiration.  I am always humbled by the life changing work done by my colleagues and it reminds me of the importance of hearing and communication as fundamental to health and happiness. Audiology is an amazing profession and I am also inspired by those that have committed their careers to people with hearing and balance disorders.

Q. Could you describe a typical day in your professional life? 
A. My position is so varied and I love that I have no "typical" day. I have often said that I have the best audiology job in the country.  Some days are "clinic" days for me, so I spend time providing clinical services and being a preceptor to AuD students who are learning to be audiologists. As the Director of the Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic, I have the opportunity to administer the clinical program but more importantly to lead one of the oldest and strongest University programs in the country.  I teach four courses in our AuD program and one course in our Master of Arts in Speech-Language Pathology which keeps me learning and growing as a professional.  I communicate with audiologists all around the country on a weekly basis as the placement coordinator of our audiology externship program.  Additionally, I serve as the audiology faculty member on the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Other Disabilities (LEND) grant, an interdisciplinary grant focused on interprofessional practice focused on children with developmental disabilities and their families and in leadership development and advocacy.

Q. What are some of the greatest challenges and opportunities working in your field? 
A. As I've noted, the opportunities are providing life changing care to people with hearing and balance disorders.  The technology available with hearing aids and cochlear implants is truly amazing and has changed so much since I was a MA student at MSU!  However, it's also a challenge as so many people seem to have a negative opinion of technology, based on many preconceived ideas...that hearing loss is for the "old" or vanity aspects.  A great and fun challenge is educating people about audiology and hearing loss with the focus not necessarily being on the product (e.g. hearing aid or implant) but the process that audiologists bring to the situation. I see people across the range of ages and stages in their lives.  However, research suggests that the average person with hearing loss waits at least 9 years to seek treatment.  There is considerable current research to link a decrease in cognitive abilities with even a mild degree of untreated hearing loss.  When I was a student at Michigan State, we knew much less about the auditory system and hearing loss was viewed as a loss of a sense.  In the intervening years, we have developed a much better understanding of the auditory system and it is now clear that the ear is a very important window to the brain and that any degree of hearing loss can impact cognitive abilities and quality of life.  That's one of the messages that the profession is now using as a platform to educate patients, families, and other healthcare professionals.

Q. What would you consider to be the defining point in your life or career?  
A. The defining point of my life was becoming a mother as my greatest gift and blessing.  From a career perspective, I have had so many defining points that it's difficult to narrow it to one.  Being elected as the President of the American Academy of Audiology was certainly a defining point as I was able to meet so many incredible audiologists and learn from their perspectives, hone my leadership skills, and expand my perspective on my profession and the world.  I would recommend volunteer service to any professional as I have learned so much about my profession and have made lifelong friends (that are more like family!) and an amazing network of support.

Q. What is the most important lesson you have learned along the way?  
A. Love what you do.  I knew I wanted to be an audiologist when I was 11 years old, which is unique (or you might say weird) at any point, but when I was a kid, no one knew what audiology was.  My dad told me to "be a good one" although he had no idea what an audiologist was until I educated him on a daily basis during my middle school and high school years.  I can't think of a day that I haven't loved being an audiologist, although there have been challenges along the way.   I am fortunate to work with people who also love what we do and the lesson of "high tides float all ships" is one for which I am grateful--being surrounded by people who do raise the bar.

Q. What opportunities did you have at MSU or ComArtSci that helped you get where you are today?
A. I was so fortunate to have the opportunities that MSU provided to me.  The faculty were incredible and supportive to me long after graduation.  The clinical education opportunities were fantastic and I learned so much from clinical preceptors/community audiologists who were committed to our education.  My classmates were amazing and I credit the Department for attracting and selecting a group of students who challenged each other, supported each other, and had a lot of fun in the process.  Audiology depends on having access to equipment and tools and Michigan State was rich in those resources.  

Q. How do you give back to your community or motivate others to work toward the common good?  
A. I volunteer in a number of ways, however using my audiology skills to provide services to those in need through community health fairs, supporting children in Early Head Start programs, and providing community education whenever I can.  I am particularly aware of disparities in healthcare and as opportunities arise, I participate in being able to use my skills both as an audiologist and an audiology preceptor (where I can involve AuD and MA-SLP students) to meet community needs.

Q. What advice would you give to MSU and ComArtSci students?  
A. This goes back to my most important lesson:  Love what you do!  Explore options, know yourself and what you like, don't be afraid to "fail" and start over.  Your life will hopefully be a marathon and not a sprint, so invest in your education broadly--not just in the classroom but in your community and the world.  Find what feeds your passion and follow that! I would also advise all students to travel as there is no better way to learn about yourself and the world and to provide perspective.

Q. What would you like to say to students who are studying at MSU in these uncertain times?  
A. Uncertainty and change are the only constants in life.  I have been impressed by how resilient college students have been during this time and I see all of you as a bright spot. This will change how you lead and in interacting with my students, I see your generation as leaders being challenged in ways that previous generations have not been that will create opportunities and adaptations that we have not seen previously.  And, if past is prologue, this time will change us, challenge us, and strengthen us, but not define us—better days are definitely ahead.  My dad would always remind me that "tough times never last but tough people do"...and I would substitute the term "resilient people" for "tough people."

By Joe Strother

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