Q & A with Brent Spehar

The Spehar family at the Palace of Versailles in France. From left: daughters Emily and Collen, Brent and wife Deirdre.

What is your current title and responsibilities?
My title is research scientist. I serve as co-principle investigator on two successful research projects with Nancy Tye-Murray, PhD. The first project examines audiovisual speech perception across the adult lifespan. I develop methods, materials, and models used to measure how well research participants can combine their visual and auditory channels of speech. This work has evolved over the last 20 years and I now collaborate in the design of studies to see which areas of the brain are active when audiovisual speech perception happens, especially when people must rely heavily on the visual channel of speech.

Brent Spehar, PhD, hiking in the Rocky Mountains.

The second project focuses on the best ways to improve speech perception through auditory training for both adults and children. I get to develop gamified, engaging methods and materials to use when they need training with a new device. I have even developed and programmed a way for people to record the voice of their friends, family and teachers and have their recordings automatically populate the games used in their training.  This project led to the development of clEAR, Inc. and Amptify, two commercial ventures designed to improve hearing health. These commercial products are a culmination of knowledge gained through the NIH research. I oversee the fitting of hearing devices and measure device satisfaction before and after using Amptify.

What is your history with CID and WashU?
I served as an acoustic analyst in the US Navy before moving to St. Louis attend graduate school in audiology at Central Institute for the Deaf (CID).  I felt my previous work experience and life with deaf family members provided a potentially unique insight into issues facing deaf children and their families.  While in school, I worked for a year in the old CID clinic on S. Taylor Ave.  That clinical year was co-sponsored by Cochlear Corporation to work on research involving language development in early implanted children. When that project was done, I started working full time in CID’s research department.  The work slowed my academic progress, but a few years later I finished my PhD.

What aspect of your job do you enjoy the most?
I like creating things from scratch.  Creating things that didn’t previously exist always excites me, regardless of the context.  I write analyses, create large databases, and intricate testing programs from a blank page. Creating carefully developed stimuli that has a specific purpose is very satisfying. Bringing all of these independent things together to work as system toward a single goal, like data collection, gives me the sense that I have created a sort of machine that didn’t exist before.

The Spehar family white water rafting on the Flat Head River in Montana. From left: Brent, Emily, rafting guide, Colleen and Deirdre.

What do you like to do outside of work?
When not at work, I’m focused on family.  We like to be outside and try to hike in a different national park every year or two.  Lately, family commitments and the commercial ventures have prevented me from entertaining my other passion – drums and guitar. I own a lot of musical instruments, but don’t really play any of them well. I also have a small electronics workshop that I enjoying working in.  Right now I’m rebuilding an old-school wa-wa pedal (for electric guitar) using old parts.