PULLMAN, Wash. — In the summer of 1971, Gail Chermak returned home frustrated from her junior year at State University of New York.
Not with her coursework in chemistry — that she loved and excelled at — but with the long, isolated hours in the laboratory that seemed far removed from the social activism happening on campus.
“I was struggling to get involved in socially important issues of the day and then going to the lab and pouring a concoction from one flask to another,” says Chermak, the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of Audiology and chair of Washington State University’s Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences. “I was torn between the demands of a bench scientist and the social crises of my day.”
During her trip home, Chermak found direction from her then 5-year-old sister, Luann, who struggled with a language delay.
“Ultimately, when I saw my sister’s therapy, I realized this was a way I could contribute.”
Now, Chermak, 50, is melding science and social consciousness as a leading researcher in auditory processing disorders. She is interested in how humans process the spoken language and is one of only several dozen clinical scientists in the world who specialize in managing the disorders.
Those with an auditory processing disorder have difficulty using auditory information to communicate and learn. It is not a disease but a set of neurological problems that can interfere with listening, understanding speech, developing language and learning, Chermak says.
She came to WSU in 1977 to help develop the audiology program, which gained national accreditation in 1990, and she has published widely in national and international journals in processing disorders, noise-induced hearing loss and international rehabilitation programs for people with disabilities.
“She has been a leader for many years — especially on management of these problems,” says research colleague Frank Musiek of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. “Dr. Chermak is highly respected by her peers.”
Chermak has collaborated with Musiek and other clinical scientists to develop better diagnostic batteries, improve assessment of disorders and caution health-care professionals about the misuse of screening instruments.
Because an auditory processing disorder has many of the same symptoms as learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the problem is often misdiagnosed. Chermak says part of the reason for the confusion is the overuse of labels like ADHD.
“For awhile, it seemed that every child with a middle-class background who had problems in school was being labeled as ADHD,” she says. She recommends that children diagnosed with ADHD should have a hearing evaluation and then a central auditory processing evaluation, which examines other problems beyond the ear.
Chermak believes her greatest contribution has been to ignite interest in helping people manage the disorder. Until the early 1990s, when Chermak began presenting research in conferences and publications, those struggling with an auditory processing disorder might have a label but no solutions.
“The goals are to energize and educate professionals by giving them information that will help them make life a little easier for children and their families and help children with these disorders achieve their potential,” she says.
While Chermak has found success in the scientific world, her enthusiasm extends to the classroom as well. She delights in her role as teacher and guide, particularly with students who want to take on a challenge.
“There are so many complex relationships we still do not understand and an equal number of difficult questions to be answered. Inspiring a student to jump in the thick of it and begin to sort things out is most rewarding,” she says.