By Mark Dwortzan
At a hearing research conference that Professor H. Steven Colburn (BME) attended in Germany several years ago, a 15-year-old girl recalled how a pair of cochlear implants changed her life. She observed that the first implant enabled her to converse with individuals in isolation, but not in groups; as conversations jumped from person to person, she couldn’t figure out which individual was talking. While the second implant didn’t completely resolve the problem, it at least made it possible for her to participate in social gatherings.
For Colburn, founder and director of the Boston University Hearing Research Center, and a leading expert on how the auditory system processes sound, this kind of testimony served as a major turning point. “My interest in this field evolved from being primarily driven by “let’s do a neat optimal signal detection problem” to “let’s do something useful in the field of hearing.”
On March 22, Colburn described this and other experiences that shaped his career as a hearing researcher and educator in the 2012 College of Engineering Distinguished Scholar Lecture, “Information Processing in the Binaural Auditory System.” Speaking at a packed hall at the School of Management, he addressed students, faculty and researchers from throughout the Boston University academic community and beyond.
“Steve’s contributions to the field of binaural hearing have had a profound influence on what it means to be an auditory scientist today,” said Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen in introductory remarks. “Since his days as a graduate student at MIT in the late 1960s, Steve has been a pioneer in exploring how the brain processes and uses sound.”
Exploiting experimental data and mathematical modeling tools, much of Colburn’s research aims to develop an integrated representation of binaural interaction and its role in human sound perception. A Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, and recipient of the Acoustical Society of America Silver Medal and Javitz Neuroscience Award, he has written widely in the past 40 years on challenges faced by the binaural system in complex acoustic environments, and on issues associated with hearing impairments and hearing aids, including cochlear implants.
A College of Engineering faculty member for more than 30 years, Colburn has also played a leading role in setting the top-ranked BME Department on a path of growth and excellence and inspiring generations of students to pursue careers in hearing research. Now serving as associate chair for undergraduate studies, he chaired the Biomedical Engineering Department throughout the 1980s, was named BME Professor of the Year in 2002, 2006 and 2008.
“Ask any student or colleague, and they will tell you that what makes Steve special is his warmth, approachability and openness,” said Lutchen. “A caring and encouraging mentor, Steve’s students consistently vote him among the department’s best teachers.”
The Making of a Master Researcher/Educator
Colburn noted that conversations with neighbors employed at the local atomic energy plant in rural Ohio inspired him to go to college and become an engineer. An avid trumpet player and dancer in high school, he kept his eye on the prize, poring over textbooks and memorizing formulas, leading to an acceptance letter from MIT. But when he applied those same study habits in his first-semester physics, chemistry and math courses, he frequently failed his exams. It wasn’t until he consulted with Jim Overbeck, a fraternity brother and friend, that he found success.
“I used to go to him with questions, and he’d say, ‘I want you to start with what you absolutely know for sure. What are the basic laws that you have learned?’” Colburn recalled. “No matter what question I asked him, he would go back to some really basic stuff and build up the logical structure that was going to lead to the answer to my question. He never let me think about what formula to plug into. Suddenly, it all made sense; I got an extremely high grade on the final exam. It was an intellectually defining moment.”
Buoyed by that moment, Colburn built his own career from a foundation of rich experiences at MIT’s Electrical Engineering Department, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees. He traced his passion for hearing research and teaching to inspiring faculty such as mathematician Norbert Wiener and Bose Corporation founder Amar Bose; intriguing courses in detection theory, auditory processing and binaural hearing; and his PhD thesis advisors, Bill Siebert, Nat Durlach and Nelson Kiang. The thesis, which investigated the neural processing underlying auditory behavior, led him to develop a binaural perception model linking physiological response to sound and auditory perception in people with normal and impaired hearing.
Colburn described his further evolution as a binaural hearing researcher/educator at Boston University, where he has continued to shape this model and investigate critical topics such as “the cocktail party problem,” in which listeners—particularly the elderly or, like the aforementioned 15-year-old girl, those with cochlear implants—strain to determine who’s talking and what they’re saying in complex, noisy environments. His current projects, all collaborations with PhD students funded by the National Institutes of Health and BU, include measuring the cocktail party effect in listeners with hearing impairments, and developing models of neural activity in the auditory system.
Summing up his research and teaching experience and family life, Colburn concluded, “You at last can understand why I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world.”
Initiated in 2008, the annual Distinguished Scholar Lecture Series honors a senior faculty member engaged in outstanding, high-impact research at the College of Engineering. The previous four recipients are Professors Theodore Moustakas (ECE), Irving Bigio (BME), John Baillieul (ECE, ME) and Malvin Teich (ECE).