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Celebration 2020

Laurel Carney

Respected by peers and students alike

Each week, Laurel Carney coaches her younger faculty colleagues in how to prepare a successful grant application.

The MaryLou Ingram Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Rochester is eminently qualified to do so.

For example, the first National Institutes of Health grant she received in 1999, “Auditory Processing of Complex Sounds,” has been continuously renewed ever since for a total of $9.2 million. Another, “Developing and Testing Models of the Auditory System With and Without Hearing Loss,” has been renewed since 2011 for a total of $3.2 million.

“This is a remarkable achievement, and provides clear testimony to the quality and relevance of her research, and to the high regard and respect that her scientific peers around the world hold for her work,” wrote Diane Dalecki, chair of the department, in support of the Hajim Outstanding Faculty Award that Carney received in 2018.

Her research focuses on hearing and hearing loss – specifically, on a better understanding of why the brain in a healthy person can easily distinguish sounds in noisy environments, but has trouble doing so when even a small degree of hearing loss occurs. The answers could hold the key to developing hearing aids that make human speech louder and clearer, by doing a better job of blocking out the background “noise.”

Beyond the inner ear

Most hearing aids on the market are designed to mimic what happens in our inner ear - specifically the amplifying role of the outer hair cells.

Carney, however, believes the answers lie beyond the inner ear - in the complex network of 30,000 auditory nerve fibers on each side of the brain that transmit the inner ear's electrical signals, and in the auditory center of the midbrain, which processes those signals.

The initial response of brain cells to sound is a complicated pattern of electrical pulses, a pattern that is modified and interpreted by millions of cells in many parts of the brain. Carney’s lab combines neurophysiological and behavioral studies with computer modeling to better understand how this process works.

“Her research in auditory processing is recognized internationally as one of the most outstanding programs in her field,” then department chair Richard Waugh said when Carney was installed as the MaryLou Ingram Professor in Biological Engineering in 2015.

The “high regard and respect” of Carney’s peers that Dalecki alluded to has been manifested in many ways.

Carney has collaborated with researchers worldwide. In 2013 she traveled to Malaysia to help set up a lab at the University of Malaya with a former post-doctoral fellow, Muhammad Zilany. In 2016-2017, she traveled to Germany and Denmark during a sabbatical leave to work with researchers at two universities. “Laurel Carney's expertise in physiology, behavioral research and computer modeling makes it exciting to work with her and we are proud to have her here as a Guest Professor,” said Torsten Dau, professor and head of hearing systems at the Technical University of Denmark.

In 2015, Carney received the William and Christine Hartmann Prize in Auditory Neuroscience from the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), the premiere scientific organization in the field. The ASA elected her a Fellow in 2002 in recognition of her contributions to “an integrated understanding of the physiology and psychophysics of hearing.” 

The American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) also elected her a Fellow, in 2006, for her contributions to “the mathematical modeling and empirical characterization of the mammalian auditory system.”

‘She truly wants students to learn’

In recent years, Carney has expanded her weekly grant mentoring sessions to mid-career faculty members. “These sessions have been wonderful for our faculty and have been a key component for their success in grants funding,” Dalecki says.

Students have also benefited from her mentoring and teaching skills.

For example, Christian Keenan ’18 was apologetic when he arrived empty-handed at the podium in the Hawkins Carlson Room in 2016. “I prepared (a speech) and left it in the lab,” he confided to an Undergraduate Research Exposition audience that, by its laughter, indicated it could fully relate to his dilemma.

However, Keenan had no difficulty remembering what he wanted to say on behalf of Carney, who was about to receive the 2016 Students' Association Engineering Professor of the Year Award.

“She is truly one of the most remarkable professors I’ve ever had,” he said --  despite the deck of cards Carney resorts to when teaching her courses. When she asks a question in class, she doesn’t call on a student or wait for a show of hands from the usual handful of students who always volunteer. Carney simply draws from the deck of cards, each of which is marked with a student’s name.

“This way everybody has an equal chance of being called on,” Carney explains. “And they know it; it’s very transparent.”

Keenan, whose name was on the ace of diamonds in Carney’s deck that year, noted that “every single student, when they hear ‘I’m going to pull a card’ does a little shriek. ‘I don’t know’ is not a good answer and I found that out the hard way.”

But he said he also appreciates why Carney does this: “She truly does want students to learn.”

This explains another remarkable streak in Carney’s career. That 2016 professor of the year award was one of eight Carney has received: two at Boston University; two from the Student Association at the University of Rochester; and four from the University of Rochester’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.

And in 2019, she was one of five inaugural recipients of the David T. Kearns Faculty Mentoring and Teaching award for her work with undergraduates who do research in her lab each summer through programs supported by David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity.

Benjamin Richardson ’21, a Kearns Summer Research Scholar, said that Carney “exceeded every expectation I could have had for a faculty mentor. It is clear in everything she does that she is not only incredibly passionate about what she studies, but passionate about the success of her students.” Students “are instructed to interrupt any presentation in order to ask questions” and “receive consistent and helpful feedback on presentations and analyses we prepare.”

He said he was grateful he could spend this summer in a research lab where undergraduates are “given the same respect as far more knowledgeable students and faculty.”

Grace Niyo ’21, a Xerox Engineering Research Fellow, said Carney had been not only a mentor, but a friend to her. “She always advises us about classes that might be relevant for our academic interests, conferences and summer programs to apply to, and things we should be doing to prepare ourselves for graduate school.”

In other words, Carney has excelled as both researcher and teacher – a valuable combination indeed.

No wonder the department chairs she has served under at Rochester are unstinting in their praise.

“Laurel contributes to the department and the University in more ways than I can count, as an educator, as a mentor, and in multiple service roles,” Waugh says.

 “Laurel is simply a fantastic BME faculty member,” says Dalecki, “and a treasured member of our University!”

A product of women’s lib

And to think, if it weren’t for the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s -- and a mistake in a posting about a faculty opening at the University of Rochester in 2007 -- none of this might have happened.

Carney’s family moved a lot when she was growing up. Her father, an aeronautical engineer, worked for NASA on the controls for steering spacecraft. Houston, site of the Johnson Space Center, and Cambridge, MA, home to the NASA Electronic Research Labs, were among the family’s stops. Then, when Carney was 9 years old, her father left NASA to teach engineering at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Persistent illnesses forced Carney to miss a lot of school in the fourth through sixth grades. “It turned out to be mostly allergies,” she says. “I was very impressed by the nurses when I went to the doctor’s office, and my mother also had nurse’s training. So, I thought it would be cool to do that.

“But this was also the era of women’s lib, and I think that had a huge effect because when people asked me ‘what do you want to be when you grow up,’ and I said ‘I want to be a nurse,’ invariably I would hear ‘what about being a doctor?’

“I don’t remember who I heard it from, whether it was teachers, or neighbors, or people at church, but there were a lot of voices saying ‘you can do whatever you want.’”

That message was reinforced as her interests shifted to math and engineering at the all-women high school she attended. “It was okay to be the ‘brain,’” Carney says.

Of her undergraduate class at MIT, only about 25 percent were women, and only about 12 percent in her major, electrical engineering. “But that was not so problematic because I lived in a woman’s co-op,” Carney says. Several of the students in the Women’s Independent Living Group had also attended all-women high schools, and were used to “calling the shots,” Carney says. “We ran the house ourselves. We did all the maintenance, cleaning, and cooking.”

Most importantly, “you could go to class, and it didn’t matter what happened; when you went home for dinner you were surrounded by people who had been through it too.”

Playing on the woman’s softball team and working in a research lab as an undergraduate also provided important support groups.

After receiving a BS from MIT in 1983, she completed masters and PhD degrees at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1985 and 1989, also in electrical engineering.

She served as an assistant, then associate professor at Boston University from 1991 to 2001, then as professor at Syracuse University from 2001 to 2007, when she joined the University of Rochester.

She applied after seeing an advertisement for a senior faculty member in biomedical engineering. “I applied because there is a lot of systems level neuroscience at Rochester, which is helpful for my research,” Carney says. “Later I learned the ad I saw had been truncated, thankfully, because it was supposed to say ‘senior faculty member in optics.’ I would never have applied.”

Fortunately, enrollment in the relatively new department (established in 2000) was growing quickly; the department needed faculty, and Carney was hired.

She’s grateful it turned out that way.

“The BME department here is pretty special,” she says. Women comprise about 50 percent of the faculty, most of whom have been with the department their entire academic careers.

“It is very collegial,” Carney says. “At faculty meetings people talk and everyone listens. There are no prima donnas, no one-upsmanship. That’s not always the case in academia.”

It is the perfect environment for someone like Carney, who enjoys sharing what she’s learned not only with her students, but her faculty colleagues.

Laurel Carney—MaryLou Ingram Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Rochester