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Kelli Watts

Assistant Clinical Professor
Department of Communication Disorders

Kelli Watts came to Auburn as a student, earning her bachelor's degree in 2004 and her doctorate in audiology in 2008. She met her husband, Richard, in the Auburn University Concert Choir, and the two have an 18-month-old daughter, Charlotte. Watts practiced audiology in Huntsville before returning to Auburn to teach in 2011. She provides clinical teaching and supervision for doctor of audiology student clinicians during practicum experiences at the Auburn University Speech and Hearing Clinic, and teaches graduate courses which cover pediatric audiology, electrophysiological testing and balance assessment. Watts is part of a team of audiologists, students and student translators from the College of Liberal Arts who make an annual trip to Guatemala, where they test and treat hundreds of children. Thanks to new technology, the children no longer have to wait for that annual trip to have their hearing tested by Auburn University audiologists; they can now be tested on a regular basis – remotely.

1. What first led you to the field of audiology?

I was initially led to the field of speech pathology because I wanted to help people, but when I took a hands-on audiology class as an undergraduate, I decided I liked audiology better. I called my parents and told them I was going to school for four more years instead of just two. They said, "Good luck!" But it was worth it and I have never looked back.

2. You visited Guatemala earlier this year; can you tell us a little bit about the trip?

We took four audiology doctoral students, two faculty and one audiology alumna to Guatemala in May. While there, we spent two days in a school for the deaf testing hearing as well as fitting hearing aids and custom earmolds. We also spent three days in a municipality school retesting children who had failed their hearing screening, fitting hearing aids on children with educationally significant hearing losses and screening more than 60 three- and four-year-olds. 

3. What is your most memorable moment from the trip?

There are so many individual stories that could be shared from our week there, but my favorite is of a little girl named Tania. The day she saw us was her third birthday. She has a brother who is severely hearing impaired and her mother asked us if we could test Tania. When we tested her, she also had a significant hearing loss. We fit her with her first set of hearing aids for her birthday. After fitting her with her aids, we tried to get her to vocalize. She was able to say "Mama" for the first time before she left us. The first word of a three-year-old is something we rarely hear in the United States since hearing loss is usually identified at birth with a newborn hearing screening.

4. You've recently begun conducting remote hearing tests on children in Guatemala from the Auburn University Speech and Hearing Clinic here on campus. How successful has that been?

We have been doing remote testing for about six months now. The first time we attempted testing was in March of this year, when Sandra Clark-Lewis, professor emerita, was in Guatemala to deliver the new equipment and train the Guatemalan personnel to use it. We were surprised at how smoothly it worked. Other than not being able to use the webcam because the cord for the internet in Guatemala blocked the USB port (easily fixed for our next attempt by purchasing a USB hub), we had no problems. During this first session between Auburn and Guatemala, we tested a 10-year-old girl named Cecilia, who has a moderate hearing loss. We fit Cecilia with hearing aids on the first trip to Guatemala in August 2009 and monitor her annually. By testing her remotely in March, we learned her hearing had changed slightly and made a note to reprogram her hearing aids when we traveled to Guatemala in May.

Since then, we have tested children in Guatemala from both the Auburn and Auburn Montgomery campuses. Our most recent test was Sept. 11. We tested Carlos, who was fit with hearing aids in 2010 due to chronic ear infections. When we tested him remotely in April and in person in May, his hearing had improved and he no longer needed his hearing aids. During the September appointment, we were making sure that his hearing was remaining in the normal range.

We have had some problems along the way. A USB port on the computer in Guatemala was faulty and would not allow us to control the audiometer. The internet connection in Guatemala is not always reliable so we have lost the connection in the middle of a test or two. Kids in general can be tough to test because they get antsy or tired. We have even had a couple of scheduling miscommunications (trying to coordinate a child and technician in Guatemala with a student clinician and supervisor here in the U.S.), but overall it has been a rewarding learning experience.

5. Who are some of your other partners on the project?

Long before our first testing session between Auburn and Guatemala, we began preparing for this project. We tested the equipment from one end of a table to another, from one office to another, and eventually from Auburn's main campus to the Montgomery campus. This project would not be as successful as it is today without the help of Stacey Powell in the college's IT office, the AUM IT department and the staff of the AUM Speech and Hearing Clinic. They helped us choose the best software to complete remote testing, set up hardware and software and troubleshoot the many problematic local test runs. Additionally, GN ReSound Corporation provides the hearing aids we take to the children in Guatemala.

With the help of an Auburn University Competitive Outreach award grant, we are establishing an assistantship for someone to be responsible for scheduling the time, date and required personnel for remote testing each week; organizing which children need to be tested, which have been tested, and what the results and recommendations are for each child; setting up the equipment; and perhaps ordering supplies and arranging funding for the annual trip.

Sept. 24, 2012