Ryan Corey was always taking electronics apart to see how they ticked. When he was prescribed hearing aids as a teenager, his first thought was to ask his audiologist if he could modify them at home. Even though he couldn’t, Corey remained fascinated by the idea. Now, Corey is building his scientific career around signal processing for hearing enhancement and recently received his doctoral degree in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to accomplish that.
After graduation Corey discovered that the Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program (IC Postdoc) for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) was offering a fellowship related closely to his topic of interest. The IC Postdoc Program offers scientists and engineers from a wide variety of disciplines unique opportunities to conduct research relevant to the Intelligence Community.
As an IC Postdoc fellow, Corey presented a research proposal to help people hear better in noisy environments, like crowded restaurants. He joined his mentor, Andrew Singer, and students from the Illinois Augmented Listening Laboratory (IALL) to help bring his research into reality.
In the lab, Corey collaborates with IALL students of varied disciplines to research and design device prototypes. Corey and IALL are also sponsored by the University of Illinois’s Discovery Partners Institute of Chicago to research a project on acoustics. Specifically, they are engineering a mechatronic acoustic research system, which is a system of microphones, speakers and robots that are synchronized with each other.
“This system can perform controlled, repeatable experiments that combine sound with realistic motion,” explained Corey. “For example, we have head-shaped loudspeakers with microphone ears that can move on turrets, so we can simulate a group of people having a conversation while turning to look at one another.”
These research and development projects may help those with hearing loss get more out of their hearing aids and auditory devices. For example, if there are multiple sounds in a room but the listener only wants to hear what is in front of them, separating sounds would help them to focus less on the noise behind them. Simulating real world conversations with machines, with multiple points of sound and realistic listening behavior, helps the team parse out how they can design prototype devices just as realistic.
Ultimately, Corey hopes to develop a system where hearing aids can connect to multiple sources of listening, such as other peoples’ earbuds, head sets and phones to become a greater sensory network of audio. This way hearing aids can adjust sounds more easily than they have been able to in the past.
“Not many researchers in my field are thinking about wireless assistive listening systems, but they’re one of the most effective ways to help people hear better,” said Corey. “And the products that are out there today have a lot of room for improvement technologically.”
During his fellowship, Corey also participated in many other short-term projects and was the lead for the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps Team (I-Corps) called HearNets: Cooperative Acoustic Intelligence. Corey and his I-Corps team simulated the early stages of business startups focused on acoustic sensor networks and other listening technology. The project was designed to get Corey and student collaborators out of the laboratory to interview consumers, experts and stakeholders.
IALL and Corey have published a number of papers on their research, including an article titled “Acoustic effects of medical, cloth, and transparent face masks on speech signals” in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. Corey was also able to present their findings in video conferences for IEEE International Workshops and IEEE International Conferences. Lastly, Corey was the inaugural Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Future of Science Postdoctoral Award winner in 2022.
Corey has made new connections thanks to his IC Postdoc fellowship, including some surprising ones, such as an airline pilot who had requested help hearing over the headset in his plane’s cockpit. Connecting to varied people, from students, to manufacturers to the general hearing loss community has been his favorite part of the experience.
Corey “absolutely” recommends the IC Postdoc program: “The IC Postdoc provided fantastic mentorship and networking opportunities,” he said. “I especially appreciated the stability and flexibility the fellowship offered during the pandemic shutdown.”
After his fellowship Corey will begin as a tenure-track faculty member for electrical and computer engineering. He plans to assemble a diverse team for his own research program on audio signal processing, where he will carry over the connections and skills learned from his fellowship. In the meantime, he will continue his extensive projects with ODNI and runs a blog where he posts audio processing research news for lay audiences.
The Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program is funded by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between the IC and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.