Sherri Jones, dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences, is one of eight individuals being recognized in 2019 with Honors of the Association from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
Honors of the Association is the association’s most prestigious award, recognizing lifetime achievement. Jones is being honored during the awards ceremony at the association’s annual convention Nov. 22 in Orlando, Florida.
“I’m honored to be on the list of individuals who have gone before and the work that those individuals have been recognized for,” Jones said. “I feel very proud to have contributed to helping understand the functional consequences of genetic mutations in the inner ear, and I am humbled to have the importance of that basic science work recognized with this award.”
Jones discovered the audiology field during her second year as an undergraduate at Nebraska. Newell Decker, now professor emeritus, gave a guest lecture during the Introduction to Communication Disorders course she was taking. That lecture helped Jones realize audiology would allow her to both work with equipment and help people, including those like her family members who had Meniere’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that can lead to dizzy spells and hearing loss.
“From that day on, I was going to be an audiologist,” Jones said. “So, I changed majors (from electrical engineering) and never looked back.”
As a master’s student at Nebraska, Jones was required to do a research project for one of her courses. Between that project and a master’s thesis in Decker’s lab, Jones developed her interest in research.
“I could master the content of the discipline and the knowledge of the discipline, but I could also advance the knowledge, and that appealed to me,” Jones said.
After finishing her master’s, Jones worked for a year before returning to Nebraska to seek her third degree. Her dissertation examined the development of the tonotopic map, which is how frequencies are laid out in the inner ear. At the time, there was a theory about how that frequency organization developed, which Jones tested and proved was not correct for many of the frequencies.
During her dissertation work, Jones became interested in the vestibular system. In 1999, the National Institutes of Health sought to build knowledge around nervous system function. The National Institutes of Health put out a call for investigators to phenotype nervous system function in genetic mutants. By that time, nearly five years after finishing her doctorate, Jones had further developed a technique to examine vestibular neural function.
“I knew I could use that technique to phenotype vestibular neural function in genetic mutants, and I could help NIH expand knowledge in that area,” Jones said. “I submitted a grant, NIH funded me and I got busy.”
For nearly 17 years, Jones worked tirelessly developing a dataset to better understand how genetic mutations impact inner ear function. She held research and faculty appointments at University of Missouri-Columbia and East Carolina University before realizing her desire to impact people beyond those with hearing loss or balance problems.
“During my time as a faculty member and as a researcher, I worked with a lot of students and colleagues from around the world,” Jones said. “A lot of people wanted to learn how to do my technique because they were also interested in understanding genetics of the inner ear. Mentoring people really helped me develop a skillset in leadership, particularly in leadership where the goal is to help people succeed, not just in the work you are doing, but also in their own work.”
Jones felt she was ready to lead a group of people dedicated to impacting the lives of individuals with special needs. She found that fit in 2012 as the chair of the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders at Nebraska, a position she held for more than seven years before assuming her current role in July. Although her day-to-day work no longer revolves around audiology, Jones is proud of the contributions she has made during her career.
“In my research, I raised some questions about how genetic mutations differentially affect hearing versus vestibular function, which wasn’t previously known. To the discipline of audiology, I hope I have prepared students to be good critical thinkers, to utilize research literature to advance their own knowledge and I hope I’ve inspired a few to keep pursuing research. To the broader field of communication sciences and disorders, I hope I’ve contributed some thinking about our future and I hope I’ve inspired faculty and staff to not only pursue their work individually, but also collectively.”