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Alum Talkington earns prestigious National Defense Scholarship

7/27/2009

The way Bill Talkington tells the story, the day he received the news, he “jumped and hugged everyone in sight.†Here are a few things he learned that afternoon - his graduate school tuition at West Virginia University was being paid in full, as were all his school-related fees. He’d also receive health insurance coverage up to $1,000 a year. None of this would need to be repaid.
The way Bill Talkington tells the story, the day he received the news, he “jumped and hugged everyone in sight.” Here are a few things he learned that afternoon - his graduate school tuition at West Virginia University was being paid in full, as were all his school-related fees. He'd also receive health insurance coverage up to $1,000 a year. None of this would need to be repaid.

That's reason enough to be excited, but the real cause of his enthusiasm was the $30,500 stipend he'd also be receiving. The money will allow him to conduct groundbreaking research that, someday, could result in treating individuals with sensory deficits, including those with brain lesions or children suffering from central auditory processing disorders.

That afternoon, Talkington, a 2007 APSU physics graduate, learned he was the recipient of a prestigious National Defense Science and Engineering Fellowship. According to a Department of Defense Web site, the fellowship is “highly competitive and confers high honors upon its recipients.”

Only about 3,000 fellowships have been awarded since the program's inception 20 years ago.

Talkington is in his third year at WVU, and he'll use his new funds to advance his work in the school's neuroscience department.

“We investigate the functional organization of the human auditory cortex — the chunk of our brain that processes sounds and relates that information to higher cognitive areas,” he said.

Not much is known about the organization of the auditory cortex, such as how it processes, distinguishes and subsequently categorizes all the sounds a person hears, specifically human speech. His research could eventually open doors to developing medical treatments for individuals with difficulty, due to a wide range of reasons, interpreting these sounds.

“There are certain people that have lesions in the auditory cortex that prevent them from processing speech,” he said. “Also, some of our work is aimed at helping the diagnosis and the treatment of certain central auditory processing disorders that may begin prenatally.”

One example, he said, is autism since autistic children tend to have difficulty mimicking the speech patterns they hear. Non-autistic children are able to take those auditory cues and develop the ability to speak.

Speaking with Talkington, even briefly, one gathers that he's a highly intelligent individual. When looking at his planned course of research, however, this assumption becomes even more evident. Not only is he studying neuroscience, but he's also attempting to connect his work with electrical engineering.

“A big focus in my application (for the fellowship) was the collaborations we're trying to start with the electrical engineering department here at West Virginia,” he said.

The idea is to use the human brain as a blueprint for a highly efficient auditory processing system and to attempt to build something similar to replicate its functions while using limited amounts of power, similar to the brain.

“The engineering side of what I want to do could be used to develop more efficient hearing prostheses and autonomous auditory processing devices,” he said.

And the fellowship gives Talkington more flexibility to explore these different avenues of his research.

“Now that I have external funds, my research goals can be broadened to capture more of my interests,” he said. “I was pretty excited. It really hasn't sunken in yet.” -- Charles Booth