After 20 years of federal service, Carmen Brewer, Ph.D., chief research audiologist in the Audiology Unit at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), will retire on October 27, 2022. At a symposium held in her honor in September, colleagues, staff, researchers, and practitioners celebrated her contributions to the audiology field as a researcher, clinician, and mentor. She was presented with an Award of Excellence for her sustained support of the NIDCD mission over the past two decades.
“My experiences at the National Institutes of Health, all with NIDCD and the NIH Clinical Center, gave me the opportunity to conduct research, treat patients, and train future generations of audiologists,” Dr. Brewer said. “It couldn’t have been more fulfilling to have collaborated with a team of professionals and colleagues who are truly committed to advancing science and clinical care for persons with hearing loss.”
Dr. Brewer began her NIDCD career in 2002 as a research audiologist and chief of the Audiology Unit. Under her leadership, the NIDCD Audiology Unit has evolved into a world-class center for conducting research on the auditory and vestibular systems, delivering clinical services, and providing a comprehensive mentor program. As a key component of the NIH Clinical Center, the Audiology Unit provides hearing and balance tests to clinical study participants, including adult and pediatric patients with rare diseases, as well as patients taking lifesaving but potentially ototoxic drugs or participating in investigational treatments. The Audiology Unit also studies healthy volunteers to better understand the normal function and variability of the auditory and vestibular systems and to identify novel methods to evaluate these systems.
“Dr. Brewer’s career-long dedication to her patients, trainees, and colleagues is mirrored in her scientific accomplishments and her establishment of a world-class Audiology Unit,” said NIDCD Scientific Director Lisa L. Cunningham, Ph.D. “The Audiology Unit is a shining star for NIDCD and for the NIH Clinical Center. Her ability to build strong collaborative relationships that advance both clinical care and scientific discovery is reflective of her leadership and excellence that will endure in the legacy she has built here at NIDCD.”
Dr. Brewer’s research on the natural history of a variety of genetic and other disorders has provided valuable insight into how these diseases affect the hearing and balance systems. In many of these research studies, Dr. Brewer worked with multidisciplinary teams of NIH clinicians to investigate neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2), Usher syndrome, enlarged vestibular aqueducts (EVA), Niemann-Pick type C (NPC), xeroderma pigmentosum (XP), and Moebius syndrome. Her team’s natural history studies of NPC were the first to detail the effects of this rare disease on hearing and the ototoxic effects of an experimental drug used in the treatment of the disease. This work has led to collaborations among NIDCD, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and other NIH scientists and biotechnology companies to test promising new therapies for treating NPC patients.
Dr. Brewer’s research interest in the genetic aspects of auditory processing—how sounds are processed in the brain—led her to examine the heritability of this process in identical and fraternal twins. She collaborated with NIDCD’s Laboratory of Molecular Genetics to demonstrate that dichotic listening— the ability to listen to and understand different speech signals when presented to each ear at the same time—is inherited. She expanded her findings to show that the auditory processing of non-speech signals, such as distinguishing various pitches, can also be inherited. Much of her work was conducted at the annual Twins Days Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, where her team of researchers evaluated the auditory processing skills of twins.
Dr. Brewer has maintained a strong interest in mentoring young and aspiring scientists. Early in her career, she began mentoring a handful of students studying audiology, hearing science, and speech science at local universities. Since then, she has a built a model training program that attracts high school and university students, Doctor of Audiology (Au.D.) and Ph.D. students, and medical residents across the country by offering hands-on experience working with clinical audiology approaches and research opportunities. She has mentored more than 100 training program participants.
Prior to joining NIDCD, Dr. Brewer earned a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology from Douglass College, Rutgers University, and a master’s degree and Ph.D., both in audiology and hearing science, from the University of Maryland, College Park. Dr. Brewer has been a lecturer in the Hearing and Speech Sciences Department at the University of Maryland for more than 25 years and was previously a lecturer at Gallaudet University’s Department of Audiology and Speech. She served as a clinical fellow in audiology at the Washington Hospital Center and rose to positions as the director of hearing and speech; administrative director in oral surgery and otolaryngology; and administrative director of surgical subspecialties and anesthesia. In her 28-year tenure at the Washington Hospital Center, she was instrumental in developing a successful audiologic assessment and rehabilitation program for adult patients; implementing a newborn hearing screening program; cultivating community outreach programs; and administering a comprehensive audiology and speech pathology program.
Dr. Brewer’s career has yielded an abundance of publications and awards. She has published more than 100 research studies, contributed to numerous book chapters, and presented at more than 100 scientific meetings. She has received numerous awards, including multiple NIH Director’s Awards and NIDCD Director’s Awards. Her scientific contributions have also been honored by her colleagues in professional organizations; most recently she received the Honors of the Association Award from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association for her lifetime contributions to the field of communication sciences and disorders.
Upon Dr. Brewer’s retirement, Audiology Unit research audiologists Christopher Zalewski, Ph.D., and Julie Christensen, M.S., will alternate serving as acting chief research audiologist until a permanent director is named.
NIDCD and the NIH Clinical Center are grateful for Dr. Brewer’s many clinical, research, and mentoring achievements. She will continue to serve the NIH as research audiologist emeritus.