There is not much left of the old rundown TAFE building in the Brisbane suburb of Ashgrove when one approaches the new Hear and Say headquarters. After almost a year of extensive renovations, the $12 million dollar project “Possibility” features a complete external and internal overhaul of the building and surrounds. Operational since January 2015, the facility has already seen its first “switch on day”, as the activation of a cochlear implant in a young patient is referred to. Since 1992, the Hear and Say organisation uses cutting-edge technology and teaching methods that help over 600 deaf children per year to hear, listen and speak. In the new building, six sound-proof rooms offer space for young patients and their parents to meet with the staff of Hear and Say for the initial activation of their implants, regular check-ups and re-calibrations of the device as the children grow up and the brain slowly learns to work with the new input of signals.
Past the ultra-modern offices and meeting spaces à la Google, inspirational company founder and director, Dr Dimity Dornan AO leads visitors on a first-look facility tour, organized by the Women in Technology (WiT) group and sponsored by Cochlear Limited. “We wanted to create a mix between Guggenheim and Grandma’s house, to showcase our new technologies, but offer comfort for our young patients at the same time” says Dr Dornan as the group passes the space underneath a stairwell covered in artificial grass, a perfect place to lie down after a therapy session and relax or have a nap. Upstairs, after some quick snaps of decorative graffiti courtesy of pre-renovation vandals, we admire the large auditorium, where relatives and friends of the patients are seated in front of large screens and can watch the children’s reaction the very moment the implants are switched on and the patients can hear sounds for the first time. This “switch on day” or “Hearing Birthday” is an emotional moment that can now be celebrated in style.
We now stand in one of the soundproof therapy rooms, our conversations eerily muffled due to the thick grey and soft walls, and hear more about how infants and children as well as their parents need to learn how to hear, communicate and speak with each other. Through a glass screen, we can see Dr Dornan in an adjacent control room waving a puppet which comes to be associated in a young child’s mind, when they hear sound transmitted by an audiologist through hidden speakers in the room. This process of learning needs time, especially in children who receive their implants later in life. This new building also offers a retreat for families from rural areas who need to stay for a few days.
The building also features an “Innovation Hub”, where students and researchers, industry partners and collaborators can make use of technology in new offices and meeting rooms. In my opinion, this makes this facility so special: it is not just a medical centre or large GP practice, it is an ultra-modern mix of 21st century medical innovation, a therapy centre without the waiting-room feel, a retreat for children and parents on the long journey from deafness to hearing, a place where researchers can meet patients, attend seminars and celebrate their combined achievements. According to Dr Dornan, “it is the perfect place for the perfect storm of the Internet, Research and Technology” that will speed up the process of human bionic implants significantly, and I could not agree more with her vision.
After more than two hours of interesting seminar talks, experiencing firsthand what it feels like to hear via an implant and an amazing tour through brand new corridors and rooms, we meet the other groups that emerge from various directions in the foyer for some drinks and nibbles. New connections are made between delicious sushi and a glass or two of wine, and business cards change hands. Who says networking is boring?
“Women in Technology feels very privileged to be one the first groups to visit the brand new Hear and Say facility. This has been a unique opportunity for our members to find out about the brilliant cochlear implant technology and to hear the inspiring success story of Queensland innovation champion Dr Dimity Dornan” says Mathilde Desselle, chair of the Life Sciences chapter at Women in Technology.
More info about the Hear and Say organisation, their vision and research opportunities, a blog about their new facility including many pictures of the progress can be found at: www.hearandsay.com.au
More info about the Women in Technology group and a calendar of events: www.wit.org.au
More info about Cochlear implants here.
Article and pictures by Christoph Braun for the Australian Science Communicators (SEQ chapter). More info on the ASC Facebook page.