Jont Allen


Jont Allen
Jont Allen

Q: What is your area of expertise?
A: I’m an electrical engineer but my original area of expertise was the auditory system; the inner ear and middle ear and the early auditory brain, how sounds are processed by the cochlea, which is the inner ear, and by the auditory system. And then I went from there to learning about psychophysics. Psychophysics is the science of trying to characterize different kinds of sounds. From there I got into speech perception, which was quite a natural transition for me.

Q: Give me a brief synopsis of your education and career:
A: I went to the University of Illinois and graduated in 1966. I got my master’s at the University of Pennsylvania in 1968 and my PhD in 1970. I had one job – I went to AT&T Bell Labs and worked there for 32 years, after that I retired and came here [to Illinois].

Q: What do you enjoy most about being at Illinois?
A: Working with the students: my graduate students, doing research, and I also enjoy teaching very much.

Q: Why did you become an engineer in the beginning?
A: It goes back to when I was five years old fixing fans for my mother – I just love tinkering with things. It developed into a habit.

Q: How did you become interested in the research aspects of your field and what keeps you interested?
A: I was in the research department at Bell Labs, so I have a long history of doing research. It’s something that I understand from having done 30 years of research. It comes naturally to me. I had some experiences at Bell Labs that had a profound impact on my thinking. I developed a hearing aid that turned out to be extremely successful. And that really hit me – that was a very cool thing. So I guess I keep trying to repeat that experience.

Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
A: Graduate teaching is just talking about the deeper ideas that make up a field, and it’s a learning process. When I teach a course for the third time, I get a deeper understanding of the material that I probably did not have before I started. I started with a knowledge of the material, but not at the level you get when you’re teaching, so that’s one thing.

The same thing for the research: I get something out of doing research with a student. There is a point where the student goes “critical,” where they know more than I do about it, and I really enjoy that, because then it becomes a two-way thing instead of a one-way thing. Students are highly motivated because they have to get their thesis done so they hopefully work really hard and are motivated to solve a problem. So I spend a lot of time with them, and it can be very rewarding.

Q: What made you want to go into teaching originally?
A: The reason I wanted to come to the University of Illinois is to get access to students to continue to do research, and 50% of the job is teaching, and I always had enjoyed giving lectures and talks and presentations. It is a nice part of the job. In my case I really do enjoy it.

Q: What role do students play in your research?
A: They have to provide the detailed continuity. I have 5, 10, sometimes 15 students and it’s pretty hard to keep track of all of the details of their experiment on a week-to-week basis. Hopefully, they are more on top of the details than I am, and they need to be. I usually try to give them some kind of an assignment that pushes them, extends their horizon for the next week. They are the continuity, the glue, of the work force, and a professor can have many things going on – far more than are humanly possible by one person – if they have the students to do it. U of I students are very smart kids.

Q: Are there any awards that you are particularly proud of?
A: I think getting Fellow awards. I’m a Fellow of the Acoustical Society and the IEEE. I made a contribution of something and then that was rewarded by making me Fellow. It happened pretty early in my career and that was very satisfying. I also got a Millennium Award, which is an IEEE award that they handed out in 2000 to a bunch of people who had made long-term contributions. But I think the Fellow awards are the most important.

Q: What are you focused on today and where is it going in the future?
A: We are trying to understand how normal-hearing people decode speech. Why do you hear “ta” when I say “ta” and how can I make you hear “da” when I say “ta” by manipulating the wave form? How can I control what you hear? What is your brain decoding precisely in the wave form? We think we’ve largely solved that problem. The next step is to ask the same question about hearing-impaired people. They have trouble hearing speech in noisy environments. It’s been said that people who lose their hearing start losing their enjoyment of life. Not being able to communicate is a large factor in that. So if we could figure out exactly what is going on with the hearing impaired ear and provide some relief, extend the ability to communicate accurately, that would be a monstrously important contribution, and that is where I’m headed.

Q: Do you have any hobbies you like to do outside of research?
A: I used to, but I’m too busy. I like to ride my bike, but I haven’t been doing as much of it lately. I have an 18 year old daughter, so we travel. We went to Barbados not too long ago and that’s fun. I like to go to Europe and travel around the world with my wife.