By Patricio Martinez
A second year at St John’s College has been awarded £6,000 as part of a grant scheme used to support users of auditory implants.
Helen Willis lost her hearing capacity when she was less than two years old after contracting meningitis and was expected never to speak again.
Nonetheless, her life was transformed 18 years ago when she was fitted a cochlear implant, allowing her to excel through school and university.
Earlier reports said the £6,000 grant was for a doctorate, but Willis confirmed it was for her undergraduate studies.
Willis said: “The cochlear implant has completely transformed my life. From being in total silence, and having no voice of my own, I can now hear, and through what I could hear, I was able to understand others and learn how to speak.”
A cochlear implant replaces the tiny hair cells found at a pea-sized bone called the cochlea.
These cells convert sound waves into electrical signals that are then sent to the brain to enable hearing. Willis lost all these hair cells when she contracted meningitis.
However, the amount of sound transmitted is limited because the implant cannot fit more than 24 electrodes into the cochlea.
Willis explained that this forced her to spend years in speech therapy and rehabilitation to learn how to maximise the potential of her implant.
Now, the physiology and psychology student aspires to increase public recognition of her condition and help others succeed as she has.
To do so, Willis intends to pursue a DPhil in Auditory Neuroscience.
Willis said: “I hope to use my personal experience with the cochlear implant to inform understanding of the physiology of the brain plasticity that is involved in the rehabilitation after the cochlear implant operation.
“There is no fixed formula at the moment to guarantee success with a cochlear implant, and I would love to be able to establish the neural mechanisms and psychological processes involved so that we know how to help.”
Willis, who is also a college student ambassador and a member of the University Widening Access Campaign, said the University has been “absolutely wonderful” in supporting her.
She said: “They have been maintaining equal access, enabling sufficient support so that I am at the same level as my peers, but at the same time, the support does not give me an unfair advantage over my hearing peers.
“I really respect the fact that they really try to address this balance,” (she added.)
Willis is currently filming a documentary with her college’s TV station about her experiences as a deaf student at the University of Oxford.