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Audiologist to the Astronauts

He came to Minot State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in speech pathology and audiology. But speech pathology wasn’t Richard Danielson’s destiny. He knew the Army needed audiologists, and his ROTC commitment would take him places he’d never dreamed of. Looking back, MSU was only the beginning of Danielson’s adventurous path.

"My original intent as a college freshman was to major in bacteriology," Danielson said. "However, I realized I was not happy in a field with only a single lab partner - I wanted more human contact. Audiology combined my love of science, technology and service to people."

Danielson, a Valley City native, "shopped around" for graduate-level audiology programs and chose MSU because of its small, focused faculty and no-nonsense approach to practices and problem solving.

"Dr. Gordon Holloway (chief audiologist) and Gerald Knapp (assistant professor of audiology) taught us to be self-reliant in a relatively new field," Danielson said. "They knew that we might be serving as the only audiologist in a large rural area and would need a broad base of experience, so they established a strong, problem-solving curriculum."

Danielson’s class measured real-world noise levels at the Burlington Northern Railroad switching yard. The research highlighted the impact and prevalence of noise-related hearing loss - including its effects on members of his farming family and helped him realize that such hearing loss was preventable. This cemented his focus for the next 28 years during active duty.

"In the Army, I drew on that training and motivation," Danielson said. "As a young lieutenant, I found that MSU’s program gave me more hands-on experience with technology than my colleagues acquired at larger universities."

As a consultant in Germany and in the United States, Danielson visited Army posts and observed audiology programs, drawing the best practices from each. At one point, he consulted on the design of a mobile van used to travel around installations. This became important after Desert Storm.

"The soldiers needed physicals after the war ended," Danielson said. "But how would we conduct hearing tests in the desert? I led a unit with 11 of those vans and a dozen officers, and together we conducted as many as 1,200 hearing tests a day."

It was the first task force of audiologists to serve in a combat zone.

"I consider that to be my ‘career highlight’," Danielson added. "Prior to Desert Storm, audiologists were considered peripheral to the ‘real army,’ but our efforts showed that we could go into combat zones and succeed."

Since then, hearing tests in the field are common practice, keeping many soldiers on active duty.

Danielson’s doctoral noise research at the University of Texas at Dallas led him to serve on a certification board. A fellow board member introduced him to a NASA flight surgeon looking for someone familiar with hearing and acoustics. After retiring from the Army in 2003, Danielson joined Baylor College of Medicine and National Space Biomedical Research Institute as the manager of NASA’s audiology clinic and hearing loss prevention program for astronauts, pilots and other personnel at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

At the Johnson Space Center, he is part of a team investigating the effects of spaceflight on humans, measuring sleep, bone loss and risks for cataracts and hearing. Danielson’s lab monitors the auditory status of the astronaut corps with tests conducted on the International Space Station and in his clinic. Results are shared with colleagues around the country through innovative teaching materials.

Danielson is also part of a multidisciplinary team investigating increases in intracranial spinal fluid in low-gravity environments and how changes in pressure affect vision and hearing.

"North Dakotans have a work ethic ‘to keep working until the work is done’," Danielson said. "MSU provided the foundation and experience to get me on my path."