Fourth-year audiology doctoral student Annika Zimmerman ’21 is on a path unlike most of her classmates as she finishes the doctor of audiology program with the U.S. Army Audiology Externship Program (AEP).

Working in the AEP is Zimmerman’s final step to completing her AuD degree in the Department of Communication Disorders, meeting the program’s requirement to complete a year-ong clinical training program in order to graduate and become a licensed audiologist. 

The AEP provides a 1-year clinical audiology externship to students who have completed all academic coursework for their clinical doctorate in audiology and are eligible for the one-year program. After completing a four-week-long training course this past summer at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Zimmerman is now in the midst of a clinical rotation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. After her time at Walter Reed she will incur a 36-month active duty obligation, serving as an audiologist in the U.S. Army.

Pursuing this unique opportunity was a dream come true for Zimmerman, who completed a summer clinical rotation at the VA Medical Center in Leeds, Ma. “I absolutely loved working with the veteran population there,” says Zimmerman. “One quality in particular that I noticed among the veterans was their strong sense of camaraderie. The sense of support and teamwork that goes along with military service inspired my desire to serve. Both of my grandfathers served in the military, one in the Army and the other in the Navy, so my whole family has been very supportive.”

Growing up in Greenfield, Ma., Zimmerman felt that UMass Amherst was a natural fit for her. Prior to enrolling in the AuD program, she earned her bachelor’s degree in communication disorders at UMass in 2017. 

“A friend recommended that I take a class in audiology. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to continue on and pursue the clinical doctorate in audiology,” she says. “I’m really grateful for the opportunity I’ve had as a graduate teaching assistant to learn about teaching and education from several of the faculty in the Department of Communication Disorders to help prepare me for this aspect of my career.”

Zimmerman was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in January 2020 shortly before the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. When she arrived at the program she was anticipating a fully hands-on training experience, but as COVID-19 spread across the country most of her training turned virtual.

“New procedures were put in place so that service members are able to safely continue training,” she notes. “Some of these procedures include taking part in a quarantine inside the barracks while conducting classes online to mitigate the potential spread of COVID19 as well as rearranging the structure of the course to complete necessary in-person aspects after the quarantine period.”

Despite the pandemic, Zimmerman is confident she made the right choice in where to pursue her clinical training. “Our instructors are non-commissioned officers (NCOs) with years of military experience. Since the beginning of training they have worked to restructure the course as needed to overcome the challenges that COVID-19 has on training. They’ve served as a great example of what it means to be resilient and a leader, which has given me a new perspective on how I hope to serve in the future.”

At Walter Reed, Zimmerman is completing monthly rotations and learning about different subspecialties of audiology, such as cochlear implants, auditory processing disorders, vestibular assessment and rehabilitation, and hearing conservation, as well as providing hearing evaluations and hearing aid services. She will also complete a rotation with audiologists at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence on base, which provides aid to service members with traumatic brain injuries or psychological health conditions. 

"My favorite experience so far has been participating in the basic school (TBS) in-processing days at Marine Base Quantico," says Zimmerman. "On in-processing days about 200 to 300 Marines receive hearing evaluations, hearing protective device fittings, and hearing conservation training. There is a team of audiologists and hearing technicians that all work together to enroll the new Marine officers into the hearing conservation program. In-processing days start early and are very fast-paced and busy. They are also really rewarding because so many Marines are enrolled in the program in one day and issued hearing protection, so they learn how to protect their hearing from the very beginning of their military careers." 

Zimmerman also participated in the Army Public Health Conference, where she learned about military audiology and preventative medicine with active duty and civilian audiologists, as well as a Department of Defense (DOD) hearing technician training. There, she helped to teach a lecture on the anatomy of the hearing and balance systems to active duty service members and civilians going through training to be certified hearing technicians for the DOD. 

As an active member of the military, Zimmerman plans to study hearing conservation and tinnitus management, two of the most prevalent service-related disabilities. “Audiology plays an important role in the military, reducing the incidence of noise-induced hearing impairments.” 

Zimmerman is part of the latest generation of audiology professionals in the military. “The profession of audiology actually began out of military necessity following WWII. The first aural rehabilitation programs were established at military hospitals in response to the variety of auditory impairments suffered by service members. Walter Reed was the first hospital to have an aural rehabilitation program, so as a student, it is really exciting for me to complete my clinical training there.” 

After completing the externship and graduating from the AuD program in 2021, Zimmerman will attend the Basic Officer Leadership Course at Fort Sam Houston in Texas before being sent to her first duty station serving as both an officer and audiologist.

“My education has not only increased my understanding of the importance of hearing conservation in the military, but also my motivation to serve,” says Zimmerman. “I am so happy to be able to grow my knowledge and skills through the Army AEP, to be able to help provide care and support to service members and their families.”