Winding Path Leads Audiologist to NASA Retired Air Force Clinician Implements Medical Policies for Space Crews In the Limelight
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In the Limelight  |   July 01, 2010
Winding Path Leads Audiologist to NASA
Author Notes
  • Kellie Rowden-Racette, online writer and editor of The ASHA Leader , can be reached at krowden-racette@asha.org.
    Kellie Rowden-Racette, online writer and editor of The ASHA Leader , can be reached at krowden-racette@asha.org.×
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Professional Issues & Training / Regulatory, Legislative & Advocacy / In the Limelight
In the Limelight   |   July 01, 2010
Winding Path Leads Audiologist to NASA
The ASHA Leader, July 2010, Vol. 15, 30. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.15082010.30
The ASHA Leader, July 2010, Vol. 15, 30. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.15082010.30

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Name: John Allen, PhD, CCC-A/SLP
Job title: Program Executive for Crew Health and Safety, National Aeronautics Space Administration, Washington, D.C.
A word of warning: it seems that some people find it kind of hard to like John Allen. This dually degreed speech-language pathologist and audiologist is in just the right vocation, in just the right position, and at just the right happiness level. And that, he said, sometimes doesn’t sit well with folks.
“I have colleagues who say to me, ‘You know, John, I don't really like talking to you because you really genuinely enjoy what you do,’” he said, mystified.
And although he doesn’t really live under some mystical charm, it’s hard not to see that he’s had some very lucky breaks. Retired from a satisfying career as an audiologist in the United States Air Force, Allen serves as program executive for crew health and safety for NASA. His main responsibility is implementing medical policies for the crews of NASA missions issued by the agency’s medical officer.
It’s a good position because he has a view of all of NASA’s operations. Plus, he said, there’s the added benefit of having a killer conversation-starter when he goes to parties: “Yeah, I work for NASA.”
“There are probably some jobs where you can say, ‘I work for the FBI,’ but you’re buried down in some office where you don’t get to see the big picture,” he said. “My job isn’t like that—I have visibility across the entire agency. I get exposed to the entire NASA operation and have an opportunity to see it all.”
So where did his journey to such a cool job begin? The answer may be part of the rub for some people: there was no plan, no flash of brilliance, no struggle—just a conversation at a football game. He was on his “umpteenth” major at the University of Maryland, studying everything from biology to theater arts (“I was a highly paid migrant worker,” he joked). One afternoon at a football game, he talked to a friend’s girlfriend who was a hearing and speech major. He was intrigued with her description of what she was studying. The next semester he took an introductory class, liked it, and kept going.
“I realized (that as a hearing and speech professional) I could pair my interest in a medical field with the ability to affect someone’s life. I liked it because I could immediately see the results of what I was doing.”
He went on to pursue a dual master’s degree in speech-language pathology and audiology at Catholic University and worked at Easter Seals for three years. But salary, advancement, and the lure of adventure were tugging at him and he responded to Air Force openings for audiologists with a three-year commitment. Three years turned into 26, and somewhere along the way this purely clinical audiologist turned into a senior military officer.
“It was one of those slow epiphanies,” he said. “But as I got more and more senior, I realized I was espousing to junior officers that what they did was important and went far beyond what they did clinically. Somewhere along the way I had changed colors.”
So today Allen goes to work happily, loves what he does, and even accepts that he’s caught some lucky breaks to get there. And, as he said (not to rub it in), “It’s not like I’m just sitting at a desk ready to retire.”
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July 2010
Volume 15, Issue 8