People of I-LABS: Denise Padden

I-LABSPeople of I-LABS

Vibrant, super-smart and caring: these are just a few of the qualities that describe the dozens of interdisciplinary researchers at I-LABS. Their innovative ideas and technological savviness help drive the Institute’s reputation as a world leader in child development and brain science.

And their kindness, professionalism and sense of humor greet all of the hundreds of families that volunteer each year for studies at I-LABS.

In the “People of I-LABS” series, we get to know the research scientists, post-doctoral fellows and other researchers who make up the elite team at I-LABS.

Please tell us a little about yourself. Where do you come from? What are you doing at I-LABS?

I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. I graduated from high school in 1969, and was ready to leave my hometown. I attended Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio for 1 year in the physical therapy program. The academic workload was demanding, OSU was exciting and fun, and I loved being a student, but my family and I were not able to find a way to fund the rest of the program at OSU. So, I moved back home, got a job at American Telephone and Telegraph, and worked for the phone company for 4 years. For the first 2 years, I worked “production control” in their data processing center, serving as the gatekeeper between the programmers and computer operators. As I was finishing my second year in that position (1972), AT&T was interested in moving women into traditionally male jobs. The offered me a position as a communications craftsman doing installation and maintenance work on the long distance switching equipment. I got a nice raise, but was still paid less than men doing the same work. The work was interesting and I enjoyed doing it. During the middle of my second year in that position, AT&T increased my salary to be comparable to that of my male co-workers and offered me a lump sum back pay settlement if I agreed not to sue them. I used that settlement to go back to my local state commuter college, Cleveland State University.

How did you get involved in your specialty?

Physical therapy was not an option at Cleveland State, so I chose a double major in Speech & Hearing and Psychology. My main interest was clinical audiology, which was somewhat related to things I learned working in telephone communications, and also attractive because I enjoyed being a student and the clinical practice required a master’s degree. I graduated in 3 years and left Cleveland again. I started in graduate program at UW, beginning classes in the Fall of 1977 – the same time Pat joined the Speech & Hearing Sciences department as an Assistant Professor. I took 2 classes from Pat that academic year: Research Methods and Speech Perception. At the end of Spring Quarter 1978, Pat was looking for a Research Assistant. I applied for the job and she hired me. I have worked for her since as a research assistant, research coordinator, and lab manager. Pat’s work became my specialty.

What are your responsibilities here?

The scope of work has changed over the years, but the responsibilities are always the same –(1) stay “awake” and alert to what needs to be done right now, and to prepare for the near and more distant future, (2) when you see that something needs to be done, do it yourself or find someone to do it.

What are the work accomplishments of which you are most proud?

I am most proud of the lab culture in the Kuhl lab. We are a large group of smart and interesting people, each with our own agendas. Yet somehow, we are able to work together to move all of our diverse projects forward, finding win-win solutions.

What has been your favorite part of working at I-LABS?

My favorite part of working at I-LABS has been getting to know all the I-LABS people and enough about their work to glimpse a big picture – the way that even projects that seem very different and unrelated on the surface contribute to an overall understanding of the deeply mysterious human condition.

What are the major changes you’ve seen working in this lab over the years?

I’ve seen them all – really too many to list.

What is your most exciting I-LABS memory?

My most exciting memory is the beginning of what has become I-LABS: new missions, new people, new building. We all recognized that this was the beginning of a large scale transformation – dreams were becoming reality. 

How do you use I-LABS discoveries in your own life?

Discoveries from I-LABS are the basis of many interesting conversations with people from other walks of life. On a more personal level, knowing that my unique experiences alter my brain and affect my perceptions, and that the same experience-dependent mechanisms are acting in all other humans, makes a difference in my life every day. 

What’s something we might not know about you? (something fun! Secret talents? Cool travels? Adorable pets?)

I like the blues. I am not knowledgeable about the artists or the history, but I really enjoy the music. I started listening to Motown music from Detroit radio stations on my portable transistor AM radio when I was in middle school in Cleveland. My taste in music is now more eclectic, but I never lost my love of the blues.