Deaf since birth, Caroline Yuk of Crystal Lake can't remember a time when she couldn't hear.

"I was implanted when I was 2 years old," says Yuk, referring to her cochlear implants, devices surgically placed under the skin behind her ears to bypass the normal acoustic hearing process and use electric signals to stimulate the auditory nerves.

Now a neuroscience major at the University of Alabama, Yuk, 21, recently won a prestigious Graeme Clark scholarship from Cochlear Americas for academics and leadership.

"I'm so grateful for it," Yuk says. "Not only have they given me financial support, I feel my efforts have been validated."

Yuk's original cochlear implant required her to cart around her transmitter in a fanny pack or a pouch slung over one shoulder with wires leading to her head. Subsequent smaller devices attached behind her ear, but they were still visible.

"Kids did ask a lot of questions and stare," remembers Yuk, who didn't shy away, "I decided to be more confident and proud of them. I applied stickers and little gemstones. In that way, it became more of a fashion statement."

Her original implant is on the right side of her head. She received an implant on her left side as a teenager. The transmitters now are small wafers that sit on her scalp behind her ears, attached by magnets to the device under the skin.

Caroline Yuk

"They are like tiny Thin Mints the same color as my hair," Yuk says. "People never guess I'm deaf. I think that's so funny."

With her implants hidden, Yuk gives no hint to her hearing loss through her speech. She gives credit for that to her parents, and years of working with Lynn A. Wood, a rehab audiologist and auditory verbal therapist from Wheaton.

"Once Caroline's profound hearing loss was diagnosed, her parents were committed to doing whatever it took for her to learn to listen and talk," Wood says.

Yuk's father, Antonio Yuk, is a neurosurgeon, and her mother, Mary Beth Yuk, had a career as a nurse.

Wood coached the girl and her parents so their practice at home led to natural-sounding speech. Yuk says she also benefited from years with audiologist Hilary Gazeley of the Medical College of Wisconsin.

As a young kid playing soccer, Yuk wore a headband to cover her device and was known as "headband girl." She played tennis with her fraternal twin sister, Cate, at Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock. She always communicated to her peers by talking.

"I'm actually taking a sign-language class next semester," Yuk says.

Her passion for studying hearing loss was fueled at an early age when she'd examine her transmitter.

"I used to take it apart and try to put it back together," she says. "I was really interested in turning off my hearing."

When she first got the cochlear implants that allowed her to hear, Caroline Yuk of Crystal Lake had to carry a bag with her transmitter that sent signals through a wire to her head. Now, her transmitters are tiny and blend in with her hair. Courtesy of Yuk family

At times, she'd use that to her advantage during squabbles with her twin, who had normal hearing.

"I had this superpower," she says.

"Every time we got in a fight, I'd turn them off."

Fascinated by the science of hearing, Yuk still wasn't sure that she wanted to turn that into a career.

"At first I wasn't interested because, in some weird way, it would be making your disability define you," Yuk admits. "But I really like neuroscience."

As a freshman at Alabama, Yuk became involved in the Hear Here Alabama project, collecting data in rural counties from adults who had hearing loss. She recently got funding to start her own project focusing on preventing hearing loss in fifth-graders.

"She is a very passionate student who truly desires to improve the lives of others," says professor Marcia Hay-McCutcheon, who helps direct the Hear Here Alabama project and says Yuk ranks in the "top 1-2%" of students she's taught.

As a freshman at the University of Alabama, Caroline Yuk, right, became involved with the Hear Here Alabama project to improve care in rural areas. She recently got funding to run another program to prevent hearing loss in fifth-graders. Courtesy of Caroline Yuk

"Her interest and desire to learn more about the association between hearing loss and other physical ailments, and about many other research initiatives, is admirable ... I have no doubt she will become a successful researcher who will carefully and expertly explore topics worthy of study."

Yuk says she sees the value of getting a Ph.D. and doing research, or getting an M.D. and treating patients, or both.

"I'd like to have patients because I think I'd be really awesome," she says, noting that her deafness gives her an insight into patients with hearing loss.

"I think it has made me more ambitious. It's made me strong and have a greater appreciation for what makes other people different."

Wood sees Yuk inspiring others.

"Caroline's passion lies in her own experiences," Wood says. "She wants other children who are deaf or hard of hearing to also learn to listen and talk, which powers language, literacy, and lifetime success."