Well before she became an assistant professor at the University of Utah, Sarah Hargus Ferguson wanted to improve communication for older adults with hearing loss. That's what stimulated her interest in audiology in the first place. Then she became interested in involving everyday communication partners in her work. And that's how her research in the area of clear speech began.
"I think it's really important for us to offer strategies other than hearing aids to people with hearing loss," says Ferguson, especially since many people balk at wearing them. One important strategy is speaking slowly and clearly. When communication partners are asked to do so, however, Ferguson has found that not all of them know how. She is taking advantage of this variability among speakers to develop a profile of what exactly makes speech clear.
"I can foresee working with couples and assessing how they communicate," she says. "Are they good at it? Would they benefit from training?"
Ferguson's 1998 Student Research Grant in Audiology from the American Speech-Language Hearing Foundation turned out to be the funding groundwork for her continuing research. That initial grant led to internal funding while she was an assistant professor at the University of Kansas. "Between the ASHFoundation support and internal funding," she says, "I could gather enough preliminary data to apply for an NIH R03 grant. It was successful, and was my first government funding for my clear speech research. I'm still building that program. Maybe in two years, I'll be ready to apply for an R01 grant or another award of that magnitude."
But it was that ASHFoundation grant that opened the doors, and not just the doors to federal funding, but to acceptance within the communication sciences and disorders community and to the freedom to develop ideas and to imagine solutions.
"The ASHFoundation awards give scientists a chance to try something that may be risky or new and to develop preliminary data that will be important for future funding," Ferguson says. "We ourselves have to believe in what we do and, especially in our evidence- and scientifically based field, we have to believe in the necessity of forming a scientific foundation for our work and we've got to fund that. The ASHFoundation does it. It's the place for new investigators or seasoned investigators with new ideas."