American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Susan Thibeault

Assistant Professor, Division of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Department of Surgery

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Certificate of Clinical Competence, Speech-Language Pathology

Susan Thibeault 2001    PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison
            Communication Disorders

1992    MS, State University of New York, Buffalo
            Speech-Language Pathology

1989    BS, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada

I chose an academic/research career because:
It offers a challenging environment that gives me the opportunity to make novel discoveries in the basic science realm and be able to translate these discoveries to the clinical setting. Additionally, my career allows me to collaborate with both researchers and clinicians who are at the cutting edge of their fields.

What do you do in your career as a teacher, scholar, and/or researcher?
I am a researcher at a large university. I work in a Division of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, and I am an adjunct in CSD. Ninety percent of my job involves research activities, and 10% is teaching. I teach medical students, residents, and graduate students in CSD. My research is focused on the molecular characterization of the vocal fold lamina propria and its impact on the biomechanics of the vocal fold in normal development and disease. This involves studying normal and abnormal voice processes with genetic and cellular techniques. I am particularly interested in the genetic characterization of altered viscoelasticity of the vocal folds (i.e., scarring), with focus on tissue engineering as a mechanism for future rehabilitation.

How did you get to the position you have today?
I completed an undergraduate degree in biology and then a master's degree in CSD. I always liked research, but I wanted some clinical experience. I worked in the acute-care adult setting working with dysphagia and voice disorders for 4 years before going back to school to get my PhD.

Once in my PhD, I was guided to my area of specialization through good mentorship. I had a background in biology, and it seemed like a good fit. Through my PhD, I worked with the few people who were studying this area and went to The University of Utah as an Assistant Professor to work in one of the few laboratories in the country that studied vocal fold biology.

At the University of Utah, I continued to study and take classes. One is constantly learning. I have just recently left Utah and am now at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

What were the key factors in your academic/research career decision(s)?
I think it is important to know what you want and know what you want to learn. It is easy to be distracted by everything around you and wanting to "learn it all." It's not possible, so you need to focus. Once I knew what I wanted, I found the best places to do this and the best scientists with whom to do this. I also felt that it was important to learn other specialties (i.e., genetics, molecular biology) and to bring this into CSD. The way CSD is going to grow is for us to learn other areas well and apply these to CSD. This will make you different from others and your research more exciting.

What do you like most about your career?
My colleagues. The variety and the flexibility to study what I find most interesting. There are never-ending questions that need to be answered. It is always fun to look at a new data set and figure out what is going on for the first time.

What do you like least about your career?
Once you get a grant and start to employ people, you always have to be thinking about the next grant because you want those people you employ to stay with you.

Who are your heroes/heroines?
I have been lucky to have had amazing mentors throughout my training. They all have been exceptional people who have extraordinary character, who have been generous with their time and support, and who have challenged me in my endeavors. 

What advice would you give to an undergraduate or master's student who expressed an interest in an academic/research career in communication sciences and disorders?
Go for it, it is a great career. Surround yourself with good, ethical, smart, hardworking people who you really like.

What was the best thing about your PhD program?
The variety and number of doctoral students in the program was good. You learn so much from fellow students. These students also become your network as you finish and move out across the country.

If you did your PhD program or your early career years all over again, what would you do differently?

How do you find balance between your professional activities and your personal life? What do you do to relax?
Balance is tough. I prioritize what is ultimately the most important and don't waiver from that. Then I prioritize the smaller details. I establish deadlines and think that organization is crucial. I am also flexible and expect flexibility from others, particularly when it comes to my family's needs. I also realize that sometimes it just all can't be done and lower my expectations in regard to productivity. I also recognize that certain things will have varying degrees of focus at varying times. Lastly, I think it is important to have a good support network, particularly when you have children, so when you need extra help, you have it.

I think it is important to have as normal a home life as possible. Once home, with two small children, I rarely work. I relax by being with and enjoying them.

What will you be doing 5 years from now? 10 years from now?
I hope more of the same. I would like to develop a laboratory that has opportunities to train undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students.


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