American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Jennell C. Vick

PhD Student and Research Assistant, Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences

University of Washington

Certificate of Clinical Competence, Speech-Language Pathology

Jennel Vick 1996    MA, Case Western Reserve University
            Communication Sciences

1994    BS, Ohio University
            Hearing and Speech Sciences; Honors Tutorial College


I chose an academic/research career because:
I want to find answers to my questions about how to best serve our clinical populations. It never ceases to amaze me how one question can fuel an entire career of experiments.

What do you do in your career as a teacher, scholar, and/or researcher?
I am currently studying at the University of Washington, a research-intensive university. I work among 30 fellow doctoral students. In addition to my course work, I work as a research assistant in the Developmental Speech Physiology Laboratory, headed by Christopher Moore. My project is part of a multicenter investigation aimed at understanding the factors that differentiate preschool children with speech delay of unknown origin from their typically developing peers. Close to 300 children have participated; the protocol includes measures of speech and language production. Our contribution is analysis of the physiological and kinematic features of the children's speech production.

My role in the project is to ensure that algorithms are created to generate any number of the 1,100 variables that we will contribute to the overall computational model that will, hopefully, enable us to understand the factors that differentiate children with speech delay from their typical peers. These algorithms extract features of the movement of the children's external articulators, respiratory system, and nasal and phonatory systems. A large part of my training in the past 2 years has been learning to write code in MATLAB for this purpose. Each recording is approximately 20 minutes in length and includes both data from a multichannel recorder for the physiological signals and a VHS tape that records the movement of the external articulators, using an infrared light source and small reflective stickers placed on the lips, jaw, forehead, and nose of the children. The process of digitizing the tapes and synchronizing the movement data with the physiological data for each of the 20-minute recordings requires about 40 hours of time. Thus, another aspect of my work is the management of a number of hourly workers (both undergraduate and master's students) who are critical to the completion of this project!

How did you get to the position you have today?
Prior to beginning my PhD studies, I was a Research Scientist in the Speech Communication Group in the Research Laboratory of Electronics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In that capacity, I worked on a project that investigated the role of hearing in speech production, particularly in postlingually deafened adults who received cochlear implants. My responsibilities included research design, recruiting and recording participants, data preparation, and analyses. I also wrote and contributed to publications and public presentation of results. I took this position just after completing my master's degree in communication sciences, thinking that it would be good preparation for doctoral study. Little did I know that my time there would exceed 8 years! In my first 2 years at MIT, I completed my clinical fellowship in the evenings, working for a rehab company that provided contractual services to skilled nursing facilities. I specifically provided services in the areas of dysphagia, language, speech, and cognitive-linguistic evaluation and treatment. Providing speech services in the evenings in these settings was unique because the evening nursing staff had little experience with the rehab department.

When the time came for me to begin my doctoral studies, I sought a new lab that pursued similar research questions to those I was working on at MIT, but with different techniques and a different population. While the questions we studied at MIT sought to understand the processes involved in typical and disordered adult speech production, my lab at UW investigates the processes involved in typical and disordered child speech production. I am finding that the similarities of these research experiences exceed the differences!

What were the key factors in your academic/research career decision(s)?
My undergraduate degree experience was very unique and led to my decision to pursue a career in academics. I was enrolled in the Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University, as a student in the Hearing and Speech Sciences department. In this program, most of my education took place one-on-one with professors in "tutorials," where my learning on a given topic was guided by my own curiosity and research. My tutorial on craniofacial disorders, for instance, culminated in a research paper on the potential association between the atomic explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the increased prevalence of cleft lip and palate among infants in Japan. To develop my hypotheses for this paper, I worked with both a medical radiologist and a geneticist on campus. I took part in a number of doctoral seminars as part of the tutorial program and worked most closely with my advisor, Richard Dean, on a research project that resulted in my undergraduate thesis project. This is the first key factor in my academic/research career decision as I hoped to mentor students with the same excellence that the faculty in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at Ohio University used to mentor me.

I also gained valuable research experience in my position as a research assistant in Danielle Ripich's Alzheimer's Disease Language Research Laboratory in the Department of Communication Sciences at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU). The project investigated the effect of communication training for caregivers of people with dementia on the types of dialogues observed between the caregivers and the patients, as well as on the quality of life of the caregivers. I was so impressed by the fact that research could directly impact the clients that we serve as SLPs, and that there is the potential for work as a researcher to actually impact an entire clinical population. As a clinician, I could help one person at a time, which is a noble pursuit. As a researcher, I realized, I could potentially help a large number of clinicians who each are helping many patients. The impact of my work could be more far-reaching. This ideal is what led me to my career as a researcher.

What do you like most about your career?
The best thing about my career is the variety! Just in the cycle of a grant, for instance, there is the intense work that leads to the preparation of a good grant proposal, the revisions (because these days, it is so rare to get funded on the first go-round!), the development of facilities to prepare for the experiments, the recruiting and maintenance of research participants, the experiments, the years of data extraction and then analyses, the preparation of manuscripts and presentations to report your results, and then more intense work for the next grant proposal! Each year in a 5-year funding cycle is so dramatically different than the next. Each has its share of challenges, but it is certainly NEVER boring!

What do you like least about your career?
I think the uncertainty of funding is my least favorite part of life in research. Regardless of whether the funding agency to which you're applying is experiencing lean or generous times, there is always the potential that your idea just isn't fundable. Even if your job is secure, there are always students and employees who rely on your ability to obtain funding. This can be scary.

Who are your heroes/heroines?
Christopher Moore, my doctoral advisor at the University of Washington. He has been an extraordinary mentor. Joseph Perkell, my boss at MIT and the principal investigator of the project on which I worked. His research ideals are high. He was a mentor by example for all of the years that I worked with him and a great advisor as I made my transition to doctoral studies at UW. He is also a wonderful friend. Bernard Henri, Executive Director of the Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center. I don't know of anyone who has encouraged me to get my PhD more than Bernard. I always admired his tireless effort to make the Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center such an extraordinary organization that not only provides exemplary service to the community and clinical populations it serves, but also to the CWRU graduate students who become clinicians under the supervision of the clinical staff. It is a remarkable place. Erin Vick, my sister. The only person I know that truly is a "superstar!" I could elaborate for pages, but suffice it to say that she is a remarkable woman whom I admire with all my heart.

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?
My best advice for an undergraduate or master's student who is interested in an academic/research career is to TALK to the people who are living these careers. Find out why they are there and what they like about their careers. It can be scary-these folks are probably your professors and you might even be a little intimidated. Believe me, though, they would be happy to take some time to talk with you and answer your questions. If you have a chance to attend a professional meeting, it can be a good opportunity to talk to people in these types of careers. ASHA and the ASHFoundation have grants to provide research opportunities to students. Apply! Immersion is the best way to find out if a career suits you.

What was the best thing about your PhD program?
The best thing about my PhD program is the large number of doctoral students. Our interests are wide and varied, yet we are able to support each other noncompetitively. We all present our work in the form of an hour-long seminar annually in our doctoral research forum. This allows us an opportunity to not only polish our work for presentation but to get to know each other's areas of interests. I have a built-in group of colleagues with diverse areas of expertise on whom I can call in the event I need advice on their topic. I also have the opportunity to see three or four people actually finish their PhD every year-there is always someone to talk to about the next step in my program.

If you did your PhD program or your early career years all over again, what would you do differently?
Not one thing!

How do you find balance between your professional activities and your personal life? What do you do to relax?
My entire life is about balance. I am a speech researcher and doctoral student, sure. But I am also an artist and a friend and a family member who loves my life OUTSIDE of the lab. It takes more discipline to leave the lab sometimes than it does to keep working. So far, though, I've found that the work is still there waiting for me in the morning.

I do hope to have a family someday, and I know that the challenge of keeping my life balanced will grow exponentially at that time. I think that our field is pretty progressive in understanding the challenge of balancing work with family life, though, and it will be possible.

What will you be doing 5 years from now? 10 years from now?
I expect that in 5 years I will be a young faculty member at a large research university, after having completed my PhD at the UW and possibly a postdoc. I hope to have my own funding and a successful new research lab starting up, with strong collaborations. In 10 years, I hope to have earned tenure and to have graduated at least one doctoral student. I hope to have mentored countless undergraduate and master's students and to have generated research results that benefit the field of speech-language pathology and the populations we serve. I can't wait!

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