October 1, 2013 Association

ASHFoundation: ASHFoundation Grants Keep on Giving

Cara Stepp, PhD

Looking ahead: Next month, the ASHFoundation will fund its newest cohort of scholars. Looking back: One recent ASHFoundation award recipient, Cara Stepp, has already gotten a jump start on her career.

Stepp's training and research are in the area of voice and speech disorders—she holds a PhD in biomedical engineering from Harvard-MIT—but she was hoping to start a new line of research in swallowing. A 2011 ASHFoundation New Investigators Research Grant allowed her to break into this area. With the help of the grant, Stepp began working on non-swallowing muscle control in individuals with neurogenic dysphagia.

The goal of the new work, says Stepp, an assistant professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences at Boston University, was to "establish whether motor control during non-swallowing tasks in these people was also impaired. We found that it was." Stepp's continuing interest is investigating how this loss of motor function is related to swallowing motor function, and how the two might interact in rehabilitation. "We are still a long way out," she says, "but our hope is that interactive training on complex non-swallowing motor tasks could lead to improvements in the motor control of swallowing."

Stepp's work didn't stop there—and neither did the ASHFoundation's support. Stepp received a 2012 New Century Scholars Research Grant that is funding development of refined methodologies for an acoustic measure of voice production called relative fundamental frequency.

This measure, says Stepp, "seems to be an indicator of excess strain in vocal dysfunction, but my work so far has been limited by a lack of understanding of which stimuli are best to use and how best to collect the measure." She is confident that the long-term outcome of the work will be "a sensitive and specific objective measure of effort and strain in voice production, which should lead to improved assessment in the clinic."

Recognition from the ASHFoundation has been "huge," Stepp says. "It's opened so many doors and made available a remarkable amount of mentoring and collaboration and has led to other studies and funding."

Her initial award, she notes, was to study neurogenic dysphagia, but in collecting age-matched healthy controls for the study, "I found some very interesting patterns in motor control as a function of healthy aging. Although weakness has already been indentified in aging adults and noted in their swallow, we are currently studying coordinated fine motor control of hyolaryngeal musculature in swallowing and non-swallowing tasks in a large population of older adults."

Stepp's second ASHFoundation award allowed her to collect pilot data and refine methods that have resulted in NIH funding. She has been awarded an R03 grant to develop methods to automate relative fundamental frequency and to validate the measure against aeroacoustic measures.

Stepp notes that federal research aid for science is at an all-time low, and so the need for support of the ASHFoundation is more critical than ever.

"Giving to the ASHFoundation can lead to a significant return on donor investment," Stepp says. "In my case, a $10,000 grant from the ASHFoundation was critical in obtaining a $300,000 grant from the NIH. The ASHFoundation makes growth in our profession possible."

To learn more about the ASHFoundation and the work of award recipients—and to make a donation—visit the ASHFoundation website.


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