Communication Sciences and Disorders Pre-Grad Intern Lauren Ayres

Lauren AyresIt feels a bit odd to be reflecting on my experience as a research intern in the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program right now because I am still actively involved in the day-to-day demands of research. Setting up a research experiment took the bulk of the semester. Only last week did we begin running pilots. This week, we hope to begin running subjects. Data analysis is weeks away, and much of our work will extend well into the summer. So I pause to reflect while still in mid-stream.

I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to participate as an intern in Dr. Bharath Chandrasekaran's lab through the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program. The experience has been invaluable for more reasons than I will have time to elaborate. Therefore, I will only address five ways in which the program has been of benefit to me. First, it enhanced my candidate profile for graduate school and helped prepare me for the rigorous round of doctoral interviews I recently completed. Second, it has helped me gain a more realistic understanding of the research process. Third, it has helped me gain important technical and organizational skills. Fourth, it has exposed me to cutting-edge research and helped me hone my ability to review research. Fifth, it has helped me build relationships that are of personal and professional value. In sum, it has been a rewarding experience.

In 2002, I graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in theatre. Following graduation, I worked largely in the arts and in education. This past August, I enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin as a non-degree seeking student in Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD). Since I had no academic background in the field, it was necessary for me to do a year's worth of foundational coursework before beginning graduate study.

The Master's degree in CSD prepares the student for clinical work as a speech-language pathologist. The Ph.D. on the other hand, prepares the doctoral candidate for a career in teaching and research. Given that my interest is in translational or clinically-relevant research, I felt that it was important to have the clinical Master's degree in addition to the Ph.D. Few schools allow students to combine the Master's with the PhD. Most advise students that wish to obtain both degrees to do so in sequence. However, there is good financial and intellectual incentive for pursuing the Master's and the Ph.D. concurrently. I identified programs that permitted concurrent study, selected those programs that were of interest, and made application.

On all applications, I indicated that I would be undertaking research with Dr. Chandrasekaran this spring. As the Ph.D. is a research degree, admissions committees prefer candidates with research experience. I am confident that by stating I would be participating in the IE intern program and working with Dr. Chandrasekaran, my application got an essential boost.

This spring I had doctoral interviews with the University of Texas at Dallas, San Diego State University / University of California - San Diego, University of Wisconsin - Madison, and Northwestern University. In all interviews, I was asked about my research experience. I was pleased to relate both the depth and the variety of my involvements in Dr. Chandrasekaran's lab.

Ultimately, I received admissions offers from all thirteen schools to which I had applied for either the Master's or the Master's / Ph.D. program. I received strong funding offers from more than half of those schools. I believe the research experience gained as a result of my participation in the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program is largely to credit for my successful applications.

All of my research efforts in Dr. Chandrasekaran's lab have been in support of a study conducted in partnership with Dr. Rajka Smiljanic, a professor in the Linguistics department. This study focuses on speech intelligibility and consists of two parts: 1.) a behavioral study and 2.) a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study. Specifically, the study compares clear speech, which can be defined as listener-oriented speech produced by a speaker to facilitate understanding, with conversational speech. In the behavioral portion of the study, we are primarily seeking to determine whether either of the speaking styles confer a distinct memory recall advantage to the listener. In the fMRI portion of the study, we are interested in comparing the neural activation patterns of listeners exposed to clear speech with those of listeners who are exposed to conversational speech.

We opted to use all semantically anomalous sentences in the experiment. We wanted to eliminate the potential that semantics might interfere with memory recall. The wrong shot led the farm is one of the semantically anomalous sentences we used. I provide it as an example. All sentences used were six syllables in length.

A great deal of work went into preparing the recordings of the semantically anomalous sentences. We made recordings with native and non-native speakers. In process, we encountered problems with scheduling and equipment, and as a result, I learned a lot about the importance of problem solving, determination, and flexibility.

The following is an example of one problem we encountered and subsequently resolved. After making several recordings using native and non-native speakers, I had Dr. Smiljanic look at the recordings in PRAAT, a free program for acoustic analysis. Dr. Smiljanic detected the presence of a low-level electrical noise. The noise compromised the integrity of the recordings.

We unplugged all unnecessary wires in the recording booth, switched the recorder from electrical power to battery power, and checked the microphones. Still, the low-level electrical noise continued to be present in new recordings. Finally, we decided to use a uniform post-edit on all the sound files to remove the noise. Fortunately, the post-edit worked, and we were able to use the recordings we had made. Meanwhile, new recording equipment is on order.

In addition to having learned how to make recordings in the sound booth, segment sentences in PRAAT, and filter unwanted noise from recordings, I have also learned how to set up an experiment in a program called e-prime. I have also received two fMRI trainings at the Imaging Research Center and will be assisting with the fMRI portion of the study in May. I have created data sheets in Excel and presentations in Powerpoint. As a result of this internship, my technical skills have improved considerably. Also, I have gained a clearer understanding of what skills are most essential. I realize that my knowledge of Excel is grossly insufficient. I hope to remedy this before I matriculate in graduate school.

In lab meetings, we took turns presenting research articles to the group. This helped deepen my understanding of the work in which I was involved, and it also helped me gain familiarity with the research that my group members were undertaking. I had the opportunity to give presentations on clear speech and on speech processing.

Over the course of the semester, I developed friendships and built professional relationships with my lab members and mentors. Though I will be living far from Austin next year, I anticipate keeping contact with several of my lab members. Moreover, I have developed important professional relationships. I am glad that I participated in the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program. I learned a lot, and I am confident that my experience in the program will continue to benefit me far into the future.