Faculty in Baylor's Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders Help People Process Their World

April 19, 2020

The tools that enable Baylor faculty to conduct groundbreaking, life-changing research come in all shapes and sizes. From room-sized, multi-ton sound booths that measure hearing to table-top instruments that measure minute changes in speech, the faculty in Baylor’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) clinics are using their tools to help people better process the world around them and are preparing the next generation of scientists and clinicians who will care for their patients.

In the hands of Baylor professors, these tools create knowledge and advance Baylor’s mission to build worldwide leaders through research marked by quality, impact and visibility — a reality made possible, in many cases, by gifts from the Baylor Family.

Transformative Research

Throughout the halls of Baylor’s Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic, new laboratories hold the promise of discovery and insight into the mechanisms that lead to healthier speech, better hearing and more. They’re places where professors like Brittany Perrine, Ph.D., and Yang-Soo Yoon, Ph.D., both of whom serve as assistant professors of communication sciences and disorders after joining the Baylor faculty in 2018, live out the promise of a department transformed by generosity.

Four years have passed since an anonymous $10 million gift provided CSD with funding that elevated the program to even greater heights. At the time of the gift, the magnitude of the donation and plans for a new home for the department in Baylor’s Cashion Academic Center garnered most of the attention. But within those dollars were smaller seeds now blooming in ways that elevate the entire University. CSD has since doubled the size of its faculty and vastly expanded its research and clinical resources.

Perrine and Yoon were both drawn to Baylor as a place where they could integrate meaningful research and teaching. The gift played an important role in bringing them here because it enabled them to build their own labs and engage in meaningful collaboration across campus and in the community.

“My research focus is any type of dysphonia — changes in the sound of the voice,” Perrine says. “I’m interested in how we keep the voice healthy and how people do things or do not do things that lead to voice problems.”

For individuals who need their voice to do their jobs — professionals like preachers, teachers, lawyers, broadcasters and cheerleaders — the work done in Perrine’s Vocal Health and Voice Physiology Lab provides a better understanding of healthy voice utilization. Partnerships with the Baylor School of Music, Baylor Spirit Squads and local doctors have yielded research in areas such as vocal aerodynamics, acoustics and the effects of high-impact or stressful vocal tasks.

“We work with them on different aspects of vocal health,” Perrine says. “People can develop tissue problems or muscle tension problems when they’re using their system incorrectly. We do studies of aerodynamic or acoustic measures and work with our students to see how this research translates into evidence-based practices to help them make decisions with clients that lead to better vocal health.”

Highly sensitive tools such as a 7,800-pound sound booth, transducers to measure air pressure and air flow, or an electroglottograph (a device that utilizes electrodes placed on the neck to measure space and air in the vocal folds) enable Perrine, her students and the subjects with whom they work to benefit from detailed information on how specific uses of the voice impact vocal health.

In the Laboratory of Translational Auditory Research, Yang-Soo Yoon also utilizes a sound booth, computers and other audio tools designed to help patients communicate, but from a different angle.

“As a researcher, my aims are to develop efficient procedures for subjects who use two hearing devices or suffer binaural hearing loss, as well as more effective interventions for people with hearing loss,” Yoon says.

“Binaural hearing is so critical. That’s why we have two ears. It impacts speech perception, particularly speech perception in noise. At clinics, devices in the ears are fitted individually, even when a patient has two devices. I need to develop standardized procedures to fit two devices at the same time to optimize them in the way that works best for the patient.”

Yoon collaborates with colleagues in Baylor Engineering and Biology, and with Baylor Scott & White Health to gather and share findings. Alongside his Baylor student researchers, he works with individuals to measure their ability to hear and differentiate between tiny differences in sound. From that foundation, they test an individual’s sound localization abilities, as well as speech perception, music perception and more. The data he gleans informs further research into creating more lifelike devices to restore the gift of binaural hearing. Like Perrine, the equipment he utilizes — an audiometer, high-quality headphones, devices that measure cell functions inside the cochlea, a sound booth and more — requires significant funds to purchase and operate.

A Lasting Impact

“Research is at the heart of Communication Sciences and Disorders,” Diane Loeb, Ph.D., Professor and Martin Family Endowed Chair of the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department, says. “Our assessments, interventions and understanding of the nature of disorders does not advance without research. Further, research is part of and informs our teaching mission as students learn through clinic and course work to provide the highest level of evidence-based practice.”

As Yoon seeks solutions for binaural hearing loss, he draws additional meaning from advancing the aspirations of Illuminate.

“I always wanted to work for a Christian university, but many do not have a strong research tradition,” he says. “Non-Christian colleagues from other universities would ask, ‘what do Christian universities contribute to advancing knowledge of this nation or this world, moving us forward?’ At Baylor, we can demonstrate this. Not only do we embody our Christian calling, but our strong research output contributes to higher education and makes this world better. Baylor provides a Christian community for students and faculty that addresses many great challenges.”

Perrine, a first-generation college student whose experience as an undergraduate researcher changed her direction in life, relishes the moments when research and teaching come together to create the ‘aha’ moment for her students.

“It’s that moment when they connect what they’re doing in the lab with their coursework,” Perrine says. “When I started doing research as a sophomore, I fell in love with answering questions and seeing the process through different lenses. That’s what I want to do, to answer the hard questions, and provide students with the opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t been exposed to research that early.”

CSD’s transformative gift in 2015, and individual gifts of all sizes that focus on expanding research, do more than fund projects and studies. They help the University attract faculty like Perrine and Yoon, whose calling as Christian teachers and researchers finds a natural home at Baylor. And their work goes further still.

“I firmly believe the investments made in state-of-the-art research, in recruiting top research faculty, in the highest levels of technology and equipment, will result in scientific breakthroughs,” Loeb says. “Our increased focus on research will improve the quality of life for people who struggle with communication disorders.”