CSD lab mates share a new title—the first Wildcats to win ASHA New Century award

December 08, 2011
Samira Anderson (left) and Alexandra Parbery-Clark both won New Century Doctoral Scholarships from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Foundation.
Samira Anderson (left) and Alexandra Parbery-Clark both won New Century Doctoral Scholarships from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Foundation.

Samira Anderson, a graduate student in the School of Communication's Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, was a little worried about her competition this year for the prestigious New Century Scholars Doctoral Scholarship, given by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Foundation. Not only had a Northwestern student never won the scholarship, but some of her steepest competition came from one of her closest friends and lab mates, PhD candidate Alexandra Parbery-Clark.

As it turned out, there was no need for the worry. In an unprecedented move, the ASHA Foundation awarded scholarships to both Anderson and Parbery-Clark, making them the first Northwestern students to win and the first lab mates to receive the recognition in the same year.

 "It was difficult to compete with my fellow lab mate and close friend for the same award," said Anderson. "However, I also felt that we were both strong candidates, each bringing a unique perspective to the field of auditory neuroscience. Being members of Dr. Kraus' auditory neuroscience lab has offered us many opportunities to be productive."

She and Parbery-Clark were one of only 10 students to receive the $10,000 scholarships this year. But being trailblazers isn't new to either researcher. Both came to the field of auditory neuroscience late. Parbery-Clark began her career as a concert pianist who ran a music school for gifted children in France. Parbery-Clark, who began playing piano at age three, has a piano performance and pedagogy degree from the Royal Schools of Music, as well as a separate degree in music from the University of Nice in France. Her music background has fed into her research, which focuses on how musical experience affects auditory perception with age.

"On the one hand there is evidence that auditory perception, cognitive skills and neural encoding decline with age, but on the other hand, these processes are heightened in young adult musicians," she said. "My dissertation investigates whether musical experience can offset these age-related declines. Demonstrating that musical experience prevents or slows down these age-related declines would highlight musical training as an effective and engaging rehabilitative tool."

Anderson, who was a clinician and audiologist for 26 years before she became a researcher, said her research in Kraus' lab also has direct clinical applications. Her research explores how neural processing affects a person's ability to understand speech in noise.

"As a clinician, I have often been frustrated with my inability to predict who is going to benefit from hearing aid amplification, especially in noisy backgrounds," she said. "Typical hearing tests only evaluate the function of the ear's response to sound, but we hear with our brains, not just our ears."

Anderson said she hopes her research will help clinicians and patients better understand listening-in-noise difficulties and give them more treatment options.

This direct line of research to clinical application is called translational research, which has been a primary focus of the CSD department. The department was recently awarded a T32 training grant for translational research from the National Institutes of Health, Kraus said.

"My lab is rooted in translational science," said Kraus. "It has a longstanding focus on discovering neural mechanisms and treatments for impairments of human communication, including dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder, auditory processing disorders, and hearing loss."

The fact that two of her students received this award in the same year recognizes the distinctiveness and relevance of the work she and her students are doing.

"I am fortunate to have gathered dedicated, hard-working, insightful students and researchers," Kraus said. "Alexandra and Samira are excellent examples, working cooperatively on their projects as they seek to find better solutions for improving the lives of older adults, with and without hearing loss. Each has unique stories; both are poised to make exceptional contributions in clinical and scientific arenas.  They already are, and will continue to be, spokesmen for translational issues and for the uniqueness of our CSD department in the School of Communication."

For more information about Kraus and her group's research, go to www.brainvolts.northwestern.edu External link icon.

-Cara Lockwood

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