UI communication sciences at the forefront


Though a rookie among disciplines such as physics, chemistry, and theology, the UI’s communication sciences and disorders department reigns as the grandfather among programs of its kind.

“Speech pathology was invented here at the University of Iowa,” said Paul Abbas, the head of the department, which was formerly known as speech pathology and audiology.

The discipline was born out of the psychology department in the 1920s as the brainchild of Carl Seashore, Abbas said.

According to the communication sciences’ website, the area of study gained independence in 1956 when it was recognized as its own department in the College of Liberal Arts.

And today, the program still stands at the forefront. In 2008, U.S. News & World Report ranked the UI department’s two graduate programs, speech pathology and audiology, as first in the nation.

The department is continuing its leadership in the field by coordinating a multisite study, which recently received a five-year, $8.9-million grant from the National Institute on Deafness.

The study combines researchers at the UI, the University of North Carolina, and Boys Town National Research Hospital in Nebraska to track 45 children with mild to severe hearing impairments as well as 150 children with normal hearing. Researchers hope to discover the developmental outcomes for children who have poor hearing, said communication sciences Professor Bruce Tomblin, noting that little work has ever been done in this area.

“There’s a fair number of children out there who are hard of hearing,” said Tomblin, one of the principal investigators for the grant. “But there has been little research on the impact of these impairments on their lives and developments.”

And it is this innovative research that brings the UI’s program such recognition — a prestige that attracts prospective students, said Laura Romey, a second-year speech pathology graduate student.
“[Speech pathology] is first in the nation, and that’s a really big reason a lot of people come here,” she said.

The 24-year-old completed her undergraduate degree at the UI and, with knowledge of the program’s quality, decided to continue her studies at her alma mater.

While Romey hopes to stay in Iowa to work after she completes her internship next year, Abbas noted graduates of the UI programs are have spread across the nation, carrying the reputation of the program with them.

“You get your reputation on a national basis from research activity and that is very much related to the students,” he said. “The training of those students who go out and work around the country enhance our reputation because we get identified with the research.”

And trends foreshadow a strong future for these disciplines.

Both Abbas and Tomblin have noticed increasing interest in speech pathology and audiology, particularly at the undergraduate level.

Further, the US News ranked audiology as one of the 30 best careers for 2009.

With this auspicious job market and the interdisciplinary nature of the field, Tomblin said he believes speech and hearing studies hold exciting possibilities.

“This is a field that offers a tremendous number of opportunities that you would never think of coming into it,” Tomblin said. “It’s a great area if you want to bring biology, psychology, physics, and engineering together, and that’s what makes [the field] particularly exciting.”

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