SHS Celebrates Partnership with Karolinksa

group photo of 30 people from SHS and the Karolinska institute

On June 20th, students and faculty from the Department of Speech and Hearing Science (SHS) at Illinois and the Divisions of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at Karolinska Institute (KI) gathered to celebrate their successful student exchange and research collaboration program.

On June 20th, students and faculty from the Department of Speech and Hearing Science (SHS) at Illinois and the Divisions of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at Karolinska Institute (KI) gathered to celebrate their successful student exchange and research collaboration program. AHS Dean Tanya Gallagher welcomed participants in the KI@IL Summit by referring to the World Health Organization’s World Health Assembly, from which she had recently returned.

“Member countries were challenged to assist low and middle income countries through the development of assistive devices, for example, many of them related to speech and hearing disabilities,” Dean Gallagher said. “They were urged to step forward and work together to address the staggering need to help people who have difficulty communicating through both research and exemplary practice.”

Dr. Gallagher applauded “two stellar organizations” for joining strengths to help meet the needs for greater understanding of communication disorders as well as effective interventions. “So I not only want to welcome you,” she said, “but also to thank you.”

The exchange program

The exchange program’s development was spearheaded by then interim department head for SHS, Dr. Bill Stewart. Based in Stockholm, Sweden, KI is one of Europe’s largest and most prestigious medical universities, offering a wide range of medical courses and programs. It also is the largest center of medical academic research in Sweden. As such, the exchange program not only focuses on educational opportunities for undergraduate students, but also collaborative research opportunities for faculty and graduate students.

In September 2014, SHS department head Karen Iler Kirk and associate professor Laura DeThorne visited Karolinska Institute to support the program’s educational and research goals with funding from the Illinois-Sweden Program for Educational and Research Exchange (INSPIRE).

The educational program gives preference to SHS students with junior-level standing and strong academic backgrounds, although sophomores and seniors are also considered. Students within any of the four SHS undergraduate concentrations may apply. During their semester at KI, students earn 12 credits within the Speech-Language or Audiology Division in topics such as speech disorders and dysphagia, phonetic transcription, community- and home-based rehabilitation, physics and acoustics, and sound perception. They also have opportunities to observe clinical practice in speech-language pathology and audiology.

A unique experience

SHS student Shana Pembroke, who had returned from her semester abroad just before the summit, described her five months in Stockholm as some of the most enriching and fulfilling ones of her life.

“I was able to observe first-hand how the field of speech-language pathology exists I another country, and to meet like-minded individuals who share my passion for the field,” she said.

Shana gained clinical experience at Karolinska, something that would not have occurred until her senior year at Illinois. She describes the classes as challenging and insightful and the instructors as brilliant. Small class sizes meant she and other students worked together frequently in small groups. The opportunity to assess and suggest treatments for hypothetical cases in consultation with others was one of the highlights of her experience.

“Not only did I gain immense knowledge and experience in my field of study, but it also was a time of substantial growth, exploration, and discovery,” she said.

A meeting of research minds as well

The summit also provided the opportunity for scholars from both Karolinska Institute and SHS to share information about their research. Research in KI’s Division of Audiology addresses three main areas: epidemiological hearing research, experimental hearing research, and clinical hearing research. Asa Skjönsberg, unit head of the Department of Clinical Science, Intervention and Technology at KI, said epidemiological research addresses such issues as tinnitus and the impact of noise during military service on hearing. “Experimental research looks at neurobiological aspects of hearing, such as the cellular mechanisms the brain uses to select auditory signals,” she said. Patient-based clinical research is conducted primarily in KI’s Hearing and Balance Clinic, sometimes in collaboration with the Division of Audiology.

Anette Lohmander, head of KI’s Division of Speech-Language Pathology, said research within the division falls into four areas: voice disorders, speech and language disorders, cognition and language disorders, and eating and swallowing disorders. “We examine phenomenon such as apraxia in children with autism, speech and communication disorders in people with Parkinson’s disease, dysphagia in individuals with multiple sclerosis, and disorders related to structural and sensory conditions such as cleft palate and hearing loss,” she said.

As individual faculty from KI and Illinois shared their own research—on such topics as improving the aging voice through vocal exercise, motor speech disorders, conceptual processing in mild cognitive impairment, increasing children’s morphological awareness, hearing impairment and early language development, and the impact of cochlear implants on stabilizing vocal pitch—it was clear that opportunities for collaboration between the two bodies of scholars were numerous.

“The summit reminded us that communication disorders are a global experience that cuts across traditional borders and touches the very heart of our humanity,” said Dr. DeThorne. “Given the leading positions of our two institutions, I hope the positive and collaborative energy of the summit will be translated into better supports and services for individuals with communication disorders worldwide.”

Bringing it all together

The summit concluded with three panels of University of Illinois and Karolinska Institute faculty, students, and alumni. The first two addressed clinical issues related to speech-language pathology, including the benefits of creating rich communicative environments as a therapeutic mechanism for treating aphasia, and methods and applications of perceptual evaluations in speech-language pathology.

A third panel, which included SHS students Naomi Patel and Shana Pembroke, looked at past experiences and future directions for the KI-SHS exchange program. The only recommendation the students made was, “Keep offering the exchange!” Participants from SHS and KI agreed that the summit reaffirmed both institutions’ commitment to the educational program, and sparked further interest in research collaborations that will advance knowledge, improve practice, and impact communication disorders on a global scale.