Interview with a Researcher – Cara Donohue, PhD, CCC-SLP

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Please give a brief background: (Employment, interests of study, special honors/certifications etc.) 

I am a recent graduate from the University of Pittsburgh Communication Science and Disorders Ph.D. program. I completed my doctoral studies in the Computational Deglutition Lab under the mentorship of Dr. Jim Coyle🤩. Currently, I am completing my post-doctoral research fellowship as a Breathing Research and Therapeutics (BREATHE) T32 Trainee and a member of the Aerodigestive Research Core at the University of Florida under the mentorship of Dr. Emily Plowman😮.

My research interests include 1) instrumental methods of swallow screening and signal processing, 2) understanding underlying mechanisms of disordered swallowing impairment associated withCbc kevins mom queen moira GIF - Find on GIFER neurologic and respiratory etiologies, 3) developing accurate assessment and effective treatment techniques for impaired pulmonary, cough, and swallow function in patients with respiratory/neurological diseases, and 4) principles of exercise training and neuromodulation in dysphagia rehabilitation. 

Clinically, I have worked as a speech-language pathologist for 6 years in a variety of adult settings including inpatient and outpatient rehab, acute care, home care & hospice, and a multidisciplinary amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) clinic.

If you could conduct any research study on any topic/issue (meaning money/funding, time, subjects, IRB etc. are NOT a problem!), what would it be? In other words, what’s your dream study?!

It’s tough to choose just one study to conduct! One thing that I’m passionate about as a researcher is expanding access to assessment and treatment for people in underserved communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for telehealth and remote monitoring technologies, and there is a need for further research in this area to determine the efficacy of conducting dysphagia assessments and treatments via telehealth/monitoring patients remotely in a variety of patient populations. 👏👏

In addition to this, as a clinician, I have been frustrated by the limited amount of high-quality research evidence that supports the use of specific interventions to improve dysphagia across patient populations. I would like to conduct treatment studies that determine the most effective dysphagia treatment (and dosage) in patients with underlying neurological/respiratory diseases.

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If you could change ONE thing about having to do research, what would it be?

There are a lot of tedious aspects of conducting research, which are all important but can be frustrating at times. I love being able to focus on the big picture aspects of research–developing interesting research questions, writing up the results from a research study, and talking to clinicians about why this work is important/clinically relevant.🤓

What’s ONE thing you think clinicians should be excited about in our field regarding research?

There is a lot of inspiring research work being conducted right now in the field of speech-languageTeamwork GIFs | Tenor pathology that clinicians should be excited about! I also think clinicians should be excited about partnering with researchers to improve patient care via collaborations. Clinicians and researchers have a lot to learn from one another, and there is great potential to move the field forward and significantly improve patient care by having open dialogues and forming successful partnerships.🤝

What’s ONE thing you think researchers should be excited about in our field regarding clinical practice?

Researchers should be excited about conducting clinically meaningful😉 research that will positively impact health-related outcomes and quality of life for patients and caregivers via clinicians who read research articles and implement the findings within clinical settings. 

I feel the Results section of studies can be the most misunderstood or difficult to navigate through, what tidbits or tips/tricks can you share to help clinicians process these sections?

The results section can be tricky to get through! Statistics that I’m less familiar with can still make my head spin🙃 (even after taking quite a few courses throughout graduate school!). There are so many great online resources- websites, blogs, or Youtube videos that break down various types of statistical analyses. While it can be tempting to breeze over the results section and dive into the discussion section of the paper, I’ve found that it helps me to read this section several times and to refer back to the methods section of the paper to make sure appropriate analyses have been conducted.

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Could you pick ONE technical jargon (e.g. “linear regression” “ANOVA” “two-tailed test” etc.)  to explain in a relatable and easily understandable way (real-life, simple examples get bonus points😉)?

Since the majority of my research work during my doctoral studies focused on characterizing swallow function using signal processing and machine learning, I will explain in general, what machine learning is. 

At a basic level, machine learning simply refers to the process of teaching a computer to perform a task as accurately as humans do. To develop machine learning algorithms, a subset of data is used for Teachable robots are the new programmable robots | Hacker Noontraining, and the remaining data is used to test the accuracy of the model that was developed based on the training data. For example, with a basic machine learning classifier, you might train a computer to differentiate between a picture of an ice cream cone🍦 and a picture of a cupcake🧁. To differentiate between an ice cream cone and a cupcake, features from the images such as the color, shape, and size will be extracted and used to train the computer. Then, once the training is complete the accuracy of the machine learning algorithm will be tested on another data set. 

**Because I’m not tech-savvy but nerdy in other ways🤓, I was curious to know more so here’s a quote I found from one of Dr. Donohue’s work to help make the connection in swallowing for us:

“In our line of research, we are implementing machine learning techniques with HRCA [high-resolution-cervical-auscultation] signal feature extraction to determine if some swallow kinematic measurements can be performed by HRCA as accurately as a human judge using VFSS images…Future work should also examine the ability of HRCA signals to predict MBSImP scores of anterior hyoid bone displacement and other MBSImP components” p.9 

What’s the ONE thing you think is important for practicing clinicians to know/understand when reading research?

While randomized controlled trials are often viewed as the highest level of research evidence, they are not always feasible to conduct. However, well-designed cohort studies or even case series canIts Been 84 Years GIFs | Tenor provide you with useful information too! [Go ahead and Subscribe to download a quick cheat sheet for all the different types of studies!😉🤓]

The other thing I think clinicians should know is that research takes a long time to conduct. It can take years to finish collecting data for a large study (and then the analysis can take even longer)!

What’s ONE thing you think is important for researchers to know/understand about clinical practice?

Clinicians want high-quality research information that they can use to implement evidence-based practice for improved patient outcomes. Oftentimes, when clinicians read the research literature they have a specific patient in mind that they want to help. Researchers should explain things in an easy-to-understand manner so that clinicians can readily interpret the study findings and apply them to clinical practice.🙌

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What is something you believe researchers could do better to #bridgethegap?

Something I’ve found helpful is continuing to practice clinically as a speech-language pathologist. It helps me stay grounded and realistic when designing a research study. It’s hard work being a clinician! It’s important for researchers to consider the feasibility/generalizability of implementing assessments and/or treatments within clinical settings.👏👏

What is something you believe clinicians could do better to #bridgethegap?

Be open to learning something new and don’t be afraid to reach out to researchers if you have questions about their research work! Researchers want to hear from clinicians, and love to geek out about their research work.🤓  (I can 100% confirm this😁)

Can you provide your contact email if clinicians want to reach out? (Honors system for everyone to be respectful of your time)

Absolutely! Feel free to e-mail me at 

Thank you so much to Dr. Donohue for her time, responses, and continued work in our field!!

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