After graduating from Oberlin College with high honors in neuroscience and a concentration in linguistics, Zoe Swann ’19 immediately embarked on a PhD program at Arizona State University (ASU), where she began writing a literature review, and started developing a dissertation proposal. Then COVID-19 struck. It brought her research to a screeching halt until her lab was granted a $1,500 Pandemic Impact Award to support research expenses.
“Our lab (which works with individuals with stroke—an already at-risk population) was effectively banned from doing any research,” says Swann. “While our solution—tele-health—increases accessibility and is relatively cost-effective, we were required to dip into funds that would have otherwise gone toward supporting students.
“Now we spend extra money on individual testing kits [that consist of a phone with an app, headphones, and an amplifier], shipping, and sanitization. While we were set up for success, it took more financial resources than we had or would ordinarily need to cover tele-health costs and continue our data collection.”
Although Swann has worked from home in recent months—the ASU Sync program is flexible and allows most students to take classes in person, remotely, or asynchronously—she can continue her research because of its interdisciplinary and non-invasive therapy. The fact that her work involves people who don’t often have access to speech therapy was also a motivating factor, says Swann.
“People need accessible therapy more than ever—both preventatively and as a result of the neurological effects of the virus,” says Swann. “To be able to send people a device that can help them achieve that (and to be able to give them some money for participating on top of that) has been really gratifying. This tele-health model is pretty cool. We can ship these kits all over the country, which gives us access to a huge range of participants we would never have even thought to contact. It has led to some funny moments, like regional accents getting in the way of speech processing. Did they say “werter’ instead of “water’ because they’ve had a stroke, or because they’re in Philly?”
In this Q&A, Swann offers more details about her research and her time at Oberlin.
Did you have any mentors while at Oberlin?
My primary mentors were Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Linguistics Pat Simen and Associate Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics Jason Haugen. I worked in Simen’s lab for four years, and I was Haugen’s teaching assistant. Together, they helped me develop my love of neurolinguistics and [how to ] apply it practically.
Do you have any Oberlin experiences that helped shape your decision to pursue your career goals?
I suppose the most obvious change was that I came in wanting to be a mezzo in the Con, while simultaneously developing my science chops. I realized pretty quickly that I was falling in love with my lab work. Oberlin gave me the flexibility to continue expanding my musical chops in collegium, the jazz department, and my weekly stints singing at the Farmer’s Market, while pursuing the intricacies of 1 square cm of flesh behind the ear and its ability to index timing while playing a drum. Plus I got to play with giant syringes! The muscle we were evaluating [at Oberlin] actually has a lot to do with my current research focus. Human research is my jam. Second, [my research at Oberlin] was highly involved in the startle response, and gave me insight into how reflexes like startle might interact with higher-level processing like planning a movement. This drew me to my current lab [at ASU], where we use the startle circuitry to help people with brain damage recover their movement. Along with my experiences in linguistics, I have the best of both worlds, working with neuroscience, clinical research, and speech!
Can you describe in layman's terms your initial course of study:
"An exploratory study into whether or not StartReact enhances speech after severe post-stroke aphasia? Our lab explores the StartReact effect. Normally, when we are startled, we pull our arms and head down and flail about. Turns out, when we ask someone to get ready to move and then startle them, they complete the movement (instead of flailing about) and that movement is much faster. For people with severe stroke, who maybe don’t have any arm function, we can actually help them reach toward the target with relatively high accuracy. We are the first to use this as a therapy in post-stroke aphasia (speech difficulties after a stroke). The neural pathways involved in this process are not understood well, so we had originally planned to a) see if it worked for speech, and b) do some scans and figure out what was happening in the brain. We started to bring in people with stroke, startled them, and got some promising preliminary data. ...but then the pandemic hit and we were banned from the lab.
Please describe in layman's terms your current course of study:
"A huge clinical RCT for tele-health for participants with stroke around the country.” We are beginning to assess START as a tele-therapy by sending testing kits. We can do tele-medicine over Zoom and conduct clinical tests. With this tele-medicine paradigm, we hope to accomplish two things: 1) make START more accessible for individuals with severe post-stroke aphasia and 2) serve as a model for other labs at ASU in our ability to creatively adapt to what the current pandemic situation requires.
In just under two months, we were able to brainstorm, develop a new protocol, validate clinical tests and equipment for tele-health, prototype an app and a device, recruit participants, and collect pilot data. I am immensely proud of this team’s ability to continue to be resilient. And the data is looking good. Previous data suggest START is a safe and extremely effective intervention, especially in individuals whose impairments are too severe to be eligible for typical physical therapies. Our pilot data suggest individuals have increased abilities to read, count, initiate, and produce spontaneous speech. Participants’ perception of their communication skills improves after training, too. We hope that START can provide clinically meaningful improvements for these individuals regardless of socioeconomic or minority status due to its low costs and easy implementation.
What are your plans after ASU?
I could honestly see myself doing anything. Industry seems like the safest option financially (as a liaison, project manager, or data consultant). But I have a flame for NASA and space medicine,particularly in brain plasticity in microgravity, so I’ve definitely thought about government work as well—either in a lab or as a consultant. The most direct path, though would be academia.
The coronavirus has led to many changes at Oberlin: social distancing, a virtual Commencement in 2020, and virtual Orientation and classes. Do you have any advice for current students who might find these changes difficult?
Keep fighting. When the world is falling apart, that’s all we can do. You all are Obies, which means you have a fundamental understanding of how to use your talent, passion, and interdisciplinary spirit to change the world—or at least, improve life for the ones you love. Surround yourself with things you are passionate about, and don’t stop looking for your people. Celebrate yourself by maintaining the little things that keep you moving forward because when your muse hits (and it will), you want to be ready to use it!
Were you involved in clubs or organizations while at Oberlin?
I was a writer and copyeditor for The Synapse for all four years I was at Oberlin, and I cofounded the Oberlin Linguistics Society with my linguistics buddies. We came up with the under-the-table name “SKWORLS”—Society for Kids Wanting Oberlin to have a Real Linguistics Society! I also served on the Neuroscience Majors and Department Association (NMDA), the acronym of which was also my own. I like acronyms. I was also involved in peer mentoring, through being a tutor in OWLS and as a TA. In a non-academic capacity I was an avid participant of the swing, blues, and contra dance scenes. Perhaps my favorite group during my time at Oberlin was my tenure in Collegium Musicum.
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