'There is a huge gap in the research about how to treat swallowing disorders...'
PhD in Speech and Language Therapy
Deputy Director, Rose Centre for Stroke Recovery and Research
Lecturer, Department of Communication Disorders, University of Canterbury
Having enjoyed her undergraduate experience at UC, Phoebe was fortunate in having a supervisor based at Canterbury who is a specialist in the area of Speech and Language Therapy that interests her most. She decided to stay on to undertake a PhD focusing on swallowing disorders.
‘I researched swallowing disorders that occur as a result of a stroke. The presence of swallowing disorders can mean patients are unable to eat, and have to rely on tubes to provide nutrition. The result is that their quality of life is substantially reduced,’ Phoebe explains.
‘This is a relatively new area of study in Speech and Language Therapy, and there is a huge gap in the research which is needed to provide evidence about the most effective methods of rehabilitation. My supervisor had a very motivating way of teaching this area and her passion for the subject got me interested in looking into it further.’
One of the findings of Phoebe’s PhD was that current methods of research in this new area have limitations which need to be addressed.
‘My PhD revealed that a lot of the outcome measures used in swallowing research are very noisy, and a large amount of variation occurs which is unrelated to the treatment. This means that researchers need to select outcome measures carefully, and ensure that they have sufficient numbers of participants to reveal treatment effects in the face of this variance. Additionally it suggests that more research is needed into the size of clinically relevant treatment effects – to ensure that the tools we use to measure change in swallowing are sensitive to such change.’
While conducting her research, Phoebe was based at the then Van der Veer Institute for Parkinson's and Brain Research (now the New Zealand Brain Research Institute) as well as at UC, where she participated in laboratory groups and conferences and gave introductory lectures in undergraduate courses.
'Working at the Van der Veer Institute was a great opportunity to be surrounded with students and professionals from other disciplines, as they provided me with feedback invaluable to the progress of my research. I also had regular contact with University staff and students, which provided a wider support network for my study.'
After completing her PhD, Phoebe achieved her aim of securing a postdoctoral position overseas to gain experience outside of New Zealand.
‘I did a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University which was funded by the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand. I studied under Professor Rebecca German and Dr Ianessa Humbert, looking at changes in swallowing biomechanics, neural processes and function resulting from various swallowing treatment techniques.’
After this, Phoebe returned to New Zealand to take up a position as deputy director of UC’s new Rose Centre for Stroke Recovery and Research, transferring the knowledge she has gained to clinicians who work with swallowing disorders.
‘The Centre is an exciting and unique place to work. It has state-of-the-art diagnostic and treatment equipment, enabling a wide variety of research projects, and catering for patients with all manner of swallowing problems. It houses over 10 postgraduate students, as well as the EATS (evaluation and treatment of swallowing) clinics.’
Phoebe says that the combination of theory and practice in the one location allows rapid translation of research into practice, and helps maintain a functional clinical approach to the research.
'The clinicians are the people who need the research the most – without evidence of what works, it is very hard to be certain and confident in what to prescribe to patients. Because this is a relatively recent research area for Speech and Language Therapy, the content is always new and it keeps every day exciting.'
Meanwhile Phoebe also continues to lecture at UC, teaching anatomy and physiology of speech, hearing, and swallowing.
‘I also teach voice sciences and disorders, and complex communication disorders.’