Speaking through color

The ongoing effort to train students of diverse backgrounds in speech communication and engineering research

Masapollo, MatthewBy Matthew Masapollo, Ph.D.
Assistant professor, UF College of Public Health and Health Professions department of speech, language, and hearing sciences

Reprinted with permission from the Hearing Health Foundation

Higher education has multiple missions and purposes. At a public research university like the University of Florida, my home institution, producing knowledge and preparing students for careers in the years that follow is the primary objective.

A secondary objective of that education is to elevate students and prepare them for achievement and fulfillment in a wider context, as they become professionals and community leaders within the broader society. Achieving these objectives entails creating and maintaining academic environments in which the differences among people enhance rather than detract from what we are able to learn and accomplish together.

Yet, while living with difference is a ubiquitous reality today, diversity remains a central challenge. As a faculty member in the department of speech, language, and hearing sciences at UF, diversity and fairness are of great concern in my own endeavors. My laboratory, which is engaged in basic and clinical research on sensorimotor mechanisms in speech motor control, is both multicultural and multidisciplinary.

Dr. Matthew Masapollo fits undergraduate student Morgan Powell with EMA sensors that attach with dental glue to her lips, tongue and jaw.
Dr. Matthew Masapollo fits undergraduate research assistant Morgan Powell with EMA sensors. Photo by Jesse S. Jones.

The lab draws together talented, promising students from across the UF campus to combine the latest technology, principles, and tools from engineering and computer science with speech and hearing science to facilitate advancements in our understanding of impaired speech communication. Our ongoing Hearing Health Foundation–funded work, in collaboration with Susan Nittrouer, Ph.D., is examining speech articulation in congenitally deaf individuals who receive cochlear implants. This diversity of perspective has undoubtedly been critical to our ability to innovate and conduct high-risk/high-payoff research on auditorily guided motor control.

Unfortunately, though, our field as a whole is woefully lacking in diversity—over 90 percent of speech-language pathologists are white, and only 4 percent are Black, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s membership data. Even fewer make it to scientific prominence in the field. Large disparities also exist between how individuals who are racial minorities receive speech therapy compared with white individuals.

Each of us must rigorously examine our own actions, motivations, and commitment to ensure that higher education and our profession become increasingly diverse and inclusive. Toward that end, I am constantly thinking of ways to remediate this problem and take affirmative steps to support, mentor, and encourage those who are perpetually underrepresented in speech and engineering science because of a lack of resources and opportunities to pursue an education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Dr. Masapollo and Jessica Goel at the fall 2022 Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.
Dr. Masapollo and Jessica Goel at the fall 2022 meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

I actively incorporate first generation undergraduate students of color into my research projects and engage them in the processes of creativity and innovation. Jessica Goel is a class of 2023 biomedical engineering major and the director of industry relations for the UF Society of Women Engineers. She is carrying out original research alongside me to develop optimal methods to dynamically image laryngeal (glottal) and supra-laryngeal vocal tract (lip, tongue, and jaw) structures during speech production. We are imaging individuals with congenital auditory deficits as well as peers with typical hearing using state-of-the-art electromagnetic articulography (EMA) and electroglottography.

Undergraduates who receive training in engineering and speech motor control typically have sparse access to, and gain little expertise with, these types of measurement tools and clinical populations. But in our lab, first generation undergraduates like Jessica have the opportunity to conduct world-class, mentored, hands-on research, and contribute meaningfully to the creation of new knowledge. Jessica has already co-authored several peer-reviewed journal articles—including one that made the October 2021 cover of JASA (Journal of the Acoustical Society of America) Express Letters—and presented her work at local and national meetings, which has helped her begin building a professional network.

This set of experiences has helped to set Jessica on an early path toward science. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, with a focus on imaging and medical devices. While living with difference is a ubiquitous reality today, diversity remains a central challenge. As a faculty member in the department of speech, language, and hearing sciences at the University of Florida, diversity and fairness are of great concern in my own endeavors. My laboratory, which is engaged in basic as well as clinical research, is both multicultural and multidisciplinary.

faculty member talking with students at research fair
Recruiting undergraduate lab assistants at a campus research expo is an opportunity to meet with and encourage underrepresented students to consider a career in science — which many of them cannot yet imagine for themselves, says Dr. Masapollo. Photo by Jesse S. Jones.

Many other undergraduates like Jessica who come from a wide range of disciplines—including linguistics; psychology; speech, language, and hearing sciences; computer science; and neuroscience—yearn to be future communication scientists and clinicians. As a result they are working with me on various research projects and manuscripts, such as through independent studies or thesis projects, that provide them with an exciting window into something that they want to do.

For example, Siddhi Kondapalli is a class of 2024 applied physiology and kinesiology major, and Ana Rodriguez is a class of 2024 speech, language, and hearing sciences major who recently received the Robert W. Young Award for Undergraduate Research in Acoustics from the Acoustical Society of America. They are each working on thesis projects using EMA to determine how the lips, tongue, jaw, and glottis work together to produce smooth and coordinated movements during skilled speech production. Aleena Alex, a class of 2025 biomedical engineering major, is exploring the role of auditory feedback in spatiotemporal coordination of speech movements in the context of an independent study project.

Cultivating a diverse and energetic lab group is a constant challenge, especially in a state like Florida which banned the use of affirmative action in undergraduate admissions. To keep the lab diverse, I utilize several recruitment and retention strategies. UF hosts an annual research expo where I am able to meet with and encourage underrepresented students to consider a career in science, which many of them cannot yet imagine for themselves. Recruitment efforts for underrepresented groups also include outreach to campus organizations, such as the Society of Women Engineers, that serve STEM education for minorities nationally.

Prospective students are also encouraged to tour the lab, attend my weekly lab meetings, and observe experimental sessions to help gauge if research might be their chosen path. Once a student commits to a research project, I am proactive in ensuring that they receive strong support as they move through their training program, and encourage them to view themselves as a young colleague actively participating in the process of knowledge creation. At some point during their training, most students will experience moments where they falter, become discouraged, or think the hard work of conducting rigorous science is not worth it, and we must be in a position to support them when they need us.

Collaboration between students and faculty on research projects is especially important for underrepresented students. In science it’s so critical to have role models and peers for these groups and other people who look like you and are like you. I experienced this firsthand. As a gay man, I very much remember wanting to see more individuals with a similar identity as mine captured and represented in the scientific arena.

While I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, one of my faculty mentors was also gay. At that point, I had never met an “out” gay scientist before. Just being able to talk about data and theories with him made me feel like I had a place in the scientific community. Our conversations meant an awful lot to me, and I hope to be able to call on so many things that I learned from him as I continue to mentor my own students.

The bottom line is that a strong and empowering education can overturn notions of inferiority and inadequacy, and that is why we must not be silent in higher education but rather “speak through color” and persist in our struggle to foster the representation of minorities in our classrooms, clinics, and laboratories.