Dr. Sharon Antonucci is a clinical researcher, speech-language pathologist, and Director of the MossRehab Aphasia Center. She was awarded her B.A. in child development and Italian from Connecticut College, her master’s degree in speech-language pathology from Columbia University, and her Ph.D. in speech and hearing sciences from the University of Arizona. Prior to accepting her position at MossRehab, Sharon served on the faculty at Worcester State University. She has received the Tavistock Trust for Aphasia Distinguished Scholar Award for her excellence in aphasia research, and in our interview today, she shares more about her science and her life.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:17)
When she’s not at work, Sharon loves to spend her time reading, watching TV, singing, volunteering with shelter dogs, and hanging out with her two dogs Maggie and Hulk.
The Scientific Side (4:19)
Sharon is a speech language pathologist and a clinical researcher. She works primarily with people who have a language impairment called aphasia as a result of a stroke. Sharon is particularly interested in understanding how information related to the meaning of words can be accessed in people with aphasia and how this may influence a person’s ability to retrieve words. Another line of research she is working on examines word retrieval in the context of conversation. In addition, Sharon is excited about the animal-assisted therapy work they have been doing in people with aphasia.
A Dose of Motivation (6:02)
Over the years, Sharon has been motivated and inspired by the wonderful people she works with—both people with aphasia and her scientific colleagues.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (8:25)
As she progressed through school, Sharon found herself gravitating towards courses on language, linguistics, and literature. When Sharon took a career aptitude test in middle school, the results advised her that she could be highly successful as a speech language pathologist. At the time, she was disappointed with these results because she didn’t even know what a speech language pathologist was. Sharon was intrigued by the prospects of a career in research where she could be paid to learn about things she was interested in. However, it wasn’t until sophomore year of college that she realized how to make this dream job into a reality. While exploring topics for a presentation in her linguistics course, she stumbled upon speech language pathology. It turned out, it was a really good fit that combined her interests in language, communication, and the brain.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (16:18)
For one of their peer-reviewed papers, Sharon and her colleagues had to go through multiple rounds of submission and resubmission. They worked on this paper for years. Each time the reviews came back, it was disheartening. However, Sharon didn’t give up. She kept revising and resubmitting the paper, and ultimately the published paper benefited from some of the feedback the reviewers provided. This was also an important learning experience where Sharon realized she didn’t necessarily have to agree with all of the suggestions from reviewers and make all of the changes they requested. In some cases, it was appropriate to push back and explain why the requested changes were not the best approach.
A Shining Success! (20:13)
Recently, Sharon was thrilled to receive funding from the National Institutes of Health to support research on an animal-assisted therapy program for people with aphasia. This has been the most exciting success of her career. When she received the notice of award for this grant, Sharon could not wait to share the news! The project involves teaching people with aphasia how to train dogs using techniques of positive reinforcement. People with aphasia have language impairments, but their intelligence is preserved. As a result, they can successfully execute the complex cognitive tasks required to train dogs. Dogs often pay more attention to intonation, body language, and facial expressions than to individual words, and this allows people with aphasia to engage in successful communication even if they struggle to retrieve specific words. Further, participants in the program can also benefit from the emotional, psychological, and physical benefits of interacting with animals. This project is especially meaningful for Sharon because it combines her scientific passions with her love of dogs.
Book Recommendations (3:31)
Any books by Gail Godwin, James Harriot, Robert Caro, and J.R.R. Tolkein
Most Treasured Travel (23:31)
Sharon has greatly enjoyed traveling to Italy both for science and for leisure. She studied abroad in Milan, and it was amazing to be immersed in the Italian language and to get to know the city. Since then, Sharon has visited Rome, Capri, the Italian Riviera, Siena, and other fantastic places in Italy. Beyond Italy, Sharon has enjoyed exploring a variety of places in the U.S. that she may not have otherwise visited. During her travels, it has been a joy to meet new people, and some of these chance encounters have led to long-term collaborations and friendships.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (27:20)
When Sharon was a PhD student, there was a faculty member who was well-known for hosting sensational Halloween parties every year. People from various departments in the University dressed up and participated in the festivities. One year, Sharon straightened her hair, put on her finest bell bottom jeans, and went to the party dressed as a hippie. It was fun to see that many of the people she knew who took their work very seriously at the university didn’t take themselves too seriously at the party.
Advice For Us All (30:21)
Try to get comfortable with leaving a silence before you respond to something that someone says. It is common to try to formulate your response while someone is talking to you, and this can prevent you from fully listening and taking in what the other person is saying. Also, dedicate yourself to doing what you love and what you think is important.
Dr. Sharon Antonucci is a clinical researcher and speech-language pathologist who specializes in aphasia and aphasia rehabilitation. Her research focuses on semantically-guided lexical retrieval, the neural substrates of language processing in adults, and developing treatments for lexical retrieval deficits for individuals with aphasia. The work in her laboratory combines MRI brain imaging with behavioral language assessment and treatment. Current projects include examining how damage to specific regions of the brain can affect word retrieval, as well as how understanding of these brain-behavior relationships can better inform the development of treatments for word retrieval impairments. Sharon has served as an ad hoc reviewer for a number of academic journals and as an associate editor of the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. She is a member of the Academy of Aphasia, American Speech-Language andHearing Association (ASHA), ASHA SID 2: Neurophysiological and Neurogenic Speech and Language Disorders, the International Neuropsychological Society, and is an associate member of the Academy of Neurologic Communication Sciences and Disorders. Sharon is also pleased to be a member of the National Aphasia Association Advisory Council.