Solving speech and swallowing disorders

Two people and a machine

The more Michelle Ciucci learned about speech and hearing science as an undergraduate student at theUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the more she wanted to know. From acoustics, to human development, to language, to anatomy, to physiology, to neuroscience … there was so much to explore.

She decided to focus on the neurophysiology of communication and swallowing and pursue a Ph.D. in speech and hearing science and neuroscience at the University of Arizona. And, after a pair of postdoctoral fellowships in behavioral neuroscience at the University of Texas at Austin and otolaryngology at UW-Madison, Ciucci joined the faculty of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in 2009, with a joint appointment in the Department of Surgery’s Division of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery.

Ciucci, who has a large and active lab, studies how the brain controls movement for voice and swallowing, with a particular interest in the deficits related to degenerative neurologic diseases such as Parkinson disease. In the classroom, Ciucci teaches CSD 210: The Neural Basis of Communication and CSD 707: Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders to train future speech-language pathologists and neuroscientists.

“My goal is to make a positive impact on the way we treat voice and swallowing problems and perhaps even prevent them from occurring,” she says.

We caught up with the assistant professor to ask her about her field, her dream day on campus, and more.

Q: What led you to concentrate, at least in part, on Parkinson disease?
A: One of the major areas in the brain that controls movement (the basal ganglia) is affected by Parkinson disease. Parkinson disease is very common and its incidence and prevalence is on the rise as our aged population grows. Communication and swallowing deficits are some of the most devastating aspects of this disease, but receive less clinical and research attention. Plus, my grandfather had Parkinson disease. So, it was a natural fit for my personal and professional interests.

Q: What is one thing speech and language professionals should be aware of about swallowing disorders that they might not already be?
A: People tend to underestimate the devastating effect swallowing disorders have on wellness and quality of life.

Q: What kind of progress do you feel the field as a whole is making in terms of treating swallowing disorders?
A: The term translational science gets thrown out there a lot, but we are training more translational scientists. We are doing a better job of training people that have backgrounds in both basic science and clinical care, which in turn increases our understanding of the problems and how to approach them scientifically and improves the clinical relevance of our scientific findings.

Q: What’s your favorite spot on campus?
A: The grounds behind the Waisman Center, where there are soccer pitches and a spectacular view of the marsh and woods.

Q: What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
A: I just re-read “The Last Days of Summer” by Steve Kluger, which is good for a laugh and has some poignancy and excellent social commentary as well.

Q: You have one totally free day on campus. What do you do?
A: First, I sleep in. Then, I get on my bike and have breakfast with friends at La Brioche. At noon, I join the faculty pick-up soccer game for an hour and then walk around the lake path up to the Chazen. I get some late lunch from a food cart. If there is time, I see a lecture or a movie on campus and then end, of course, at the terrace.