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Douglas WhalenDouglas H. Whalen, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor

What is your academic background?

I got my Ph.D. in linguistics at Yale. I wandered into linguistics through Latin and various other languages. I became more interested in the structure and started out in semantics. I then ended up in phonetics. I had a fantastic class with Al Liberman and then ended up being his student. The environment at Haskins Laboratories was terrific, so I ended up staying there for a quarter of a century. Then the CUNY position came up and everything worked out and now I’m able to do work at both Haskins and CUNY.

In addition to your role as a faculty member in the Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences program, you also have joint appointment in the Linguistics program. What are some of your thoughts on these interdisciplinary fields and how these two fields are related?

Because our program is a research program, it's very easy for me to conceptualize everything that I want to do as research because that's what's needed. I always enjoy having clinicians in my classes, and, as students, they bring a much-needed perspective, but I don't feel that I need to be a clinician myself. I have been doing more applied work lately, particularly in the domain of ultrasound feedback for misarticulations. That's a more direct application of my research than I have done previously. This work has been supported by an NIH (National Institutes of Health) grant right now, which is considered to be a translational grant because it takes known research results and translates them into the clinic. That grant is wrapping up, but it's been very successful. 

For this research, the known result was that if you provided feedback with ultrasound to kids who are misarticulating, particularly for /r/, that they can improve in ways that they were not able to with traditional therapy. We had seen this in several scientific papers, but it was not really getting into the clinic. When I in particular took a look at what a clinician would have to know in order to do this on their own, I realized it was just too daunting. So we've been working partly to see what's the most effective way of delivering the treatment but we've also been working on an online web course that will make it so that people can train themselves to use this equipment. The ultrasound equipment itself is getting cheaper all the time and more and more clinics have access to it.

In addition to this translational grant, are there any other ongoing projects in your lab?

We just got renewed on my other NIH grant. This grant focuses on links between speech production and perception. We have been using ultrasound for a lot of this work. My former doctoral student, Eric Jackson, did his dissertation work on this grant by looking at non-linear dynamic analysis of stuttering versus non stutterers. This is also ongoing. We are also looking at variability. We are trying to figure out how to separate good variability from bad variability. Good variability is the kind of variations that allow you to achieve your speech target but also give you flexibility. If you have only one way of making a sound and something interrupts you, you need flexibility in order to achieve success. If you are variable in ways that make it hard to understand, then that's bad variability. We are working on mathematical ways of discriminating those two.

You are also the founder and chair of the Board of Directors of the Endangered Language Fund, a non-profit organization sponsoring research on the documentation of languages that are falling silent. How did this project start and what is its current direction?

Twenty-three years ago, I started the Endangered Language Fund, which provides grants for people working on endangered language by documenting or revitalizing them. We have given out about three million dollars over the years in very small grants. These have proved to be quite useful because many groups that were funded by us weren't really ready to apply for bigger grants and this is often made them have the ability to apply for those larger grants. It’s also been extremely interesting. There really are thousands of languages that are going to fall silent in the next few decades. This is our last chance at documenting. It has also been very useful for descendants, as many people are trying to revitalize their languages. The more documentary evidence they have of the language, the easier that task is. 

I am also actively working on the Healing Through Language initiative. We discovered that learning your language or maintaining your language has direct physical health benefits. I have a paper that outlines that. I am currently working on a scoping review that will include mental as well as physical health. It's been really interesting because on the one hand it seems like the effects are small, but on the other hand they're equivalent in size to the effects that you see in programs such as obesity, suicide prevention, diabetes. It's about as effective as some other programs that work on those problems directly and yet it works on dozens of problems all together at the same time. So that's been really exciting and gratifying. 

What advice do you give to current students and/or prospective students who are looking to apply to the program?

For applicants, you really have to be dedicated and interested in research to come to our program. If all you really want to do is clinical work, then you shouldn't come. Maybe it's not a good idea to discourage people from applying, but if they would be miserable, then they shouldn't apply. When students are ready to apply, I point out that research is hard. It takes a lot of work. In particular, if you start using some of the equipment in my lab, it requires a lot of technological appreciation. This doesn’t mean you have to know everything technical; I myself don't understand everything that my colleagues and I end up doing, but science is very collaborative. That's something that you can also depend on. 

In terms of general advice, I do insist that people find that sweet spot of dissertation topics. There's a very small overlap between interesting things and things that are doable.

There are tons of interesting things that you can't do or there are lots of things you can do that are not very interesting. Those don't get you very far. It is challenging to find that sweet spot, but I believe my students have succeeded in doing it. I think most of the students in our program do as well.