Cara Stepp

2011 New Investigators Research Award, 2012 New Century Scholars Research Grant  

Grants That Keep on Giving

Cara Stepp’s doctoral training and research are in the area of voice and speech disorders—she holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology—but she was hoping to start a new line of research in swallowing. Then, with perfect timing, the ASHFoundation awarded her a New Investigators Research Award in 2012 that allowed her to break into this entirely novel area. It was thus that Stepp’s work began on non-swallowing muscle control in individuals with neurogenic dysphagia.  

The goal of the new work, says Stepp, who is currently an assistant professor of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at Boston University, “was to establish whether motor control during non-swallowing tasks in these people was also impaired. We found that it was.” Stepp’s continuing interest is in how this loss of motor function is related to swallowing motor function and how the two might interact in the rehabilitation process. “We are still a long way out,” she says, “but our hope is that interactive training (through videogames) on complex non-swallowing motor tasks could lead to improvements in the motor control of swallowing.”  

Stepp’s work doesn’t stop there—and neither did the ASHFoundation’s support of it. Stepp was awarded a 2013 New Century Scholars Research Grant that is funding development of refined methodologies for an acoustic measure of voice production.  

This measure, relative fundamental frequency, says Stepp, “seems to be an indicator of excess strain in vocal dysfunction, but my work so far in the area has been limited by a lack of understanding of which stimuli are best to use and how best to collect the measure.” Stepp is confident that the long-term outcome of the work will be “a sensitive and specific objective measure of effort and strain in voice production, which should lead to improved assessment in the clinic.”  

“Getting the recognition from the ASHFoundation has been huge for me,” says Stepp. “It’s opened so many doors and made available a remarkable amount of mentoring and collaboration as well as leading to other studies and additional funding.”  

Her initial award, she notes, was to study neurogenic dysphagia but through collection of the age-matched healthy controls for the study, “I found some very interesting patterns in motor control as a function of healthy aging. Although weakness has already been implicated in aging adults and noted in their swallow, we are currently studying coordinated fine motor control of hyolaryngeal musculature in swallowing and non-swallowing tasks in a large population of older adults.”  

Stepp’s second ASHFoundation award has already allowed for pilot data and refined methods that have resulted in NIH funding for the work. Specifically, she has been awarded an R03 grant to develop methods to automate relative fundamental frequency and to validate the measure against aeroacoustic measures.  

Stepp is well aware that there are many deserving groups that need financial help and choosing which to support is difficult. But she notes that federal research aid for science is currently at an all-time low and so need for support of the ASHFoundation is more critical than ever.  

“Considering only financials (and ignoring for the moment the other very important benefits),” she says, offering the most pragmatic of proof, “giving to the ASHFoundation can lead to a significant return on your investment in terms of funding for our field. In my case, a $10,000 grant from the ASHFoundation was critical in obtaining a $300,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. The ASHFoundation makes growth in our profession possible.” 

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