Panying Rong, PhD

2015 New Investigators Research Grant

Beginning With a Dream

Panying Rong

As a child, Panying Rong dreamed of being a scientist. She is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences and Disorders and the director of the Speech Science and Disorders Lab at the University of Kansas (KU). Clearly, the dream has come true.

Now Rong has a new dream: to translate to clinical use her ongoing research on motor speech disorders and, specifically, motor speech impairment in progressive neurodegenerative diseases such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

Thanks to an ASHFoundation New Investigators Research Grant that she was awarded in her last year of post-doctoral work at Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions (MGHIHP) Rong was able to carry out a pilot study to begin her new position at KU with a research agenda comfortably in place focusing on the articulatory abilities of individuals with ALS. Findings from this study led Rong to  a new area of research aimed at developing computer-based, automated measurement tools to detect speech deficits and monitor speech changes through the course of  disease in order to improve diagnosis and care for speech disorders in neurodegenerative diseases.

“Providing timely clinical care for those with ALS is critical to improve their quality of life and survival,” Rong explains. “The disease affects motor performance in various ways—speech, swallowing, breathing, and general motor function. I’m looking at the interplay of the behavioral, biomechanical, and neuromuscular factors and their impacts on speech motor performance in individuals with ALS to find objective markers of bulbar involvement, a hallmark features of ALS that leads to the progressive loss of speaking and swallowing abilities. Our current standard diagnostic approaches lack sensitivity to early-stage changes in the bulbar motor system, which occur long before the onset of clinical symptoms. Validated reproducible measurement tools are critically needed to improve the early diagnosis of bulbar involvement in ALS. Our research has provided preliminary evidence for the use of computer-based, automated speech analysis to derive useful measures for detecting, monitoring, and predicting subclinical bulbar changes in ALS.” Rong’s long-range plan is to apply these novel measurement tools to assess speech impairments in different neurodegenerative diseases and to evaluate their use in differential diagnosis of neuromotor speech disorders.

To achieve her long-range plan, Rong has developed a novel protocol to identify disease-related changes at different levels of the motor speech system. These assessments will help to establish relationships between these disease-related neuromotor changes and speech degradation in ALS. The measures that will be obtained from the assessments have the potential to be used in future clinical practice to aid in the early diagnosis of disease and guide clinical care decisions.

Rong has come a long way in her academic career—from a bachelor’s degree in Electronic Sciences and Engineering from China’s Nanjing University to a PhD in Speech and Hearing Sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to a post-doc at MGHIHP to KU. She’s already applied for a grant from the National Institutes of Health, has published various peer-reviewed journal articles and conference proceedings/abstracts, all related to her funding—and the pilot study she was able to carry out based on it—from the ASHFoundation.

“The funding definitely made me stronger as an applicant for a faculty position,” Rong says, noting that, because she is not an American citizen, she could not apply for NIH fellowships or grants before she joined the faculty, so “the ASHFoundation recognition alone started a new chapter in my career. Thank you!”

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