Examining Linguistics and the Neurocognitive Basis of Speech
Rachel Romeo has been fascinated by the brain ever since she can remember. “It’s the essence of who we are as humans,” she says. “Its plasticity throughout the lifespan is what permits us to learn and change.”
Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, Romeo was introduced to brain science during a high school course in psychology, but she credits “a chance course in cognitive science” at the University of Pennsylvania with sparking her interest in linguistics. “Language is this uniquely human and infinitely generative symbolic system that allows us to fulfill this deeply-seated desire for communication,” she shares.
At Penn, Romeo researched language acquisition, specifically how infants’ brains convert acoustic information into meaningful phonemes and words. Curious about the language acquisition from a clinical perspective, Romeo went on to earn an MSc in Language Sciences at University College London. “I wanted to learn more about atypical language development and language disorders, as well as individual differences in speech production and perception,” she explains.
After her master’s degree, Romeo knew she wanted to further her study of cognitive neuroscience, but without losing a “real life” clinical perspective. At Harvard, she is focusing on the effects of the environment on the brain, and how this influences the neurocognitive basis of language, while at the same time developing her clinical skills.
Now a G4 in the Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology (SHBT), Romeo has already earned her Clinical Certificate in Speech-Language Pathology, the qualifying credential to practice speech pathology. This certificate combined with a PhD will allow her to integrate clinical practice with research.
Romeo’s investigations into how social, physiological, and biological factors affect children’s speech and language acquisition has profound implications for how clinicians approach cases where a child’s speech and language development does not proceed in typical ways. It’s the sort of complex question that benefits enormously from the kind of interdisciplinary study conducted by SHBT faculty and students.
Romeo credits this unique program, where students are studying the brain at each level of the microscopic and macroscopic scales, with deeply influencing her intellectual development. “I have branched from the more cognitive fields of psychology and linguistics in both directions,” she says. “To the more biologically informed field of cognitive neuroscience to clinically-motivated speech-language pathology.”
Just how deeply the cognitive and the clinical go hand in hand is visible in Romeo’s dissertation, in which she is investigating whether children’s daily language exposure directly affects the structure and function of their brains. She has designed her research to consider how both biological and environmental factors might affect “conditions of impoverished speech and language input during childhood resulting from either physical factors (such as early deafness or hearing impairment) and/or from environmental factors (such as socio-economic influences).”
Romeo studies fMRI brain scans in concert with home studies of parent-child interactions and also considers the impact of socioeconomic status on brain and language development. Through audio recordings of children’s home environments, she is assessing verbal and nonverbal interactions between parents and children, as well as analyzing brain structure and function during language comprehension tasks.
Romeo admits that multi-disciplinary research is more challenging, but is quick to recognize it’s also more rewarding: “I know this interdisciplinary perspective makes my research better informed, more meticulous, and greatly increases its translational potential.”
For her, being an interdisciplinary scholar will allow her to be a multi-disciplinary practitioner. “I hope to continue in academia, balancing research, teaching, and clinical practice,” she says. “I love them all so much that I can’t imagine a career that doesn’t involve them all.”