Eva van Leer, Ph.D. is director of the Voice Treatment Lab and assistant professor in the Communication Sciences and Disorders department. She has been with the College of Education & Human Development at Georgia State University for five years.
Why would people come to the voice lab?
To improve the quality and resilience of your voice particularly, your speaking voice. So if you’re having trouble getting horse or vocally fatigued it would benefit you to be in this study.
We are also doing another study where we are looking for people who can imitate different voice qualities. Usually, actors are good at this but many regular folks can also do it. All we do in this study is record you in all your different voices reading a bunch of sentences. We will use the data later to develop algorithms that can differentiate different qualities within one individual, rather than differentiate different individuals. (Sign up to participate in the research).
What are some of the tools of the trade?
Voice is really a user experience. You know when your voice is changing and you’re having a problem with it. We further get to understand that problem by measuring several aspects of your voice. One is your pitch range, another is what you speak at. We also do acoustic analysis of the sound wave and perceptual analysis where my research assistants and I evaluate the quality, as we hear it, of your sound. But what is very important is to get a good look at the vocal folds. That is done with essentially a periscope attached to a camera. The scope stays in your mouth and we can see your vocal folds from above. The voice is a black box. You cannot know from the sound, acoustic analysis, or air flow measurements, what is wrong with the vocal folds, if anything. You must see them.
A stroboscopy is the way we look at the vocal folds using a rigid scope that feeds a flashing strobe light through it so that you can see the virtual vibration of the vocal folds. Just like a strobe light in a nightclub appears to slow down the movement of the dancers, putting a strobe light on vocal fold vibration slows it down so you can observe it. Actually, vocal fold vibration occurs between about a hundred and a thousand oscillations for second. Observing it looks like hummingbird wings, which is a total blur without the strobe. With the strobe light it’s no longer a blur.
How did your academic journey lead you to the field of Communication Sciences and Disorders?
As a high school student and undergraduate, I liked my biology classes and I also did a lot of singing and acting. I became interested in how actors and singers project their voice, from both an artistic and a physiological perspective, and why some people lose their voice and others don’t. I completed both a master’s of fine arts in theater voice training, and a master of science in speech pathology, to be able to treat voice disorders. After working clinically for years, I noticed that the patients who get better are the ones who are compliant with therapy: they’re able to make changes in their own behavior. I started doing research in patient compliance — better understood as “treatment adherence,” and this is what I study in my lab today: what factors predict that someone can make behavior changes successfully. If they trouble with this: how can we help them?
How would you describe your teaching style and philosophy? Provide an example of a teaching activity.
Students need to have a strong grasp on the fundamentals to be able to problem-solve applied cases. An example of a typical activity is to present students with a series of patient symptoms and patient behaviors, and have them figure out not only what the diagnosis is, but how to rehabilitate the patients if you have only one day to work with them, versus if you had eight weeks.
Also, over the past year I have had several Georgia State students involved in data collection and related voice research projects, and students at UC and UW are also involved.
How did you use voice therapy on your cat, Edward ScissorPaws?
I adopted him when he was three when I first moved to Atlanta. He purred very loudly and “made biscuits” but did not meow at all. I thought he might have a voice disorder. One night he woke up me yelling at a cat he could see on the porch from the window, so I knew he had great voice but wasn’t using it to communicate with me. It was a language thing: he didn’t realize he could communicate with me by vocalizing: he only used his voice to tell-off other cats. I just kept talking to him all the time and singing him little made-up songs. At first, he started occasionally producing the most pathetic meow, in which his voice would break — clearly not using enough subglottal pressure to maintain regular vocal fold vibration. But over time, he began to talk a lot, and now he repeatedly meows at me loudly and extensively whenever he enters a room that I’m in.
Please describe professional activities that you’ve engaged in?
For instance, one day, while I was working at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta, I received a fax from a referring physician. The fax said, ‘please evaluate with strobe Oscar.’ It didn’t actually say that but the handwriting was very poor so I thought, ‘wow, a StrobOscar!’ — an Oscar you could get for your strangest or funniest strobe exam you did that year — that would be great! So four years ago, during the Voice Foundation Symposium, Dr. Mike Johns from Emory and I started the StrobOscar Awards where we use a folded paper larynx spray painted gold as the StrobOscar statue. I presented some of my research at The Voice Foundation Symposium — a yearly conference in Philadelphia where voice scientists, physicians and speech-language pathologists who specialize in voice, singers, and actors get together to learn from each other.
I’ve also had articles published in the American Journal of Speech Pathology (AJSLP). One in particular, “Predicting and Influencing Voice Therapy Adherence Using Social–Cognitive Factors and Mobile Video,” co-written with Nadine P. Connor, is where we examine predictors of patient adherence to treatment (both practice of voice exercises and use of healthy voice technique throughout the day), and we examined whether providing pieces of their therapy sessions on MP4 players would help them make progress faster than standard-of-care homework support.
I’ve also received the following grants: an RO3 grant for 100K per year for three years from National Institutes of Health and the Clinical Research Grant for 75K divided over two years from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation (ASH). The grants support multi-center trials testing mobile iOS support of voice therapy practice. We’ve also started the studies in the Voice Treatment Lab in Aderhold Hall.
Several people have helped develop the app that’s used in this trial, including Rob Pfister, my former student from University of Cincinnati, Dr. Xuefu (Frank) Zhou, an engineering prof at Cincinnati, and currently my programmer Nick Porcaro, who is associated with the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University. Furthermore, Dr. Sid M. Khosla at Cincinnati and Dr. Susan Thibeault at University of Wisconsin and Dr. Edie R. Hapner at Emory University are involved as clinic directors in the sites where we’re collecting data from.
Outside of teaching and working in the lab, what do you do for fun?
I play guitar, I love to sing. I used to dance salsa, but am so busy with the tenure track I need to find a different form of exercise that’s not so late-night.
What is your favorite quote?
“I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.” —Mahatma Ghandi