Researcher on the Rise: Katy Cabbage

Katy Cabbage, assistant professor in Speech and Hearing Sciences

Article by Judith Van Dongen, published in Research News and Highlights

When Katy Cabbage joined the College of Medicine’s Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences as an assistant professor in January 2023, it was a homecoming. Almost twenty years earlier, she had graduated from Eastern Washington University’s communication disorders program, which was jointly operated with WSU’s speech and hearing sciences program at the time. Now she’s back on campus researching the interplay between speech disorders and literacy and teaching the next generation of speech-language pathologists.

What is your research focus?

Everything I do in my lab comes back to how we can better support children with communication disorders for literacy development. I work a lot with kids who are very hard to understand because they make speech-sound errors. With good therapy, we can usually get them to a place where they are understandable. However, one of the things we know is that if children have difficulties with speech sounds after they start reading instruction, their risk for long-term literacy issues is much higher. So we’re trying to understand which kids are going to have the most difficulty with reading and determine how we can better support them to be successful. I’m also really interested in what that looks like in school-based practice, which is informed by my own experiences as a school-based speech-language pathologist in the Tri-Cities area.

Why is it important to study the link between communication disorders and literacy?

When kids haven’t learned basic reading around third or fourth grade, this shift happens where we are no longer specifically teaching them how to read but are expecting them to learn new information through reading. For kids who haven’t yet developed or mastered that skill it creates this disparity in comprehension. I’m really invested in helping kids have access to literacy because in the long run children with poor literacy outcomes don’t go to college as often and may end up being limited in the careers they can pursue.

When did you first know you wanted to conduct research and what did the journey to get there look like?

I started to develop an interest in research during my undergraduate career. Some of my professors recognized that I had this natural curiosity. They encouraged me to pursue research and invited me to help with some small research projects they had going on. But I also wanted to get some practical experience working as a speech pathologist, which I got working at the Richland School District in Tri-Cities after I graduated. I loved working in the schools and found that I had so many questions I wanted to figure out. That prompted me to get a PhD in speech-language pathology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, followed by a postdoc at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston. My first faculty position was as an assistant professor in communication disorders at Brigham Young University in Utah, where I worked for over five years until a job opened up at WSU. I’m excited to be back in the Pacific Northwest and be part of the speech and hearing sciences program and the medical school.

What research projects are you currently working on?

A colleague at Florida State University and I were just awarded a $2 million grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders, an agency within the National Institutes of Health. For four years starting this September, we will be following annual cohorts of 50 kids in both Florida and Washington state who are receiving school-based speech therapy for speech-sound errors. We will test them for a variety of different skills at the beginning of the school year and are asking their speech pathologists to keep track of what they do with these kids. We’re interested in seeing whether there is an interaction between the kind of therapy kids receive and their reading, spelling, working memory and speech production skills. I also hope to secure funding for two other collaborative research projects. One will look at changes in motivation to participate in speech therapy in secondary education settings. Another project will investigate speech perception in kids with speech-sound disorders—that is, how kids hear others’ speech versus the errors in their own speech.

What is something you have done or achieved in research that makes you proud?

My proudest achievement has been the collaborations that I’ve been able to foster to help advance the knowledge in our field. I love working with others because I think the work just gets so much better when multiple perspectives are involved.

How has working for WSU advanced your career in research?

I feel lucky to have such a supportive department and college. I was able to submit a couple of grants within a few months of being hired at WSU because of the outstanding support I received from the grants office. And I’ve got a fantastically supportive department with colleagues who provide guidance and mentorship when I need it. I’m really grateful for that.

What are some things you hope to accomplish in the next few years?

I would love to be able to mentor more students. I’m excited that with grant funding I can hire students to work in my lab to help with the research. There is a shortage of people who can teach and do research in our field. We have to facilitate that interest in research early on, which is why I work with students at all levels. By far the best part of my job is helping them figure out who they want to be and what they want to do with their lives. Being a mentor is just such a treat.

And what do you hope your research will achieve in the long run?

Ultimately, I hope that my research will help empower kids with communication disorders to be successful, not just in their communication but in life in general. I also want to be a voice for school-based practitioners. They are the unsung heroes who are doing this thankless job of making sure that all children have access to specialized services. I’d like them to feel that their work is important, help validate what they are doing and give them tools to be more efficient and effective in their positions.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.