The Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences made a huge leap in the expansion of its program after launching its first Ph.D. program earlier this year. Based on a foundation that focuses on preparing graduates to excel in academic faculty positions, it addresses a significant need within the fieldAccording to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 30% of academic faculty positions in the communication sciences went unfulfilled in 2021. 

The first student accepted into the new Ph.D. program is Naomi Nattress, who is also a practicing speech-language pathologist. Before entering the program, Naomi specialized in working with children who have multiple and/or visual impairments (MI/VI).   

She is now working with her mentor, Professor Cathy Binger, in the augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) lab, where they create beneficial and constructive approaches to aid children with significant communication disorders while collaborating with their families. These AAC methods include technologies such as communication apps on mobile devices (such as iPads) that, in many cases, are easily understood by the children and enable them to communicate more effectively.  

Nattress moved to Albuquerque in 2005 from Maine, being attracted by the warm and dry climate. She received her master's in Speech and Hearing Sciences in 2012. During her master's program, Nattress had known about the department's plans for a new Ph.D. program and heard about its approval through another faculty member, Associate Professor Cindy Gevarter, who heads up the Autism Lab in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences.  

After investigating the program and interviewing possible mentors, Nattress decided to pursue her Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico where, as she says, she can “expand the current intervention research base to help these children be more successful communicators and increase their participation across all areas of their lives.” Binger agreed to become her mentor and Nattress’ plan was set into motion.   

Nattress was first drawn to the field of Speech and Hearing Sciences because of her love of foreign languages and teaching. She was originally entranced by a speech-language pathologist who had given a lecture on her work while Nattress was still an educational assistant.  

After doing some research and completing non-degree courses, Nattress states that she was hooked and never looked back. Nattress owes her passion to this particular field of science due to its ability to be broad and intriguing. There is something for everyone and a variety of settings to choose fromAs she says, It is a beautiful mix of science, a helping profession, and the intricacies of speech and language.”   

Upon completion of her program, Nattress wishes to increase the body of rigorous intervention research regarding MI/VI and AAC. She hopes to spread a new perspective about these individuals and aspires to change the way the world views them. Her research in the field may achieve significant growth and impact in the knowledge that speech-language pathologists and educators can bring to the table.   

Nattress plans to create a positive change in her community by expanding collaboration between UNM and external entities that also serve the individuals she helps. Nattress also desires to better the quality of research occurring at the University and implement it directly to educational institutions and private practices in New Mexico.  

Nattress’ advice for those who are considering a degree in the profession includes volunteering in a lab to gain hands-on experience, shadowing a speech-language pathologist or audiologist to discover more about what the career entails, and taking an introductory-level course at UNM to understand the breadth of the field.