Until recently, if it was three o’clock in the morning, you’d find Jessica Forbes busy writing.
“I usually write from about 4 p.m. until about 8 a.m., with small naps in the daytime,” she said just months ago.
But that’s what happens when you’re preparing to defend your doctoral dissertation for a Ph.D. in communication sciences and disorders (CSD) from Howard University – a task she completed successfully in December 2020.
During the day, Forbes cares for her father, who fell ill during the pandemic. She returned home to Long Island from the Swallowing Neurophysiology Laboratory at the University of Iowa, where she was working as a graduate research assistant, to be her dad’s primary caregiver.
Although many healthcare practitioners treat patients for swallowing disorders (dysphagia), only a handful specialize in swallowing. There are currently only three Black doctoral-level researchers studying swallowing nationwide, and Forbes can name them all. “There’s a postdoc at Wisconsin, there’s my mentor, and there’s me!” she says.
Forbes’s manuscript is on the influence of swallowing techniques and sensory input on swallowing physiology. “We are studying how sensory information affects a patient’s swallowing,” she says.
“If you’re drinking juice, for example, your brain receives sensory information about the amount of juice being swallowed, as well as the juice’s temperature, taste, and so on,” she explains. “The brain processes this information and creates a motor pattern on how to safely and efficiently swallow the juice.”
For their experiment, Forbes’s team had subjects swallow a variety of liquids (e.g., thin and thick liquids, ice chips), and asked the subjects to let the substance (“bolus”) drain to the back of their throats before swallowing. The research may shed light on how patients can control certain aspects of their swallowing, and help clinicians better support their patients. Forbes’ research also investigates the influence of popular swallowing techniques.
For instance, healthcare professionals often advise patients with swallowing difficulties to use a chin-down position when swallowing, with the goal of minimizing aspiration of food or drink. Many professionals use the chin-down maneuver as a blanket approach, without knowing whether it actually helps, Forbes explains. She adds that they may be unnecessarily causing discomfort to the patient and potentially increasing their risk for food or liquid to enter their airway (“aspiration”).
“If someone swallowing in a neutral position aspirates three out of five times, and then puts their chin down and gets the same result, why not just let them be comfortable?” Forbes says. “We hope our research empowers clinicians to focus on the patient. We’d like the clinician to think about that patient having lunch with their kids.”
A bus ride down the block, and a life-changing encounter
Forbes, who came to the Capital Region as an undergraduate to play lacrosse for the University at Albany, discovered Saint Rose during the summer of her sophomore year.
She was trying to choose a major. “I went to Career Builder and searched for ‘jobs where you can talk a lot,'” she says. SLP was at the top of the list. “I had never heard of SLPs, and my advisor didn’t know anything about them.”
Her advisor pointed out that there was a program in CSD at a college down the block.
“So, I jumped on the No. 12 (bus) one summer day,” says Forbes. She met with Professor Jack Pickering to learn more about the program. “I thought it sounded cool.”
She took advantage of University at Albany’s consortium agreement with Saint Rose, enrolling in a class in phonetics during her junior year.
“I fell in love immediately,” says Forbes, who took CSD courses at Saint Rose throughout the last two years of her undergraduate education. She stayed on at Saint Rose to earn her master’s degree in CSD.
“It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” says Forbes, who later did a fellowship at the University of Florida and an internship at the University of Iowa. “There is nothing to compare with Saint Rose. It set my expectations for graduate programs.”
She advises CSD students to carefully look at the programs they’re considering, and not assume that a famous school will have a good program.
Saint Rose’s close integration of theory with practice was a crucial learning element for her.
“At Saint Rose, the professors were all practicing clinicians,” she says. “They teach you in class, and then you would watch them in their evaluation with a client. You learn how to handle a disruptive client, or a child. They’re not only teaching; they’re demonstrating what they just taught you. At many other schools, the two things are separate.”
Advocacy, knowledge, and skills, and a community to last a lifetime
At Saint Rose, in addition to learning clinical skills, Forbes also acquired essential practical administrative and advocacy skills.
“Your supervisor would bring you to their meeting for a patient’s individualized education plan (IEP),” she says. “It was at Saint Rose that I learned about IEPs and the appeal process for Medicare/Medicaid.”
Advocacy is an important service she provides her clients through her SLP practice, Naturally Speaking, Inc.
“Outside of providing treatment and evaluation, I’ve also provided consultation and trainings for people,” she says.
Social-services systems and school districts can be challenging for any family to navigate, and even more so for immigrants, non-native English speakers, or low-income families.
“Parents might not be receiving services they’re entitled to, or might even be getting cheated,” says Forbes.
Beyond the professional knowledge and skills she gained at Saint Rose, Forbes says she appreciated – and continues to enjoy – the community.
“Ten years after graduating, I still talk to my old professors,” she says. “If they’re in town, we’ll grab lunch together. I’ll meet them at our national convention every year. You always feel like you’re part of the family.
“I am so happy to have had the experience I had there,” says Forbes. “Saint Rose has really shaped me for the better. It’s near and dear to my heart.”