Expanding the Pool: Mobile Speech Lab Brings Research on Stuttering to Children and Families

Bridget Walsh, Assistant Professor, Communicative Sciences and Disorders

John and Kathy Lund replaced their travel trailer with an RV and planned to take to the open road in their retirement. But when their oldest daughter was diagnosed with cancer, they parked their Class C RV in the pole barn, making the decision to stick closer to home in Montrose, Michigan. 

That was in 2016. Despite being out from behind the wheel, the two have continued their journeys, this time as involved grandparents to their daughter’s two children. And in an unexpected twist, the Lunds began forging a path to Michigan State University when a research scientist asked to buy their RV.

That researcher was Bridget Walsh, an assistant professor of Communicative Sciences and Disorders in the MSU College of Communication Arts and Sciences. Her mission? To put a speech development lab on wheels to reach children and families far from her brick-and-mortar lab on the East Lansing campus. 

“When I heard what her plans were, Kathy and I thought it was the greatest thing ever,” said Lund. “We’re tickled to be a small part of what she’s doing, and feel like we have a stake in it. Our youngest daughter and our son-in-law are also Spartan alumni, which makes it even more special.”

Getting rolling

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Walsh had just received a $3.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to support her study of risk factors in children that lead to stuttering in adults. 

Almost immediately, she realized the public health concerns and limitations of face-to-face research. That realization caused her to reflect even more on something she had long recognized: the barriers that children from diverse populations often have to participating in her university-based studies. 

More often than not, Walsh’s research relied on the ability of families with young children to come to MSU multiple times for research studies taking place in the Development Speech Lab. For many participants, that simply wasn’t possible because of distance, time commitments, work and financial issues, or reliable transportation.

“The pandemic inspired me to think outside the box,” Walsh said. “I have seen RV labs being used by researchers in different fields and at different institutions. By bringing our research into communities, we can reach a wider range of kids to participate in our studies.”

Walsh admits her husband finally convinced her to get rolling with her idea for a mobile research lab. She wrote up a proposal and pitched it to her department chair, Dimitar Deliyski. Once approved, the search for the perfect used RV began, as well as her collaboration with MSU’s Transportation Services within Infrastructure Planning and Facilities.

“They were key to retrofitting to specifications and transforming a home-on-wheels to a lab-on-wheels,” said Walsh of IPF. “It was phenomenal to see MSU’s carpenters, electricians, mechanics, and skilled tradespeople go above and beyond to make this project a reality.”

Assistant Director of Transportation Services Brian Watts agreed that the “out-of-the-box” project showcased the talents, creativity and immense collection knowledge of IPF personnel. From engineering to design, the team customized the vehicle to exacting specifications, constructing an ideal interior to house sensitive diagnostic equipment, support a consistent power supply, and provide a welcoming atmosphere for children and families. The team was also called to help with branding the exterior, and to create an inviting, recognizable presence for the vehicle’s future on the road.

“We literally had hundreds of years of experience among all the people who worked on this project,” said Watts. “Our skilled tradespeople took the vision and ideas that Bridget had, and made it happen. It’s amazing to see the before and after and to realize what they were able to do.” 

Going to town

Between a complex sales process and the renovation itself, the conversion from a recreational vehicle to MSU’s Mobile Developmental Speech Lab took six months. Lund himself delivered the barely used Thor RV to campus in August after weeks of back-and-forth negotiation and paper work with an out-of-state bank. 

“I wanted MSU to be able to get started on the renovation as soon as possible,” said Lund. “I was all fired up, and I knew they were, too. I am so happy to see the RV put to good use and that it will be helping kids.”

Kathy Lund put it another way.

“We felt in our hearts that Bridget was the one who would make the most of our motor home,” she said. “We were hanging in there for everything to work out.”

Walsh looks forward to the day that public health concerns start appearing in the rearview mirror. Her plans are to drive the mobile lab to communities within a two-hour radius of campus, or even further. Until then, she’ll continue her survey work and outreach to speech pathologists, county health departments, schools and pediatricians to build partnerships and recruit participants for her NIH supported project. To date, she’s reached out to more than 1,200 health and speech and language professionals to recruit children who stutter. She’s also ramping up outreach through social media and tried-and-true marketing techniques like flyers and word-of-mouth. 

“By taking the burden off families and bringing the research to them, we can cast a wider net and include participants in our research who reflect the population at large,” Walsh said. “Our goals are to better understand the neurological basis of stuttering, to assess risk factors for persistence, and to address the adverse impact on children when stuttering persists.” 

“Bridget Walsh’s big idea embodies the land grant ideal of research in service of our communities,” said Prabu David, dean of the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. “Promoting equity in health outcomes through interdisciplinary communication research is a central focus of our college. We are proud to support Bridget’s remarkable work.”

In addition to stuttering research, the Mobile Developmental Speech Lab may be used for studies in other areas of communicative sciences and disorders. Among research projects being considered are studies on autism and language acquisition led by Courtney Venker, assistant professor of Communicative Sciences and Disorders.

The purchase and conversion of the RV was supported by the MSU Office of Research and Innovation, the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, and start-up monies provided by Walsh.

Families interested in participating in Walsh’s research can email her at dsl@msu.edu and learn more at: https://msu.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_eh9NCbEyUIY7B9H

By Ann Kammerer

Explore the New CSD Major

More Research from CSD