Objectivity with Heart: A Conversation with Investigator Nancy Brady

Nancy Brady, Professor and Chair in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences and Disorders at the University of Kansas and a researcher at the Life Span Institute, applies her interest in communication to her research focused on clinical practices that benefit individuals who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Nancy Brady, smiling and surrounded with the words objectivity with heart

In this interview, Brady shared her experience as a long-term KU investigator and her journey in seeking improved methods for assessing and treating individuals with minimal verbal skills. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What drew you to your field?

I am really interested in ways that people communicate without spoken language and other symbolic means. Some of that includes augmentative and alternative communication forms, but I'm also really interested in how people communicate with gestures, body movements, eye gaze, and other aspects of nonverbal communication. For a lot of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, this remains their primary means of communication throughout their lives. They have very significant impairments to communicating with symbolic means.

What has been unexpected in your research?

I think I'm always surprised at how resilient and committed families are. I think I see a lot of families who not only survive and make do but actually thrive. They not only help their child to develop better, but I think they would say that they are better people too. So, I think seeing the positive impacts of what some people in society would see as impairments or limitations is very encouraging and sometimes surprising because some of the kids can be super challenging.

What is a challenging aspect of your research?

It can take so long to see changes. I think some things in our society that are made to be helpful can be somewhat of a deterrence. For example, one of our research colleagues through the Life Span Institute is the Ann Sullivan Center in Peru, and I've had an opportunity to have some ongoing interactions with them. Their model involves the family from the get-go and, the families are so excited to have this opportunity to participate. Part of that reason is Peru; they don't have a lot of social supports. It's not guaranteed that their kids will get an education in school. The family knows that it's up to them to make sure that everything that they want to happen will happen for their child.

And then in our country, there are so many governmental supports that sometimes the family doesn't step up as much. That can be kind of challenging, trying to be helpful, or trying to see when and how the family can interact with all of those supports to be optimally helpful for them, the child or young adult.

Another challenge is how long it takes to get research information out into the field. For example, I observe a lot of children in their classrooms, and some classrooms that I see don't look that different than classrooms that I would've seen 15 years ago, even though we've had all kinds of information about inclusion and getting kids into regular environments. A lot of students that I work with are still in very self-contained isolated environments. That's discouraging and challenging.

When you're encountering challenges, how do you resolve them?

Different researchers have different strengths and tactics. Some of my colleagues focused on big picture system change. I focus more on the individual students that I'm working with, as well as their teacher and their family. If I can make changes in a couple of those students, then that's a success for me. Part of the reason I enjoy teaching is that it leads to faster dissemination. If two or three of my graduate students go out and help promote change in their next employment situation, then that can lead to more immediate changes for the students they serve. So, I try to look at cumulative effects from the small changes that can result from my research.

How does teaching relate to your research experience?

I really enjoy teaching. I teach a seminar to our master's level students focused specifically on communication for individuals with more significant, complex communication needs. To me, teaching is kind of a chance for instant dissemination. Usually, the research pipeline takes so long. You do the research, you write it up, you hope somebody reads it. Then, maybe five years later, people are using what you've developed. However, when I teach something in class, I can tell people to do it right away. So, I think I have an ideal job because I get to promote dissemination through teaching. I learn so much from our young professionals, too, about what they're seeing when they're out in different schools and clinics.

What is the most important qualification of a researcher?

Objectivity with heart. I think it's really important to be a very rigorous researcher, but then not to lose sight of the big goals and try to help people. I think you have to really keep those things in mind, because sometimes when you're really in the trenches and trying to be super rigorous, you can look around and realize that you're so rigorous that nobody will be able to replicate what you've created. It's always about being mindful when trying to create research that consumers can ultimately use.

What have you learned since joining the Life Span Institute?

Oh, so many things. I've been here a long time, and the great thing about the Life Span Institute is that it nurtures research, and we have many opportunities to learn from each other. We have a lot of support just in the administrative support, which facilitates our ability to accomplish more. That's been wonderful.

The collaboration with the Research Design and Analysis unit has been a big impact on my research. I collaborate a lot with Kandace Fleming and a lot of my research has become more dependent on advanced statistical modeling, which isn't my main strength. I've just learned so much about different ways to do statistics and to evaluate research from Kandace and her team.

And because we have colleagues at the Medical Center looking at more of the biological factors involved with a lot of the disorders that we work with, that's also been informative and helpful for thinking of pharmacological treatments and behavioral treatments. It's really awesome to have all of the resources brought together through the Life Span Institute.