Leading the Vanguard: Jena McDaniel

Headshot of Jena McDaniel

VKC member Jena McDaniel, Ph.D., serves as assistant professor of Hearing & Speech Sciences. Her research centers around developing, validating, and implementing highly effective and targeted speech-language intervention services for deaf and hard of hearing children and children with autism spectrum disorder.

In the interview below, McDaniel shares what inspires her research, what she has learned through her work, and how membership with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center helps her achieve her goals.

Tell us about your attraction to developmental disabilities research.

My interest in serving children with developmental disabilities and their families emerged during my childhood and became especially apparent in high school. As one key example of this interest, I wanted to learn American Sign Language (ASL). I was not allowed to take adult ASL classes by myself, so my dad graciously enrolled with me. From there I continued to learn about speech-language pathology and how speech-language pathologists can serve children with a variety of disabilities. As I progressed through my undergraduate and graduate training, I sought opportunities to be involved in research initially to develop my clinical skills and then to make a larger positive impact on more families. With so many unanswered questions about how to best facilitate speech and language development, I ultimately decided to pursue a research career to help answer such questions and improve speech and language services.

What are your current research interests and what challenges does they address?

My research program primarily focuses on language intervention effectiveness and efficiency in deaf and hard of hearing children and children with autism. For deaf and hard of hearing children, my lab (Child Language Intervention and Best practices [CLIMB] Lab) has two main projects underway. For one, we are investigating how deaf and hard of hearing children can learn words faster and remember them longer. What we learn may apply to other language skills and support deaf and hard of hearing children in achieving higher language skills that support their academic and social needs. For the other project, we are following a large sample of deaf and hard of hearing children to better delineate the development of their language skills in English and ASL. This information is a critical step in testing potentially malleable factors that we could intervene on to improve their language skills.

For children with autism, we have recently initiated a study aimed at identifying novel predictors of children with autism remaining minimally verbal. Ultimately, we want to identify the “tipping points” for achieving generative language in this population to intervene more effectively and support children and families in achieving their communication and language goals. We are following the communication and language development of children with autism from 18 to 24 months of age until age 5 for this project. Other related projects have focused on how to intervene most effectively to improve the speech and language skills in young children with autism who are not yet talking.

What is something about your work that you enjoy?

One of my biggest encouragements and joys in my job is being able to interact directly with children and sharing something new that they have done with their caregivers. I am grateful for opportunities to see growth or unrealized skills in children and be able to encourage families through noticing change in their children that they have been hoping for and working for.

What are your reasons for becoming a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Member?

One of the biggest reasons I became a VKC member was to join a community of collaborative, talented, and thoughtful researchers and other stakeholders. The VKC provides numerous supports for each phase of the research process. Resources are available to enhance studies from conceptualization to data collection and analysis to sharing the results. These resources heighten the quality of studies and expand their impact. Completing studies and sharing meaningful results to be put into practice is critical for making a positive difference for children and families.

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