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An Interview with a Clinician Scientist: Meet Brea Chouinard

January 30, 2016

chouinard_breaDespite being on maternity leave, Brea Chouinard, a clinician scientist who received the prestigious AIHS fellowship in 2013, generously agreed to answer an online Q&A session for OASIS.

1) When did you realize you wanted to study speech-language pathology?
I have a very unusual story (I think) about how I ended up in SLP. My undergrad degree was a math degree, and I had no idea what to do next. I ended up in Engineering, where I spent three whole days before I ended up crying (how embarrassing) in the office of the Dean of Engineering about how I wanted to work with kids. He wasn’t too pleased with me, but got me transferred as a special studies student back to the Faculty of Science. Now what was I going to do??? I sat down with my brother and we talked about my dream job (basketball coach) and the things about it that made it my dream job (instilling self-confidence in young people, team work, goal oriented, etc). We then flipped through the calendar page by page (yes, things were pen and paper back then) until we stumbled upon SLP. I had never heard of it, but apparently my cousin had seen an SLP. So, I spent the year doing pre-reqs and then applied. I actually didn’t get in (was devastated), but luckily, someone who got in had also applied somewhere else and had gotten in there, and had decided to go there instead. Lucky for me I was first on the waiting list. I was in 🙂

2) What degrees did you pursue and where?
BSc – Biological Sciences (U of A)
Master of Speech Language Pathology (U of A)
PhD in Rehabilitation Science (U of A)

Doing all your degrees at one institution isn’t recommended, but I had international clinical experience (2 years in Britain), so this made my situation a little less troublesome.

3) In what settings have you practiced?
School board (general and intensive classroom based); hospital (in Britain, on a unit that specialized in diagnosing and providing therapy for kidlets with ASD); private practice.

4) What is your specialty or area of research and how did you choose it?
I specialize in autism spectrum disorder and am super interested in how the brain develops and ends up functioning in individuals with ASD. It chose me! When I was in Britain (2006-2008) I had such lovely experiences with families of children with ASD that I was hooked. I had also studied a lot about brain plasticity and wondered how it could be applied to ASD therapy. The more I merged the two (neuroplasticity and ASD therapy), the more success I had.

5) Have there been any major shifts within your field of study?
When I graduated with my MSLP, I was so glad to be a “real person” making money and all that jazz. I swore I was done with Uni forever. (Ha ha, the Universe laughed at my naiveté). When I came home from Britain and was having so much success with the therapy I was providing for individuals with ASD, the parents kept telling me that I needed to tell the world what I was doing. I felt that I should come back to Uni and get some street credit before I did that.

6) How do you feel about the role of research in your own personal practice? In other words, why have you decided to be a clinician scientist?
I think that the more we know as a clinician, then the better we can be at tailoring our therapy to each individual to provide the most effective therapy. For the very few cookie cutter therapies that we do have in the field (PECS comes to mind), I think a clinician could be a thousand times more effective if they understood exactly why the therapy made the changes it did/how it was working.

7) What’s next for you?
Ireland or bust. I have decided to do a post-doctoral fellowship, which means that I get to continue some intensive training, but get paid for it (I am no longer a student). I have applied to work with some geniuses in Ireland (clinical trials and neuroimaging) so that I can boost my skill set and develop a mature network of collaborators and colleagues.

8) Do you have any advice for current or prospective students?
If you’re considering a PhD, don’t worry for a second whether or not you’re smart enough. You are. Anyone is!! The skill required to get you through a PhD is emotional resilience. Also, go out and be a clinician for a while. It is fun and it allows you to come back as a different kind of student: more self-directed and independent.

9) Have you found any strategies that help you maintain balance in your work and personal life?
Oh yah. This is sooooo important and it has been a high priority for me since day one. You just have to set boundaries and then stick to them. If you start off as the person who doesn’t reply to their e-mails after five or on weekends, then people get used to you like that and tailor their expectations around those boundaries.

10) Have you had any mentors in your career?
Yup, yup. I am a huge believer in mentorship, in being both a mentor and a mentee. I will take this opportunity to give a big shout out to Dr. Hopper who was always a believer in me, even when I was off in clinical practice. Dr. Al Cook (who you poor souls never got the fortune to work with, since he’s retired and in California now), was also a huge believer. At one point I confided in him that I was considering leaving the profession and he made me promise that I would consider Academia before I did that. Good ol’ Dr. Cook.

11) Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
Oh, I could go on for hours! I love to talk about research and how it can influence your clinical practice. Alas, I need a nap. (Work-life balance in action!) Best of luck in your studies and in your careers.

Want to learn more about Brea’s publications? Click here.

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