Exploring communication partners

Aphasia affects a person’s ability to understand or use spoken language, read or write. This communication disorder that can occur, for instance, when people suffer a stroke and struggle to find the right words in a conversation. In the United States, approximately 1 million people – or 1 in every 205 – live with the condition.

Rosa Zavaleta sitting at an outdoor table, smiling, wearing navy blue clinical scrubs and working at a laptop computerWhen Rosa Zavaleta, who is pursuing a bachelor of science in speech-language pathology, began learning about aphasia, she became especially interested in “communication partners” – those people, such as family members and caregivers, who interact with a person who has aphasia. “I began to wonder whether we can tailor interventions to match communication partner traits, thus improving their effectiveness as communication partners,” said Zavaleta. “If that is, indeed. the case, how can speech-language pathologists create better interventions to serve all partners?”

Over the summer, Zavaleta worked with her mentor, Professor Laura Wilson, to design a Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) study that will uncover the traits that lead to more confident and, therefore, successful communication partners. She explained: “My surveys, which I will administer to a group of TU students in the fall, will walk them through a simulated case study to see if a tailored intervention can make people more confident communication partners.”

Zavaleta will use Qualtrics to administer these surveys. “One of the benefits of using this program is that it has allowed Professor Wilson and me to collaborate remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the information-gathering stage, it will enable me to view responses almost instantly, which will give me time to organize my findings and present them in time at the Student Research Colloquium in 2021.”

Eventually, noted Zavaleta, it would be interesting to have actual communication partners of people with aphasia in the community participate. “For now, I am very glad to have the opportunity to participate in research as an undergraduate, especially for something so relevant in my field and to many people in the community.”


Between 2019 and 2029, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 25% growth in employment for speech-language pathologists. Take a look at TU’s undergraduate and graduate programs in communication sciences and disorders.