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Arnold School of Public Health


Jessica Klusek joins COMD, bringing expertise in communication abilities in connection with autism and fragile X syndrome

October 11, 2016 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

The Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (COMD) welcomed a new assistant professor this fall, but she isn’t new to Carolina. Jessica Klusek has just wrapped a three-year postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Psychology’s Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Research Lab.

The fellowship capped off 13 years of education and training for what promises to be an impactful career at the forefront of her field. Klusek specializes in communication abilities in connection with autism and fragile X syndrome, the most common known genetic cause of autism.

“I am interested in identifying biomarkers associated with communication impairments in these conditions and delineating areas of overlap or divergence across syndromes,” says Klusek. With one out of every 68 children in the U.S. affected by autism, the condition has received attention for some time, particularly over the past 15 years as the prevalence of the disorder has risen dramatically. Further, communication impairments are a core feature of autism. This makes Klusek’s research, which focuses on communication features and associated mechanisms for this group, even more timely and critical.

Klusek’s work adopts a family approach, where she looks at broader profiles among family members that are linked to genetic risk. She is specifically interested in carriers of fragile X syndrome, who have a genetic mutation known as FMR1 premutation.

Dr. Klusek already is demonstrating the markers of a great researcher and her research area is one in which our graduate students consistently show high interest. 

-Kenn Apel, COMD Chair

“Research on the FMR1 premutation has recently become a public health priority because we have new evidence showing that it is surprisingly common in the general population,” says Klusek, who received funding from the National Institutes of Health during her postdoctoral fellowship to lead a study focused on mothers who have FMR1 premutation. “When we conduct general population screening studies, we find that about 1 in 150 females carry the FMR1 premutation. Researchers are still trying to figure out what it means to be a carrier of the FMR1 premutation, but it is clear that there are associated mental and physical health risks.”

In addition to her research, she’s looking forward to educating and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in the topics of autism and developmental disabilities—particularly because these future speech-language pathologists are likely to encounter various conditions in their clinical work. “I am honored to have the opportunity to shape the way that future professionals in my field will interface with this group of individuals and their families,” Klusek says. “I also very much enjoy teaching at a more individual level, through my work mentoring undergraduate and master’s students as they engage in the research process.”

Klusek is thrilled to continue her career at USC and excited to rejoin the field of COMD. “Joining the department of communication sciences and disorders is like coming home for me!” she says. “While I engage in a lot of interdisciplinary work for my research, my professional identity is as a speech-language pathologist. I’m very passionate about my field, and I am pleased to join the faculty in communication sciences and disorders where I can contribute to the advancement of my profession through research, teaching, and professional service.”

Mentoring students is the most rewarding part of my day, and I love watching as students develop an understanding and excitement about research!

-Jessica Klusek, Assistant Professor of COMD

After growing up in Philadelphia, Klusek first entered the COMD field with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Sciences and Disorders from the University of Pittsburgh. She then earned a Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology from the same institution. Klusek followed her master’s program with a Clinical Fellowship in Speech-Language Pathology and then a Ph.D. in Speech and Hearing Sciences—both at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill—before coming to USC for her postdoctoral fellowship.

“The department feels so fortunate to have Dr. Klusek join our faculty,” says COMD Chair Kenn Apel. “Dr. Klusek already is demonstrating the markers of a great researcher and her research area is one in which our graduate students consistently show high interest. We anticipate she will bring a great deal of positive attention to our department in the next few years.”

Although she embraces all areas of her new role, two aspects stand out for Klusek. “Mentoring students is the most rewarding part of my day, and I love watching as students develop an understanding and excitement about research!” she says. “I am also looking forward to ‘digging into’ my research. This is an exciting time in the field of neurodevelopmental disabilities, where the tools that we have available to understand the nature and basis of these conditions are unprecedented.”