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Arnold School of Public Health


COMD student Sara Straley wins national award to support master’s thesis research

July 22, 2016 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Sara Straley decided to work in the field of communication sciences and disorders (COMD) after discovering an interest in different modes of communication, particularly sign language, and the experiences of those with hearing loss as a junior in high school. That same year, the Cincinnati-native made a campus visit to the University of South Carolina that solidified her career path.

“I fell in love with the Horseshoe and the overall feel of the campus,” Straley says. “I jumped at the opportunity to attend as an undergraduate, and it’s been a great experience to continue my education through my graduate program.”

Straley majored in public health for her bachelor of science degree, cultivating her interest in communication and hearing loss through a minor in COMD. “I really enjoyed learning about all of the different areas of health and health disparities,” Straley says. “There are many different aspects to choose from which makes it a great major for those of us who were unsure of what we wanted to do during our freshman year!”

Her junior year, Straley met Krystal Werfel, who specializes in literacy achievement for children with hearing loss, through Werfel’s phonetics course. She quickly teamed up with the assistant professor in Werfel’s Written Language Lab as a volunteer to gain research experience. Now entering the second year of COMD’s Master of Speech Pathology program, she has continued refining her interests through her coursework and clinical experiences. “This program is so rewarding because we get to immediately begin working with clients and seeing what type of growth an individual can make during treatment,” she says. “I’ve also really enjoyed the specialization of our courses, now that I’ve nailed down what I want to do with the rest of my life!”

I really enjoyed learning about all of the different areas of health and health disparities...There are many different aspects to choose from which makes it a great major for those of us who were unsure of what we wanted to do during our freshman year.

-Sara Straley, MSP Student

She’s continued building her research experience as a graduate research assistant on various projects with Werfel as well. “I’ve seen Sara grow from an undergraduate who was just beginning to learn about research to being a project coordinator of a federal grant,” says Werfel. “There is a paucity of research in the area of hearing loss and literacy acquisition, and it is exciting to see a budding researcher with Sara’s interests.”

For her part, Straley is grateful for her mentor’s influence on her academic path. “Dr. Werfel has helped shape my abilities as a clinician, researcher and writer,” says Straley. “She has been actively encouraging me to pursue a Ph.D. by teaching me how to write research questions, affording opportunities to present research at multiple conferences, and advising me on most of my academic and clinical choices.”

Werfel is certain Straley has what it takes to excel in the field. “Sara’s academic record is impressive, she is one of the hardest and most reliable workers I have ever encountered, and she has great scholarly potential,” she says. “In addition to her research activities, Sara is the person that her classmates turn to when they are struggling in a course or with a client. It is clear that she is highly respected by her peers as well as the faculty in our program. I have been shamelessly recruiting her to complete doctoral studies for several years now.”

This program is so rewarding because we get to immediately begin working with clients and seeing what type of growth an individual can make during treatment.

-Sara Straley, MSP Student

Straley has already presented one of her research projects at an American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) conference and published a paper as first author on the same topic in a peer-reviewed journal (with another in preparation). She was also selected to participate in ASHA’s PROGENY mentorship program.

Straley believes these types of experiences helped her to be selected for her most recent award, ASHA’s Students Preparing for Academic-Research Careers Award (SPARC) (see last year’s Arnold School winners). She will use the award’s $1,000 stipend to help fund her master’s thesis project this fall, with plans to present the findings at the 2017 Society for the Scientific Study of Reading Conference (learn about COMD professor Lesly Wade-Woolley, who led last year’s conference, and is a member of Straley’s thesis committee).

Sara’s academic record is impressive, she is one of the hardest and most reliable workers I have ever encountered, and she has great scholarly potential.

-Krystal Werfel, Assistant Professor of COMD

After her 2017 graduation, Straley plans to work as a speech-language pathologist—focusing on pediatric populations with communication disorders. “Eventually, once I have gained more clinical experience, I may return to pursue my Ph.D. when I have formulated my own research questions,” she says. “But who knows, maybe this SPARC award will have me deciding to pursue a Ph.D. earlier?”