March 13, 2019 | Erin Bluvas, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sigfus Kristinsson, a doctoral student in the communication sciences and disorders (COMD) department, has won a $25,000 grant from the Leifur Eriksson Foundation to support his dissertation research. The Iceland native will use the award to study aphasia, a communication disorder resulting from stroke or injury to the brain that impacts patients’ ability to speak, listen, read and/or write but does not affect intelligence.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the neurobiology of language, which is how language is represented in our brains,” says Kristinsson, who earned back-to-back bachelor’s (linguistics and literature) and master’s (speech language pathology) degrees in the field from the University of Iceland.
He then gained clinical experience at a rehabilitation center as a speech-language pathologist, primarily working with patients with neurogenic diseases (e.g., Parkinson’s disease, stroke, traumatic brain injury). It was during this time that Kristinsson became increasingly interested in aphasia and the neurological basis of the disorder—prompting him to research Ph.D. programs to continue his study.
“I was aware that one of the world’s top aphasia labs was at UofSC and had been following their research for a while, so I made it my priority to be accepted into the Ph.D. program,” Kristinsson says. “There are some brilliant people directly involved in the lab and others that collaborate closely with it, both in terms of knowledge on pathology and treatment on aphasia and of neuroimaging techniques to study aphasia.”
One of those brilliant individuals was COMD professor Julius Fridriksson, a fellow Icelander and the director of the renowned Aphasia Laboratory that Kristinsson had heard so much about. “Dr. Fridriksson has a way of promoting independence in academic work and research, while maintaining support and advice in every aspect,” he says of his mentor. “He’s given me invaluable insight into how to conduct research and write up results, how to focus on what’s of interest rather that getting lost in details, and how to be productive and minimize stress levels at the same time. I also benefit from indirect mentoring from professors at the COMD department and collaborators of the Aphasia Lab, all of whom have been very helpful to me in various ways.”
It’s only been 18 months since Kristinsson and his family moved to Columbia from their quiet seaside village in Iceland, but he’s already making the most of the opportunities he’s discovered at Carolina. The graduate research assistant is working on several projects in the Aphasia Lab, including research on the connection between brain damage and sentence comprehension in individuals with aphasia, how a certain genotype impacts aphasia, and the predictability of prognosis for those with the condition.
He’s also continuing a multi-year, funded project in Iceland examining the quality of life of individuals with and without aphasia after stroke—an understudied topic in his homeland. In addition, Kristinsson spends time treating clients at the USC Speech and Hearing Research Center or engaging in community outreach activities alongside his Aphasia Lab teammates.
With two first-author publications in 2018 alone, Kristinsson is on track to achieving his goal of becoming an academic professor and the primary investigator of his own aphasia laboratory. “I’m especially interested in translating research findings into clinical practice to improve prognosis and quality of life of people living with aphasia,” he says.
“Allow yourself to be passionate about what you study and the rest will follow,” Kristinsson adds. “I’ve come to realize that there are very few limits to what we can achieve, except for ourselves.”