July 10, 2020 | Erin Bluvas, email@example.com
The Arnold School’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (COMD) first caught Jean Neils-Strunjas’ attention in her role as a site visitor for the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology where she met then-COMD chair and fellow site visitor Kenn Apel.
“I had so much respect for Kenn, and so I kept my eye on the department for a while,” Neils-Strunjas says of Apel, who led the department from 2012 until his retirement at the end of June when he handed the reins off to Neils-Strunjas. “I also have family in South Carolina, so I was excited about the opportunity to learn more about the department when I saw the open position.”
“We are so pleased to have been able to recruit a leader for COMD with so much experience and accomplishments in the field,” says Thomas Chandler, dean of the Arnold School. “Kenn Apel has built a wonderful and highly regarded department, and I am confident that Jean Neils-Strunjas can continue their amazing trajectory in research, education and service.”
With more than four decades in the field, Neils-Strunjas brings extensive leadership experience to her role as COMD chair. Most recently, she served as Faculty Fellow for Research at Western Kentucky University’s College of Health and Human Services and, prior to that, as the College’s COMD department head. During her career, Neils-Strunjas also held various program director/coordinator and interim associate dean roles at the University of Cincinnati and Armstrong Atlantic State University (now a part of Georgia Southern University).
Working in allied health colleges fostered Neils-Strunjas’ existing interest in interprofessional approaches and provided opportunities for diverse collaborations. This background and perspective make her a particularly good fit for leading a well-established department with varied areas of expertise – specifically a COMD department housed in a school of public health.
“I am so happy for the department that it will be headed by Jean,” Apel says. “She has so much experience in many areas, including the link between research and clinical practice as well as the importance of the standards set by our accrediting organization.”
Neils-Strunjas’ professional journey began as an undergraduate at Pennsylvania State University. Her parents’ careers as an early childhood educator and a dentist in a Pittsburgh suburb aligned with the field, and Neils-Strunjas learned more about the speech pathology and audiology major from another student in her dorm freshman year.
She followed her bachelor’s program with back-to-back master’s and doctoral degrees in speech-language pathology at Case Western Research University. Neils-Strunjas stayed in Cleveland to work at one of the university’s clinics, gaining experience as a speech-language pathology clinician and continuing to build her research program.
“I have always combined research with clinical practice, hand-in-hand, throughout my career,” she says. “I have diverse interests, and my research has evolved to look at healthy development and growth across the lifespan – all the way from language development in children to changes in communication among older adults.”
Much of this work is done in team settings, with researchers contributing expertise from areas such as exercise science, social work, nursing, neurology, speech-language pathology, psychology, rehabilitation and others. Some of Neils-Strunjas’ more recent projects have included working with an exercise scientist (Jason Crandall) and a psychologist (Matthew Shake) to develop and implement Bingocize® (i.e., a bingo, socialization and exercise program for nursing home residents); a 10-week class called Let’s Talk About Memory, where graduate students discuss nutrition, exercise and other aspects of healthy aging with older adults in the community who have mild memory problems; and exploring resilience among student veterans who have experienced mild traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other types of psychological challenges following military service and re-entry into college.
With the Arnold School’s focus on healthy aging, UofSC’s connections to veterans and numerous opportunities for interdisciplinary research and interprofessional education, the COMD department is the perfect place for Neils-Strunjas to build on her research program through new and existing collaborations. Because of her diverse interests and experiences working with different types of research, concerns and populations, it’s also the perfect place for her to lead as chair.
“I’m really excited about contributing to the aging research that is happening here, particularly the best way to help older adults amidst the changing landscape of care and services offered to this population – both due to COVID-19 and other factors,” Neils-Strunjas says. “Kenn laid such great groundwork for the COMD department, so I’m also looking forward to joining forces with the faculty – for whom I have the utmost respect – to learn from them and collaborate with them and to watch them grow and expand their research. I also look forward to teaching and mentoring students.”