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Arnold School of Public Health

Language and cognitive development researcher Erin Smolak joins COMD

March 24, 2023 | Erin Bluvas,

Erin Smolak has joined the Arnold School’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (COMD) as an assistant professor. She is also the director of the CLOuD Lab, where she researches language and cognitive development from birth to the early school years.

As the daughter of an audiologist whose research examines hearing loss in children, Smolak was no stranger to the COMD field while growing up in Minnesota. Research was (and still is) a frequent topic at the family dinner table, and she still remembers her first research experience at the age of five.

“Scientists had found several malformed frogs in 1995 and subsequently enlisted citizen participation in amphibian data collection,” Smolak says. “I spent my summer catching, measuring and making observations of leopard frogs from the pond in our backyard with my parents’ assistance, and I’m sure this information is still in a large databank somewhere.”

Effective communication is so important to human development, although many of us take it for granted.

Erin Smolak

While an undergraduate at Ohio University, the psychology major experienced another milestone in her vocational journey when she took elective courses in linguistics and COMD. Smolak quickly became fascinated with the complex process of how children learn language – amazed by how most accomplished this feat with relatively little difficulty.

When she began pursuing a Ph.D. in Language and Communicative Disorders (a joint program between San Diego State University and the University of California San Diego), she immersed herself in the disorders side of language development. Smolak was particularly interested in the basis of language impairment as well as its possible trajectories.  

“Effective communication is so important to human development, although many of us take it for granted,” she says. “People with developmental language disorder, for example, can have difficulties in effective communication, social development, cognition, emotional and behavioral functioning, and more as a result of their language impairment.”

After graduating in 2019, Smolak spent the next three years as a postdoctoral research fellow with Boys Town National Hospital’s Center for Childhood Deafness, Language and Learning. As a member of the Word Learning Lab, she built on her passion for developmental research as well as engaging in community outreach and building awareness of developmental language disorder.

When she began looking for her first tenure-track appointment, the Arnold School’s research reputation caught her eye. Smolak was particularly impressed by the supportive, collegiate and collaborative atmosphere offered by her new department. 

“Dr. Smolak brings a wealth of research experiences from well-known research labs across the country,” says COMD chair Jean Neils-Strunjas. “As a result, she contributes to the diversity of ideas in our department and is a valuable contributor to research projects. Additionally, her easy-going personality and willingness to serve the department adds a lot to our department’s positive culture.”

Smolak is looking forward to partnering with faculty members across USC and mentoring students both in the classroom and in the CLOuD Lab. In the lab, she continues her research into developmental language disorder, an under-identified neurodevelopmental disorder even though it affects approximately two children in every classroom. Her team also examines the development of other skills, such as vocabulary, word learning, other language domains, attention and working memory. 

“The goal of my research is to clarify the underlying causes of developmental language disorder and identify effective methods of early identification and intervention,” Smolak says. “It is my hope that, through my research, I can inform strategies to identify and support these children throughout their lives.”

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