WVU graduates first-ever communication sciences and disorders Ph.D. student

The first-ever West Virginia University Communication Sciences and Disorders Ph.D. student graduated on December 16, 2016. Mary E. Weidner joined the WVU College of Education and Human Services in the fall of 2013 to pursue her doctorate in communication sciences and disorders with an emphasis in stuttering.

“We are thrilled to see Mary graduate as our first student in the program. The primary objective of the program is to assist students in developing in-depth mastery of a specific area within the discipline and Mary did just this,” stated Dean Gypsy Denzine. “We are so proud of her and her accomplishments while at WVU and wish her success in her career.”

Weidner, a Gibsonia, PA native, received her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Speech-Language Pathology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2007 and 2009, respectively. In 2009, Weidner began working clinically at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. It was through her clinical work that she was inspired to learn more about perceptions of stuttering in kids.

“I worked with a lot of children who stuttered and many who also experienced peer difficulties as a result of their stuttering. I started to wonder – what are the attitudes children have that lead them to treat their peers who stutter poorly? Can we change them? Will it make a difference?,” questioned Weidner.

In her clinical work, Weidner saw a patient who particularly increased her interest in learning more. The patient, a six-year-old who stuttered and was bullied in her classroom, told Weidner that she wouldn’t raise her hand in class. Weidner asked the patient to draw a picture of her stuttering.

“She drew a picture of a big black wall. The black wall was surrounded by colorful dots. She told me ‘this is what happens when my speech gets bumpy at school’,” said Weidner. “I asked a colleague to help me to manage this young patient’s emotional aspect of stuttering.”

As a result, Weidner and her colleague, Craig E. Coleman wrote a book. The book, Tarby Comes Out of His Shell, was used for this patient and others in order to help them deal with stuttering.

Weidner’s interest in helping children who stutter continued to grow, and she felt that understanding and improving peer attitudes was a particularly important piece of the puzzle. Weidner started researching doctoral degree opportunities that would allow her to measure peer attitudes toward stuttering and to develop a program to change those attitudes.

She chose WVU for a few reasons. “I knew of Dr. St. Louis' work and we shared a lot of similar interests in stuttering research. I was also excited to be a part of something new – on the cusp of progress. I was thankful to have an opportunity to be a pioneer of the new program.” shared Weidner.

Dr. Kenneth O. St. Louis, professor of communication sciences and disorders at WVU has spent more than a dozen years researching the public attitudes towards adults who stutter. “Mary wanted to extend my work of adult perceptions on stuttering to children, so it was a great fit,” stated Dr. St. Louis. “In the third week of her program, she had the opportunity to meet personally the key players in the field at the first international symposium on public attitudes toward stuttering held here in Morgantown. She presented at that symposium and continued to produce ground-breaking research throughout her time here.”

According to Dr. St. Louis, the Ph.D. program’s success is grounded in matching a student’s interest to a faculty mentor’s ongoing research within the department. This mentorship allows students to be at the forefront of cutting-edge research.

For her dissertation research, Weidner developed a program using puppets as she had envisioned. The program, Attitude Change and Tolerance, also known as InterACT, is used to change kids’ perceptions of stuttering using educational videos and hands-on activities. Weidner scripted the puppetry videos, which consists of puppets representing children who are typically developing, as well as children who are in wheelchairs or who stutter. The program showed a significant effect on improving children's stuttering attitudes, and plans to replicate her study and expand the InterACT program are underway.

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