The University of Iowa

Kayleen Schreiber

Kayleen Schreiber

As a graduate student at the University of Iowa, Kayleen Schreiber developed a passion for communicating science.

Schreiber, a recent Ph.D. graduate in neuroscience, studies speech perception—how the human brain makes sense of speech sounds we hear and what processes allow for that to happen.

Schreiber shares her research publicly through her brain blog. She created her blog as part of a new interdisciplinary graduate-level course titled Science Communication in the Digital Age.


Q: Why did you pursue graduate school / become a researcher?

A: In high school, I became obsessed with the brain. I’m not sure exactly what started it, but I couldn’t get enough of this amazing organ: its near-infinite complexity, its connection to every aspect of our lives, its beauty (ok maybe visually it's an acquired taste). But mostly I got hooked because there is so much we still don’t know about it. So many things to discover. The only way I could satiate my desire for discovery was to go to school for nine more years. Only during a Ph.D. and beyond would I get to discover brand new things about the brain. So that’s what I’m doing now: discovering, and loving it.

Q: Can you describe your research in non-expert language?

A: The human brain is excellent at understanding speech even though it is actually a very difficult process. This speech perception process is challenging because each person we come in contact with pronounces words slightly differently. So, how are we so successful? Men and women tend to pronounce words in certain ways, and we can learn these tendencies. Then, we can use that knowledge to help us overcome the differences in peoples’ speech. My dissertation examines how a talker’s gender influences speech perception. I track participants' eye movements and measure electrical changes in the brain while participants listen to speech to study speech perception as it unfolds. My experiments show that talker gender actually changes how we hear speech at the most fundamental level.

Q: What impact has your work had on the field/world? What impact do you hope to have?

A: There has been debate for many years about how listeners use gender to influence speech perception, and my work shows that gender influences even the earliest stages of the speech perception process. I think it’s crazy that we still don’t know exactly how our brains are so good at understanding the speech we hear every day, so my goal is to fill in some of the pieces to this puzzle. Once we understand how this process happens when it’s working correctly, then we can address problems like dyslexia and specific language impairment with more targeted strategies.

Q: What resources have influenced or supported your academic goals?

A: The Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Neuroscience has been very supportive, helpful, and flexible during my graduate career. I was able to develop a strong general foundation in neuroscience through coursework as well as develop skills for my specific line of work through elective courses. I have had the opportunity to TA and develop my teaching skills. In addition, the Graduate College has provided workshops and seminars to learn about career opportunities.

Q: Do you have any role models, mentors, or inspirations who have encouraged you to pursue your work?

A: I am grateful for my family who have been very supportive through each step of my education. In addition, my mentor, Bob McMurray, is a wonderful scientific role model and has continued to be very encouraging and supportive throughout my graduate career.

Q: How has your graduate experience shaped your career goals?

A: Science is the best method we have to learn about our world, to discover new things, and to evaluate what is true and false. I want to help others understand what science does for our society. I took a science communication course last year which enabled me to develop specific graphic design, animation, and writing skills. I created a website to showcase my work and now collaborate with other websites and organizations to communicate science.

Q: If you could go back to a time at the beginning of your graduate career, what advice would you give yourself?

A: I would tell myself to try to be more confident and to interact with as many people as possible. It is difficult at the beginning of a graduate career to feel worthy of being there, and I struggled with jumping into things or networking with people, because I felt out of place. Don’t be afraid to interact and ask questions, and in a few years you’ll feel more like you belong.