shay brennan

Brennan also presented at a Virginia convention in March. 

JMU senior communication sciences and disorders major Shay Brennan has been accepted to present her research on traumatic brain injuries at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Convention in Boston from Nov. 15-17. Having always been fascinated by the brain Brennan discovered the need for further research in the field. She decided to focus her study on the psychology of traumatic brain injury survivors rather than the physical side that speech language pathologists often begin to work with.

Last year in March Brennan’s research was accepted at the Speech-Language-Hearing Association of Virginia, and a year later she submitted a research proposal to ASHA. In August she received its award for PROmoting the next GENeration of Researchers (PROGENY). As a recipient of the award, Brennan was invited to present her research to over 15,000 people at the convention and attend a “research roundtable” where she’ll meet with a lead researcher in the communication sciences and disorders field to discuss her study.

For her study, Brennan interviews TBI survivors and caregivers separately, codes the responses and observes the data for common trends. Both the similar and different responses between survivors and caregivers give better insight on their experiences as well as their overall mental state, as opposed to the traditionally studied physical side of their condition.

“Often times, medical professionals get right into therapy,” Brennan said. “However, TBI survivors are often struggling more on the mental side of it because of what they’re going through: they have depression, their lives are completely changed, they’re frustrated. This is often swept underneath the carpet, and they cannot perform as well as others can because of that.”

As an honors student studying to be a speech language pathologist, Brennan spent much of her time as a freshman and sophomore working with people with disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome as well as stroke patients. She then became interested in traumatic brain injuries and how speech language pathologists could better aid this those who suffer from those conditions.

Brennan began her research as a sophomore with the help of Cynthia O’Donoghue, head of JMU communication sciences and disorders department, and Cara Meixner, an associate professor of graduate psychology. They were able to provide her with interview connections, access to the research lab database and insight on how to interview as well as what to do with her data.

“[The research] gives us information about where families are able to truly report, where we need to be able to tap into and how to understand the survivors better,” O’Donoghue said. “The more we can understand, the more we can help them move through the rehabilitation process.”

Brennan also had the help of graduate student Marena Jones, who completed a similar project as an undergraduate. Jones provided Brennan with guidance on some of the techniques that she used in her previous research, and offered a new perspective that improved the accuracy of Brennan’s research because of her past experience.

“Traumatic brain injury is very common,” Jones said. “Her research is giving a voice to people who can see that they’re not alone in what they’re going through, and that there are options available for them to help them improve in any way that they can.”

Last year, Brennan’s research was accepted to be presented at the SHAV Conference in March. She listened to presentations on various topics related to the field of speech and displayed her own findings. She discovered that she was one of few who spoke about traumatic brain injury, and answered many questions from doctors and professionals following her presentation.

“[The SHAV Conference] definitely made me more comfortable with my research,” Brennan said. “It gave me the confidence that this is something that people care about, and it made me excited to speak at the national conference in November.”

Brennan’s research provides a different perspective on TBI and delves deeper into the understanding of patients’ experiences. Rather than the traditional speech pathology presentations related to the physical aspects of TBI therapy, her study will bring something new to the table for the field of communications sciences and disorders to think about at the ASHA conference.

“I love talking in front of people, but it is a little intimidating that they’re all the best of the best,” Brennan said. “People are coming all over the country to hear me speak. But it is also a great opportunity that I’m really excited about.”

Contact Kamryn Koch at For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.