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Interview with Dr. Shoba S. Meera

Interviewer: Jameela Lawal

Editor: Meenakshi Subha Vipin

Closer: Sarea Leung

Meet Dr. Shoba S. Meera, a dedicated speech-language pathologist, clinician-researcher and Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bengaluru, India.

Could you give us an introduction to you and your work?

I am a speech-language pathologist by clinical training and a clinician-researcher serving as faculty (Assoc. Prof) in the Dept. of Speech Pathology and Audiology, division of Neurosciences, NIMHANS, Bengaluru, India. My primary focus is on early detection of autism and early intervention for autistic children. Additionally, I study language and social communication development in neurotypical and autistic children. 

I work in one of India’s largest tertiary care hospitals, providing outpatient and in-patient services to individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders, mental health issues, and neurological disorders. My goal is to deliver state-of-the-art clinical services to autistic children and develop evidence-based early intervention methods that are culturally and linguistically appropriate for India’s diverse population.

As a Fulbright-Nehru post-doctoral researcher in an NIH-funded autism Center for Excellence network in the US, I gained valuable knowledge and expertise that led me to receive the Wellcome Trust DBT IA early career fellowship in clinical and public health. This fellowship has supported my research lab, where I focus on various areas, including parent-mediated early intervention for infants and toddlers at high familial likelihood for autism, remote intervention delivery and monitoring, analyzing caregiver speech through day-long audio recordings, validating automatic speech recognition models in Indian languages, studying the impact of postpartum severe mental health illness on language and cognitive development, and exploring language development in bi/multilingual environments.

I strongly believe in mentorship, and I have been very fortunate to learn from exceptional mentors. Therefore, I invest significant time mentoring my team and actively contribute to mentoring programs. Not to forget, I continue to get mentored! 


What do you think is an incredibly fascinating part of communication that is often overlooked/taken for granted?

Babies communicate from day one. Children possess a remarkable ability to communicate even before uttering their first words. Regrettably, this aspect of communication often goes unnoticed or underappreciated, particularly when we encounter children with speech-language delays. We overlook the countless ways a child communicates non-verbally, directing our attention solely towards verbal expression (speech) and unintentionally reprimanding a child for not speaking. However, it is important to recognize that verbal communication is a skill that builds upon the foundation of non-verbal communication, like gestures, etc. It is crucial to appreciate and nurture this foundation. By doing so, we can provide the necessary support and encouragement to facilitate the transition from non-verbal to verbal communication.

From discovering your passion to getting a Ph.D., it must have been a long journey. What obstacles did you face to getting where you are today?

Speech-Language Pathology, both as an undergraduate and postgraduate subject, remains relatively unknown in India compared to many other countries. Unfortunately, it is often misunderstood, with many people still equating it solely with sign language and hearing impairment. That’s how it was 18 years ago, and sometimes, even I questioned my path. While I knew it went far beyond sign language, I wondered if others understood the depth of what I was doing.

Finding places that offer a Ph.D. program in Speech-Language Pathology where one can pursue research while actively working in a clinical setting was challenging. Peer support within the field has been scarce. And compared to other professions, there are far fewer Speech-Language Pathologists pursuing PhD programs. Educating people about the existence and significance of this field remains a constant battle. SLPs pursuing a PhD have so much to offer, yet getting fellow professionals and the wider public to fully grasp that continues to be a major challenge.

What has been, in your opinion, one of the most interesting/surprising findings in the field of speech pathology?

AAC and Bilingual brain development could be two areas that I can expand upon. 

I see you have mentioned that dance has hugely impacted the way you think of your profession. In what way has it influenced your views? How do you think dance and speech relate to each other?

Dance has taught me the power of communication. Without saying a word, I can convey a complex idea, a deep emotion, and an entire story – all using my body as a whole. Whether it is the mudras (gestures), the facial expressions (bhava), or just a certain body position. 

Hence, I very strongly advocate for any form of communication to be encouraged and advocate for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) – an area that is often overlooked. Dance involves a multisensory approach – it engages multiple senses simultaneously, including visual, auditory, and kinesthetic senses. I understand the influence the multi-sensory approach has had on me, and as SLPs, we use a multi-sensory approach in language learning and to facilitate communication. I feel I understand the need for a multisensory approach even more because of the way it influences me in the dance space. Hence, I have a certain conviction about this approach when I talk to families of children with autism and related developmental disabilities.

There are other things that dance has taught me in my day-to-day work. It has instilled in me confidence and self-esteem, which also shows in my professional engagements. Several times, dance performances are group-based; hence, it has helped me embrace collaboration with others, encouraging teamwork and acceptance that in a team, there may be times that I may not be the most important; I may hardly be seen on stage in a performance. But if I don’t pull my weight, my lack of practice or absence will be noticed. I remind myself that at work, too, I may not always have the most important position, but my role is very important, and it is essential that I deliver my very best. The other side of this is we, as dancers, perform solos too. To be able to gracefully take centre stage and lead the entire performance, too, has helped my career. There are several times I must lead, and I have to take both the credit and criticism for my decisions, whether it involves the right choices for intervention or seeking funding for future research. Dance has helped in leadership, too.

Finally, over the years, dance has taught me that not everything needs to be a rat race. You can do things at your own pace, and one day, you will reach your goal. This is not how I started out as a kid. Dance was a competitive thing for me. But today, I have reached a stage where I dance because it brings me joy. This is another aspect that has influenced the way I think of my career, particularly in the mentoring space. 

If it were not for speech pathology, what other field of research, in neuroscience or otherwise, would you have pursued?

If I were to explore a field of research outside of language development and intervention and autism, I would have chosen to pursue a career in understanding the brain and behavior in infant toddlers. That is, I would have studied early brain development, specifically focusing on infants. Investigating the intricate processes and growth patterns of the developing brain through imaging techniques would provide valuable insights into understanding the foundations of cognitive development in the early stages of life. In fact, I did get a sneak peek into brain and behavior studies during my postdoc at the Infant Brain Imaging Study lab headed by Dr. Joe Piven at UNC-Chapel Hill USA. 

Is there, and if so, what is something you’d like to change in the field of speech pathology?

An important component of speech pathology is speech-language intervention, a.k.a therapy. The narrative that speech therapy is equal to speaking therapy must change. No! Speech-language therapy is much more than just ‘speaking’ therapy. The biggest goal for a speech-language pathologist is to help in communication – an ability to exchange ideas to-fro. It could be through verbal (speech) and/or nonverbal mode.



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