Passion for patient care drove speech language pathologist to a neuroscience PhD

Carolyn Fleck-Prediger gracefully balanced motherhood, full-time work and graduate studies for seven years.

Sasha Roeder Mah - 24 February 2020

Fifteen-year-old Anika Prediger has a promising future in medicine if she wants it, laughs her mom, Carolyn Fleck-Prediger, '19 PhD. Anika, who was seven when her mom embarked on her PhD in neuroscience at the University of Alberta, was her devoted study buddy. She even named her favourite My Little Pony "Pons" after that part of the brain-just one example of how this working mom's choice to pursue a graduate degree impacted her children.

A veteran medical speech language pathologist at Ponoka's Halvar Jonson Centre for Brain Injury, Fleck-Prediger knew she would some day return to school. She was just waiting for the right time.

Learning from her patients

A series of patients with disorders of consciousness after injury or stroke provided the inspiration Fleck-Prediger needed to take the leap back into academia. As she and the centre's team struggled to determine treatment, Fleck-Prediger and physiatrist Shaun Gray turned to Ryan D'Arcy, a neuroscientist in Halifax who was developing a portable system to test specific elements of conscious awareness.

Having conducted tests on a few patients, D'Arcy recognized that Fleck-Prediger's clinical expertise could be an invaluable asset to their research team and together with Gray, he encouraged her to pursue a PhD in neuroscience. Since it was most practical for Fleck-Prediger to complete her PhD at the U of A, D'Arcy arranged for her to work with seasoned researcher and clinical psychologist Bruce Dick in the Department of Anesthesiology & Pain Medicine.

Finding balance

"As a working mom of five children, I've always known the importance of maintaining balance," says Fleck-Prediger, but graduate studies would be one more thing to juggle. For seven years, she worked full time, went to university and still carved out time for her family.

"I learned to be very efficient," she says. "I could study by listening to audiobooks while driving to the kids' basketball tournaments; sometimes I'd only watch half a game, but I would always try to be there for them." Yoga and meditation helped her manage stress and maintain a healthy mindset.

Fleck-Prediger's family was a huge source of support, and she knows it was a lot to ask. "I had to use most of my vacation time to go to classes and conduct research," she recalls, "and the kids had to become more independent." The occasional family trip broke up the routine though, and that was a sacred time. "The family rule was: No work in Hawaii," she says.

Focus on research

With her family support in place, returning to school after more than 20 years in the workforce was a surprisingly seamless transition, says Fleck-Prediger. "Because my clinical skills and expertise fed into my studies, and vice versa, each made the other easier."

A U of A alumna of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, she was excited to complete her graduate studies in the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute (NMHI). "The NMHI is second to none," she says. "It brings together a huge number of different disciplines and allows them to pool their knowledge. I've been trained to work on an interdisciplinary treatment team and it's difficult for me to imagine working under any other model."

During her PhD, Fleck-Prediger expanded on the research she had begun with D'Arcy and the Halifax team. Together, they conducted a nationwide trial of the auditory consciousness scanner on 28 patients with brain injury, proving that the scanner could detect changes in brain vital signs before and after rehabilitation. Because patients can be visually aware even if their auditory systems are compromised, they then proceeded to develop visual stimuli.

Looking to the future

The scanner's auditory and visual components should permit the kind of multisensory testing that could yield more accurate information on a wider range of patients, says Fleck-Prediger. The researchers on D'Arcy's team continue to test and refine the system and Fleck-Prediger hopes it will one day be used as part of a battery of tests for brain injuries and other illnesses.

Meanwhile, at the Halvar Jonson Centre, Fleck-Prediger is enjoying the benefits of her PhD. "My knowledge base has exploded," she says. "I always knew the speech-language and cognitive communication rehabilitation I offered to patients worked, but now I have the confidence and knowledge to describe why it works so well."

Fleck-Prediger is also excited to expand her capacities. A lab with U of A biomedical engineering professor Monica Gorassini sparked her interest in transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). "TMS is underutilized in rehabilitation services, and there are a host of applications I would like to explore further," she says.

The finish line

Fleck-Prediger's elation upon graduating was tinged with just a little disbelief. "There were points along the road where I thought, 'I've had enough, I think this is all I can do,'" she says.

The gift of new knowledge has been extremely gratifying, she says, and this experience has taught her children something, too.

"The kids saw me persist against all odds and learned they can do whatever they set their minds to. They all tell me they're proud of me, and that I've inspired them. There's no better gift I could give them. I couldn't ask for more."

Carolyn Fleck-Prediger's tips for mature students

  • Seek support. "My whole community has been amazing. The Royal Canadian Legion in Ponoka gave me a grant, the hospital where I work encouraged me and my family was extremely supportive."

  • Prepare for failure and rejection. "I have found that failure and success are equally educational. In my opinion, if you don't fail once in a while, you're not challenging yourself."

  • Understand how competitive it will be. "I was accustomed to doing a fair amount of work in school and seeing good results, but in this program I had to give it all that I had."

  • "Find a committee that understands you as a whole person, not just a student." Fleck-Prediger's supervisors-Bruce Dick, Ryan D'Arcy, Shaun Gray and Esther Fujiwara-challenged her, motivated her, and supported her growth.