New assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders looks forward to helping shape the next generation of speech-language pathologists

Tanya Dash’s research focuses on the impact of bilingualism on cognitive performance across the lifespan and among people with communication disorders.

22 August 2023

A cognitive neuroscientist and speech-language pathologist, Tanya Dash joins the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine as an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders on Sept. 1, 2023.  Before joining the University of Alberta, Dash was a research associate at McGill University. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Centre de Recherche de l’Institut Universitaire de Gériatrie de Montréal and a PhD in cognitive sciences at the Center for Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences (CBCS) at the University of Allahabad in India.

Dash is interested in the interaction between language and cognition in healthy aging and among individuals with communication disorders. Her research focuses on the impact of bilingualism on cognitive performance to uncover the underlying cognitive and neural mechanisms that can be used to improve clinical practices for treating neurogenic communication disorders. She aims to use her understanding of bilingualism to develop culturally sensitive interventions for individuals with cognitive-communication disorders.

We contacted Dash to find out more about her, her research, and what she’s most looking forward to at the U of A.  

What first inspired you to enter the field of rehabilitation medicine?

Pure chance. My aunt, who is a medical professional, told me about a new course on speech-language pathology (SLP) that was starting for the first time at my alma mater in New Delhi. I decided to enrol, and it turned out to be a great decision. Within a year, I was hooked by the possibilities of helping people with communication problems. This led me to pursue my PhD and postdoctoral training in cognitive neuroscience and biomedical sciences.

Can you explain your area of research?

My research area combines related fields such as speech-language pathology, cognitive neurosciences, biomedical sciences and psycholinguistics. I investigate different research questions using various cognitive scales and neuroimaging analytical techniques in diverse populations at different scales of statistical analysis.

I have demonstrated that the bilingual language control mechanism is only partially subsidiary to general-purpose cognitive control. Using behavioural and functional connectivity analyses, I have also explored the neurobehavioural correlates of attention in bilingual older adults and individuals with aphasia.

My future work will focus on elaborating on our current understanding of language and cognition. Bi-multilingualism will be one of the lenses to explore this interaction in healthy aging and identify their underlying neural mechanisms to further inform clinical practice in the context of neurogenic communication disorders. My research program will be dedicated to understanding the role of bilingual experience leveraged in creating culturally sensitive intervention strategies and rehabilitation programs for individuals with neurocognitive disorders. An integrative theoretical framework of the interaction between language and cognition in a bilingual population will establish the role of bilingualism in building cognitive and neural reserve.

Another research program will focus on understanding the neural correlates of semantic association using state-of-the-art natural language processing (NLP) tools to explore how NLP can provide a more nuanced understanding of semantic association at word, sentence and discourse levels, particularly in assessing cognitive flexibility and executive function in the elderly and individuals with neurocognitive disorders. 

Why did you choose this research topic?

I am passionate about the interaction between language and cognition, particularly in the context of bilingual language assessment and rehabilitation in adult clinical populations. There is a dearth of knowledge and no clear guidelines for creating culturally sensitive intervention strategies and rehabilitation programs for individuals with neurocognitive disorders. While many of these programs are focused on linguistic skills alone, there is a need for addressing the different symptomatology in clinical populations as a product of multiple cognitive processes. I believe that assessment and rehabilitation in clinical populations should be less time-consuming and more informative about multiple cognitive processes, along with linguistic processes, as these aspects are highly interactive and essential for successful communication. 

How do you hope your research will benefit people?

I hope that my research will contribute to creating culturally sensitive intervention strategies and rehabilitation programs for individuals with neurocognitive disorders. This could help improve their quality of life and social interaction. I also hope that my research will provide a better understanding of the role of bilingualism in building cognitive and neural reserve, which could have a significant impact on society and policymaking. 

What drew you to the U of A?

I was drawn to the U of A because of its reputation in North America. The SLP program is equally famous, and the fact that it is affiliated with Corbett Clinic is especially appealing. I have studied in a clinical cum theoretical setup, so I understand the need for clinical education along with theoretical input. I find the programs offered are relevant to a wider population as there are possibilities of MSc thesis and non-thesis projects, and PhD programs, which provide more scope for conducting clinical research. Another program that is offered is the Francophone certification program at the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. It is a great initiative that can push the agenda of bilingual language therapy in the future. I feel that U of A is a hub for any research program that wants to focus on aging and cognitive communication disorders, and affiliations with various research institutes here can help my research programs. Finally, I see a strong association between the department and the community (for example, the CARE program for individuals with aphasia and their caregiver). Bringing science to the community is an achievement that I value. 

What are you most excited about in your new role?

I am excited about conducting research and teaching at the same place. I have always enjoyed and learned the most in an interactive environment that includes teachers, colleagues, students, and the community that is availing the services. It is empowering that I could be instrumental in developing the next generation of speech-language pathologists. 

Which classes will you be teaching?

I will be teaching CSD 598 (Research Methods). In the future, I will be teaching in the area of adult language disorders. 

What’s the No. 1 piece of advice you give your students?

My No. 1 piece of advice to students is to develop time-management skills such as setting aside time each day for studying and breaking up study sessions into manageable chunks. I also encourage them to summarize or teach the topics they learned in their own words. This helps them to better understand the material and retain it for future use. Finally, I remind them that it’s OK to ask for help when they need it. These skills have helped me succeed as a student and I believe they can help others as well. 

Can you tell us something that others would be surprised to learn about you?

I am a cocktail multilingual and an artist. I am proud to be a speaker of Odia, one of the oldest classical languages of India. In school, I learned three languages — Hindi, English and Sanskrit. In Montreal, I learned French, and I am a beginner French learner who prefers written French rather than spoken. 

In my teens, I created multiple summer projects using different mediums like canvas, glass, metal and charcoal. With my toddler, I indulge in many craft projects. My future projects include learning the written script of Odia language and Pattachitra — traditional cloth-based scroll painting.