I wanted to do a project that would both investigate public perception of TBI and also serve as a form of community outreach to educate the public.
Sarah Schellinger
Thursday, May 21, 2015

Sarah Schellinger

Sarah Schellinger

How education affects public perceptions of brain injury

More than 10,000 head injuries are sustained each year in Minnesota, and an estimated 1.5 million occur annually in the U.S. At least 2 percent of the U.S. population currently lives with disabilities from traumatic brain injury (TBI). Through her research, University of Minnesota Ph.D. student Sarah Schellinger hopes to improve public awareness about brain injuries and help individuals recover after TBI.

A TBI is caused by a sudden bump, blow or jolt to the head that damages the functioning of the brain, which is soft and vulnerable to injury. Depending on its severity, a TBI could impact thinking, communication, movement, senses, and behavior. According to the CDC, TBIs are usually caused by car crashes, falls, violent assaults, or collisions.

Schellinger recruited 400 participants in just eight days while conducting her study at the Minnesota State FairSchellinger, who graduated this month with a Ph.D. in the Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences department, collaborated with the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance and a videographer to create an educational six-minute film that included interviews with people who have TBI. She then designed a study called "Brain Power" that aimed to describe Minnesotans' public knowledge about TBI and their attitudes towards individuals with brain injury.

While conducting her study at the Minnesota State Fair, Schellinger recruited 400 participants in just 8 days. "It was wonderful to see that many people so excited to participate in research and to learn more about TBI in the process," she says. After watching the film, participants were surveyed about their perceptions of brain injury, to help determine whether the mini-documentary effectively improved public knowledge and attitudes about TBI.

She found that members of the general public hold many misconceptions about TBI, especially with regard to the recovery process and TBI's effect on memory. However, participants in her experimental group who viewed the video demonstrated significantly higher knowledge about TBI than the control group who did not watch the video.

The project is part of Schellinger's dissertation, "Public Perceptions of Traumatic Brain Injury: Knowledge, Attitudes, and the Impact of Education," which she completed and successfully defended in April. "The work is practical, engaging, and novel," says Mark DeRuiter, associate director of the department.

The "Brain Power" study was inspired by Schellinger's clinical experience as a speech language pathologist, through which she worked with patients who had TBI. She was amazed by the public's lack of awareness about the injury and public misconceptions that could negatively affect people's quality of life and recovery after a TBI. "I decided that I wanted to do a project that would both investigate public perception of TBI and also serve as a form of community outreach to educate the public," she says.

The University's Clinical and Translational Science Institute awarded Schellinger a Driven to Discover Community Health and Research Grant, which funded her dissertation and allowed her to recruit research participants and conduct research at the state fair. She also received the Graduate School Fellowship, which supported her for three years, enabling her to devote time to independent study and take classes outside her department. One course, Attitude Psychology, influenced her current work significantly.

Schellinger, who's originally from Wisconsin, received her bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Wisconsin Madison. "I initially obtained my Master’s Degree in Speech Language Pathology because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of individuals with communication impairments," she says. "Pursuing a PhD has given me the opportunity to broaden the impact of my work."

Schellinger is co-advised by Dr. Mary Kennedy, who studies traumatic brain injury, and Dr. Ben Munson, who researches social influences on speech production and perception. "My work bridges their two areas of expertise, so it was great to be able to work with them both, and take what I learned and apply it to my own research," she says. "The U has a fantastic Speech-Language-Hearing Science department that really encourages collaborative and interdisciplinary work. My research interests have always cut across fields and clinical populations, so this was a great fit for me."

Schellinger has immersed herself in numerous opportunities at the University. She's helped teach courses on phonetics, speech science, and community learning, and assisted in research for "Learning to Talk," which aims to help children at-risk of having small vocabularies improve word learning by developing necessary skills. The program examines linguistic development among groups of children, including those with cochlear implants, different socioeconomic backgrounds, and late-talking children. She's also volunteered with Return to College, an experimental program that helps students with TBI successfully return to college after their injuries.

After graduating this semester, Schellinger plans to begin working as an assistant professor at Saint Xavier University in the fall. "It's been such a wonderful privilege to get to work in such an intellectually stimulating environment, with great colleagues and mentors both in my department and across the university," she says.

- Lyra Fontaine