A leader addressing swallowing, Dr. Bonnie Martin-Harris, Ph.D., CCC-SLP left her mark across the country.
Dr. Bonnie Martin-Harris’s career as a speech-language pathologist has taken her across the country. Beginning in Ohio and then spanning to California, Wisconsin, Georgia, South Carolina, she now finds herself in Illinois, where she is currently at Northwestern University’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and School of Communication and where she founded its Swallowing Cross-Systems Collaborative (SCSC) in 2017. Along the way she has become a leading voice for standardizing assessment and treatment approaches for swallowing disorders, or dysphagia.
Throughout her journey, her CCCs have been an extremely valued part. “They have meant a great deal to my career,” she says. “Getting that credential distinguishes us from other professions. It’s emblematic of a group of people who have a standard curriculum and standard supervised clinical experience behind them.”
For Bonnie, helping start a center like SCSC is common practice at this point. She has connected with other passionate and driven peers devoted to furthering treatment and research in this area of swallowing. For example, earlier in her career, she established the first voice and swallowing center while at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta (“We were kind of pioneers,” Bonnie says). Later, at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), her work helped lead to the creation of the MUSC Health Evelyn Trammell Institute for Voice and Swallowing. A big part of this success has been the network that she’s been able to connect with thanks to her CCCs.
“The CCCs provide you a lifetime cohort of colleagues with whom you learn from a continuing education perspective, in terms of keeping up with literature, keeping up with best practices,” Bonnie says. “Without them, you can be left out of touch with important information that can make you an effective care provider.”
Where research and treatment around swallowing is now is a far cry from where it was when Bonnie began her career. At that time, there weren’t courses about addressing dysphagia; universal care practices didn’t exist. Consequently, most of the information and teaching about dysphagia came from individualized workshops. Bonnie and interested peers would attend them and translate what they learned into practice, but that meant a lot of variation as to how those lessons were interpreted. Today, even though some variation in curriculums still exists, the field has come a long way since then and is “much, much better.”
“Swallowing is a new area of science—it’s been a remarkable evolution,” Bonnie says. “I think we’re in a good place. Really qualified people are teaching in this area now.”
Bonnie has played a big role in that evolution, trying to create standardized terminology across the board as well as a standardized approach to swallowing using imaging. She’s mindful with whom she provides and shares this approach, reserving it primarily for ASHA-certified professionals: “I know what their background is, plus having that standard myself gives me confidence they’re ready to take the initial step for the training.”
Bonnie, who earned her Ph.D. from Northwestern, didn’t necessarily expect to end up back there at this point in her career. Her return there indicates how a career can go in different and unexpected directions. Yet, in her case there has been one important constant.
“As I reflect on my career as a speech-language pathologist and even as a researcher, I have never had any regrets about being a speech-language pathologist,” she says. “I owe a big part of that to my CCCs, which have not just helped me be the best I can be, but also allowed me to connect with and learn from the best as well. Even to this day, no matter what space I’m in, whether it’s a medical environment or an academic environment, I would do it all over again.”