Thursday, February 16, 2023

Headshot photo of Bianca Robles-Muñoz
Bianca Robles-Muñoz, SLP master's student. 
Photograph by Justin Torner.

When Bianca Robles-Muñoz, a Speech-Language Pathology graduate student, first entered the master’s program at the University of Iowa, she was sure of the direction her career would go after graduation, but through exploring her options during her graduate clinicals, lab research, and clinical outplacement position she found there are many paths available to her. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) perform a plethora of duties including identifying communication disorders, teaching patients how to articulate sounds and improve voices, and treating swallowing difficulties.

The impact of speech-language pathology is more widespread than people realize,” Robles-Muñoz explains. “Once I started in the program, I learned that speech-language pathology was so much more than just working with the hard of hearing and Deaf community. It is a unique health science profession and as I learn more about the field, I find more that interests me.”

Robles-Muñoz grew up in Houston, Texas in a school district with a large Deaf population. They took American Sign Language (ASL) in high school and found a love for the language and Deaf culture. After speaking with her ASL teacher about her career choices with the Deaf community, Robles-Muñoz chose to pursue her bachelor of arts degree in the Speech and Hearing Sciences program at Iowa and chose to stay to complete a graduate degree. She chose Iowa because of its renowned Speech-Language Pathology program and its offering of an American Sign Language minor.

“It was important to me that Iowa had an ASL program,” Robles-Muñoz says. “I practiced my ASL skills and more importantly I learned about the harsh history of speech-language pathology in the Deaf community. I valued the program’s ability to inform us about the historical harm these fields have caused, and it has motivated me to be an informed SLP.”

Robles-Muñoz’s motivation has moved her to Austin, Texas where she is completing her clinical outplacement hours at Texas School for the Deaf. As a SLP graduate student clinician, they work with Deaf students on their voice articulation, language and reading, and social language for children with autism.

For Robles-Muñoz, this experience has affirmed that speech-language pathology is the right career field for her. She is fully immersed in ASL and Deaf culture which has proven she has the skills and capabilities to work with this community. In her position she has hit a learning curve and is finding that the solutions learned in the classroom aren’t always so black and white for her patients in the clinical field.

“The students I work with are real people with a life outside of the classroom,” Robles-Muñoz says. “A lot of the communities I work with are vulnerable in a lot of ways and I need to understand how the different identities they may hold, the disabilities they may have, and the challenges they may face impact our 30-minute session together.”

While she navigates this experience with the Deaf community, Robles-Muñoz continues to explore the many doors open to her as an aspiring SLP. She has a significant interest in gender-affirming voice therapy and Spanish-English bilingual speech therapy.

Gender affirming voice therapy refers to treatments that assist transgender and non-binary individuals in adapting their voice to the communication patterns that match their gender identity. It is a niche and emerging field that has caught the attention of Robles-Muñoz. After they experienced working in this field in her graduate clinic, they presented a poster with her clinical supervisor on a gender affirming case study of a Spanish-English bilingual teenager.

Bianca Robles-Muñoz standing by her case study poster board
Robles-Muñoz presenting their case study poster

“We adapted most of the evaluation material because they don’t exist in the Spanish which is an important step in the process,” Robles-Muñoz describes. “Working in gender affirming voice therapy with a Spanish-English bilingual patient was a great experience and it is a goal of mine to work in this area of expertise. As someone who is queer and Latino, it is fulfilling to work within my own communities.”

Robles-Muñoz continued to work within the Latino community during her time in Dr. Philip Combiths’ Clinical Linguistic and Disparities Lab. Their speech intervention study investigated how providing speech therapy in one language could potentially help stimulate speech sounds in a second language for bilingual children with speech sound disorders. Both Robles-Muñoz and Combiths are fluent Spanish speakers, but this treatment requires a deep understanding of the speech sounds, motor movements, and linguistic rules of the Spanish language.

“What is unique about our study is that we investigated how much the children’s languages, Spanish and English, interacted with each other,” Combith says. “We wanted to know if providing speech therapy for one particular sound structure in Spanish would percolate into their English sound structures. This is the novelty of our study.”

Headshot photo of Philip Combiths
Philip Combiths, Assistant Professor, Communication
​​​​Sciences and Disorders

“Dr. Combiths gave me my first opportunity to perform speech therapy in Spanish in a treatment-based research setting,” Robles-Muñoz explains. “I had never done therapy in Spanish before and under his guidance I became confident in my abilities to provide care to our bilingual patients.”

In Robles-Muñoz’s many roles, she has. She does not shy away from the fact that the SLP field has a lack of visual representation and instead proactively creates change to inform her peers, faculty, and campus community of the current gaps in the profession. Robles-Muñoz is part of the student led group, Anti-Racism in Communication Sciences and Disorders, in which she and her cohort read relevant articles, give presentations, and lead discussions on the current issues that affect their field.

“At Iowa it was important to me to feel I was being supported and a part of a group I trust,” Robles-Muñoz says. “Having my peers and professors showing up to our antiracism group meetings meant a lot and demonstrated that they care about the subject matter we are discussing and the steps we need to collectively take to improve our program.”

Dr. Combiths describes Robles-Muñoz’s enthusiasm for the career field and social justice as contagious, and remarks that she is a “passionate student who is driven to create change to improve opportunities for everyone to communicate with each other.” Her work both on campus and in the field is an inspiration to those around her. Whichever direction Robles-Muñoz’s SLP journey takes her, they are sure to recognize the gaps that effect those in need of an SLP, proactively take steps to address problems, and provide her patients with the best care tailored to them.