Focus on Faculty

Katy O’Brien

Katy O'Brien (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

Katy O’Brien, an assistant professor in the College of Education, conducts research that helps people who have sustained concussions and other traumatic brain injuries maximize their learning potential.

Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned my undergraduate and master’s degrees at Appalachian State University and my doctorate at the University of Minnesota. Currently, I am an assistant professor in the department of communication sciences and special education in the College of Education. I teach in our communication sciences and disorders program, which primarily serves students training to become speech-language pathologists. My research is in cognitive rehabilitation after traumatic brain injury (TBI) and concussion, specifically preparing young adults and adolescents to return to educational settings.

When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I came to UGA in the fall of 2016. UGA appealed to me because I have colleagues here who share my research interests, and overall everyone has been incredibly welcoming and collaborative. There is a really great community around brain injury and concussion in this state, and I’m happy to be a part of that.

What are your favorite courses and why?
I feel very lucky in that I genuinely love teaching all of my courses. My favorite undergraduate course to teach is “Concussion and Cognitive Rehabilitation.” It is an elective for students in our major so that they can begin thinking more broadly about the roles of speech-language pathologists, and it is often their first glance into what rehabilitation in the field looks like. I like teaching all of my graduate courses because we attract such excellent, committed and enthusiastic students.

What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
This past year, Alana Shepherd, one of the founders of Shepherd Center in Atlanta, came to campus to speak as part of the Mason Public Leadership Lecture Series. Shepherd Center is a hospital for people with brain and spinal cord injuries and is consistently ranked as one of the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the country. Our first-year master’s students were part of a group of students invited to have lunch with Mrs. Shepherd before her talk. The whole class was so moved by her dedication to her work, the path she carved for herself as a leader in the community, and her practical approach to forging real change in the world. It was a powerful learning experience for me and the students that none of us will soon forget.

How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?
Much of my research focuses on preparing students to return to learning after brain injury and concussion. In general, when people hear the word concussion, they often think of student-athletes, but beyond that, students also can be injured from other mechanisms like car accidents, falls or recreational activities. Concussions don’t only happen to athletes, and students are often ill-equipped to know how and where to seek out care or what to do to manage their own health.

Sometimes people are confused that speech-language pathologists work on cognition and not just speech. I explain that our cognition manifests in our communication – from how we select and formulate a message to how we keep pace with a conversation and parse out meaning from a series of words, ordered in a certain way and layered with a tone of voice and facial expression. It is hard work to be an effective communicator, and it is often the first breakdown that people may experience following a neurological event. For people who are also students, this is a time when they’ll be doing some of the most complex reading and writing (also communication!) that they may have done in their lives so far. That places a lot of importance on communication to be an effective learner.

How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
Because my research is considering student needs following brain injury, I spend a lot of time thinking about the cognitive demands of learning. When we cover approaches to supporting students with brain injury, students tend to realize that they could do a better job managing their learning too. The catch is that a typical college student may have a lot more choice about how much work they put into their learning, whereas a student with brain injury really might need to use their strategies to be successful. We talk about this difference, and spend time reflecting on our thinking and learning. That’s important for me as a both a teacher and a researcher — and for the students too.

Photo of Katy O'Brien and a student.

Katy O’Brien talks with Ph.D. student Yalian Pei about her research progress. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
I hope that they gain both a theoretical understanding of cognition and communication and that they are able to tie that to real-world application in terms of how theory drives our rehabilitation approaches. In a broader sense, I hope they are excited about the field and to work with people with a wide range of cognitive and communication needs.

Describe your ideal student.
My ideal student is excited to be here and open to learning and stretching their way of thinking. The students that I have most enjoyed and feel have gotten the most out of their education have been willing to try new things and show up for events or offerings that might not be on any syllabus. For example, I do a lot of outreach events with the Brain Injury Association of Georgia and often recruit students to go with me. We might be providing education about TBI and concussion at a science fair, managing logistics at a conference for rehabilitation professionals or helping check in campers at a camp for people with brain injury. The students who can take the time out of their busy schedules to show up for those kinds of events learn so much more than they would in the classroom alone. They also grow closer to each other and find peers that have shared interests and life goals. All of that is so valuable to their experience as UGA students.

Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is …
… the Jaworski Amphitheater across from the Creamery. It is right in the middle of several buildings, but also feels so tucked away. I’ve held one class out there and have it as a goal to get back out there this fall.

Beyond the UGA campus, I like to …
… listen to live music and enjoy downtown Athens. I hit Pure Barre several times a week to clear my head and keep out the aches and pains of crouching over a computer and writing so much of the time. At home, I enjoy keeping up with Minnesota hockey, and trying to keep up with my kids and dogs. We like to travel, so we spend a lot of time packing and unpacking.

Community/civic involvement includes …
I am on the executive board of the Brain Injury Association of Georgia, which is an organization that connects people with brain injury and their families to resources in their community. Our motto is “Hope, Help, Support.” We step in when people have gone home after an injury and suddenly realize that things are not quite the same. My favorite work that I do with them is coordinating “Think BIG: Brain Injury in Georgia,” an annual conference that provides continuing education to rehabilitation professionals about best practices in management of brain injury. It is held each February at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, and working with the professionals there and connecting with other researchers and clinicians always expands my own thinking around brain injury as well.

Favorite book/movie (and why)?
I love the movie “The Crash Reel.” It is about snowboarder Kevin Pearce, who was preparing to go the 2010 Olympics when he had a fall in a practice run and sustained a severe traumatic brain injury. The movie follows him for four years, so you see the arc of who he was before, during and after the injury. You also see his incredible family – how the injury impacts all of them and the work it takes for the whole unit to adjust to the new normal. It’s a fantastic documentary that I would like anyway, but I especially appreciate that this great film aligns with my area of interest. In a totally different vein, I also love “Happy-Go-Lucky.” It is a bit off-beat, but what I like about it is seeing a character move through the world who is constantly choosing joy. At times, this is bewildering to those around her, but I appreciate the work that she puts in to choosing her path. Working with people rehabilitating from neurological injuries can be difficult at times, and it is nice reminder to control the things you can.

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be …
… meeting Uga on the UGA New Faculty Tour! The tour puts 40 new faculty members on a bus that tours the state for a week, and our final night was spent at Skidaway Island outside Savannah. We were all having a great time but were fairly exhausted by the end of this week, and then they surprised us with Uga. We were all sort of ridiculously giddy to meet him. I remember the tour in general very fondly – it introduced me to the people of Georgia, and I got to see places that it could take me years to get to otherwise. I also made friends on the tour that I still see all the time, and it connected me to people all over campus. It was a really wonderful way to be welcomed to the university and the state.