Center for Spoken Language Understanding: two decades at the intersection of speech and technology

Dr. Jan Van Santen

CSLU faculty, research begin process to transition to new academic homes

The OHSU School of Medicine is celebrating the contributions of the Center for Spoken Language Understanding – directed by Jan van Santen, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics, OHSU School of Medicine, since 2000 – as it launches a process that will transition faculty members to new academic homes and phase out the center as an administrative unit.

Over the last nearly 20 years, the center has taken an interdisciplinary and translational approach in creating speech and language technology that helps individuals with communication disorders. In 2010, the center became part of the school’s Institute on Development and Disability (IDD).

CSLU, like centers in any research organization, underwent growth and change as the science at the nexus of speech and technology evolved. Many of CSLU’s research activities now integrate into other quantitative areas at OHSU such as computational biology and biomedical informatics. CSLU’s longtime director Dr. van Santen retired in June.

After careful consideration of the best structure needed to support the future of CSLU research, the School of Medicine has decided it will initiate a process in FY 20 to transition faculty and research programs into other academic homes and phase out CSLU as an administrative unit.

Faculty with essential expertise

Center faculty are computer scientists, speech language pathologists and psychologists who apply a deep understanding of artificial intelligence and machine learning to the speech and language challenges facing patients, families and providers.

Leaders have met with each CSLU faculty member to assess future steps, including transitioning as many faculty as possible to an academic department within the school.

“This administrative change will provide faculty the stable, supported environment they need to maintain the vitality of their research programs,” said Daniel Marks, M.D., Ph.D., senior associate dean for research, OHSU School of Medicine. “CSLU programs will be fully interwoven into other departments, setting faculty on a path to long-term success.”

That’s important because CSLU faculty bring essential expertise in computer science, linguistics, biomedical informatics and related disciplines to OHSU, added Bill Hersh, M.D., chair and professor of medical informatics and clinical epidemiology, OHSU School of Medicine.

“They contribute both as collaborators with other clinical and basic science faculty as well as scientists advancing methods in their primary fields,” he said. “Their new roles at OHSU will be especially critical as advances from machine learning and artificial intelligence work their way into clinical practice and research.”

Clear path forward

CSLU graduate programs have a strong record of training exceptional students working at the intersection of speech and technology. Graduates have gone on to research jobs at Boston College, Harvard Broad Institute, AT&T Research Labs, Affectiva, Amazon and  many others. Yet, many areas that have been the focus of CSLU training programs are now integrated into other programs at OHSU.

Given these factors and after reviewing CSLU, the school has decided to suspend admissions to Computer Science and Engineering and Electrical Engineering graduate programs, adhering to Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) procedures. The school is following institutional policy to initiate program closure and ensure the successful teach-out of all CS/EE students as required by NWCCU.

OHSU, the School of Medicine and the CS/EE program are each committed to ensuring the successful completion of all students in the graduate program. Current CSE/EE students will complete their degree programs with full support from the school’s Graduate Studies office. Aspects of the CSLU graduate programs will be integrated into other quantitative graduate programs in the school.

HR business partners are working with CSLU staff to connect them with other employment opportunities in OHSU.

Altogether, these changes are intended to create a clear, sustainable path forward for speech and language technology research at OHSU.

Removing barriers for people with disabilities

CSLU got its research start when Dr. van Santen took a position at Oregon Graduate Institute (OGI) in 2000. There, he received an NSF grant for a project entitled “Improving the intelligibility of dysarthric speech.In 2001, OGI merged with OHSU, and Dr. van Santen and fellow CSLU faculty joined the School of Medicine faculty.

CSLU embraced the clinical environment and opportunities at OHSU, working at first on dysarthric speech. “The voice of a person who has dysarthria is hard to understand, resembling rough speech,” said Dr. van Santen. “But we were able to create a device that changes rough speech to smooth speech in real time. We totally changed the experience for the patient. This was our first biomedical research project.”

The next major step for CSLU was a sequence of projects on autism funded by NIH and NSF grants of more than $15M. By 2004, CSLU emerged as a leader of autism research at OHSU.

“We noticed that clinicians have struggled to measure autism behavior based on subjective, unreliable tools,” said Dr. van Santen. “CSLU decided that behavior should be measured with speech and language methods automatically – by computers, not needing humans – objective and reliable tools. In some of our discoveries, we found different symptoms between autism vs. language disorders, with effects on treatment.”

Developing new methods

Over the next decade and a half, faculty and graduate students created a collection of new methods to diagnose and monitor speech and language difficulties related to autism. Researchers also worked on speech and language methods involving Alzheimer’s disease, aphasia, dysarthria, language disorders and AAC (augmentative and alternative communication), collaborating on projects with other PIs and research teams.

“Through interdisciplinary, collaborative research, the CSLU team has been contributing to a better understanding of how to diagnose, remediate and treat clinical phenomena by blending behavioral and computer sciences,” said Kurt Freeman, Ph.D., ABPP, director of the Institute on Development and Disability (IDD) and Fred Fax Endowed Professor of Pediatrics, OHSU School of Medicine. “Consistent with the mission of the IDD, the team has examined methods of using automated methods to diagnosis and monitor speech and language difficulties experienced by individuals with neurodevelopmental and related disabilities.”

“World-class computer scientists”

Over time, the pioneering work of CSLU integrated into other areas at OHSU. “Whereas initially CSLU had the only Ph.D. program in computer science, now OHSU has many options to utilize computer science in graduate programs, especially in cancer research,” said Dr. van Santen. “And initially CSLU had done mostly autism research, mostly based on speech and language technology, but now OHSU’s broader autism research includes genetics, brain imaging and disparities of autism.”

Melanie Fried-Oken, Ph.D., professor of neurology, with joint appointments in pediatrics and otolaryngology/head and neck surgery, OHSU School of Medicine, is a long-time collaborator with CSLU faculty.

“What other medical school faculty can boast of working alongside world-class computer scientists who use machine learning, artificial intelligence and natural language processing to take data science and clinical practice to the next level?” she said. “They are at the nexus of clinical science and computer science and will propel OHSU into becoming an international leader for automated assessment and treatment of speech and language impairments for children and adults with neurodevelopmental and acquired disorders.”

She added, “Their efforts have been recognized by federal funding agencies and computer science companies. They form strong relationships with researchers within both academia and business communities and apply their computer science to solve problems and remove barriers for people with disabilities. It is an honor and a pleasure to be a colleague with the ‘innovative thinking-out-of-the-box’ CSLU faculty.”

“We are proud of the exceptional contributions of the CSLU team and look forward seeing their research continue and thrive,” said school research leader Dr. Daniel Marks.