University Park, IL,
15:04 PM

Conversations with Leaders: Catherine Balthazar

When Dr. Catherine Balthazar recalls the special toddler, her eyes get misty, and words stick in her throat.

Jayden* was just over two years old when Catherine, then a young speech pathologist, began working with his family. His parents were discouraged by the constant struggle to understand the needs and wants of their son who spoke only in rough sounds and word fragments.

Instead of offering hope, other specialists told Jayden’s parents to prepare for the worst—severe developmental delays and a lifetime of dependency. At the time, Balthazar’s own son was the same age as her patient, and she saw something different.

Hidden by Jayden’s delayed language skills was a brilliant mind that helped him solve complex puzzles far beyond the abilities of most children his age.

Balthazar worked with the boy, using family centered practices—a novel approach at the time—to engage his parents in helping to teach communication skills.

Dramatic changes in Jayden, who later graduated high school with honors, changed Balthazar.

“That’s when I started to feel that I couldn’t keep this to myself. I wanted to be a warrior for effective therapy practices. I didn’t want other families to suffer that way, ’’ said Balthazar, longstanding Chair of the Department of Communication Disorders and an academic whose clinical practice has inspired her scholarship and vice versa for more than 20 years.

“I was fortunate to be able to go back and forth between the academic and clinical worlds. I see them as two sides of the same coin. My research interests have always been practice oriented. I don’t just want to study why a language disorder happens. I want to know how we change that. Similarly, I would get frustrated when I didn’t know how to be more effective with my clients, and so I’d go back to academics and work on the problem as a researcher.”

Scholar and practitioner are both titles Balthazar embraces. However, Interim Dean of the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS) is one that gives her pause. In late December, Balthazar assumed the role filling in for Dr. Elizabeth Cada, currently Interim Provost.

Still, it’s easy to see her path to the top of the seven-school college when you consider her impressive body of work on both sides of the “coin,’’ helping introduce GSU to collaborations that have generated millions in research dollars.

A Faculty Excellence Award recipient, Balthazar’s scholarship, student engagement, and service to the institution have helped guided the university’s speech pathology program, one of the strongest in the region.

As interim dean of the CHHS, where providing care is the central uniting theme, Balthazar said she hopes to continue the established trajectory, as well as expand the university’s capacity to attract research funding and engage students.

She is passionate about the role of helping those who want to help others.

“At GSU, we look for people who want to continue their educational journey though they are not traditional students. Here, I get to be part of significant life transformations.”

The daughter of a Johns Hopkins-educated pediatrician and medical geneticist, Balthazar is an expert transformer of sorts.

She grew up watching her dad and dreamed of practicing medicine herself. After a “discouraging” semester at the University of Iowa, Balthazar indulged her love of arts and morphed into a theater major—briefly. Finally, her fascination with words led her to study language pathologies.

A neighbor knew the free spirited student had studied French, German, Japanese and Spanish and encouraged her to pursue formal study of language. A linguistics major —headed toward teaching English as a second language rather than studying theory —Balthazar was a senior before she got hooked on thinking about problems with language development in a class on the theories of how people learn to speak.

“I got a peek in the black box of how language works. We learned about language by looking at problems—a cleft palate, in this case. You take a two-year old with this structural abnormality that causes speech to sound different. You sew up the cleft, and their speech should be ok, but guess what—it isn’t. You have to train them to speak differently. It’s not just a structural or mechanical problem. It’s a complicated interaction in the mind that structures language. That realization blew away all my assumptions,’’ said Balthazar.

Years later, a revelation about the gaps in providing for language needs in school aged children led Balthazar to collaborate with another institution—a rare move in those days. She helped secure a grant to study school age children who had previously experienced language delays. An estimated 60 percent of older children diagnosed with learning disabilities also have language development challenges, she reported.

In 2011, she served as co-principal investigator on a grant to study how to develop complex language skills in children ages 12 to 17.

Today, Balthazar is partnering with Dr. Rupert Evans, Sr., Chair and Program Director of GSU’s Department of Health Administration, to look at cancer disparities among African American women in the Southland. The $1.5 million GUIDE grant is a cross-disciplinary GSU and University of Illinois Cancer Center project to lead community-based research to reduce cancer disparities in the south suburbs.

Balthazar said the project, which lies outside her academic area of expertise, creates much needed inter-professional education, which is good for the entire university.

“I’m excited even though cancer research doesn’t directly impact my home program, it allows us to build capacity in our institution and support opportunities to funnel students to my program.”

Students, after all, are the reason Balthazar accepted a job she never dreamed of doing.

“I never anticipated becoming a dean. But this does appeal to me because I really see—so clearly—how to marry resources and students’ needs and I get joy out of putting those together.’’

*The patient’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.