Published on May 15th, 2017


Fresh Research Q&A: A Computational Model of Voice Disorders

By Felicity Feinman

Dr. Nicole Li-Jessen, Canada research chair (tier 2) in personalized medicine of voice disorders, assistant professor at McGill University, national coordinator of World Voice Day and leader of the Voice Lab, has merged her research interests in voice and biomedical engineering. Specifically, Dr. Li-Jessen is working to develop a computational model to characterize patients’ response to voice therapy and phonosurgery in a study funded by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Felicity Feinman, SAC’s Communications Officer, caught up with Dr. Li-Jessen to discuss her latest research.

In the Q&A below, ‘SAC’ indicates Felicity and ‘NLJ’ indicates Dr. Li-Jessen. Note: this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

SAC: How did you become interested in voice?Dr. Li-Jessen’s Voice Lab research team

NLJ: It dates back to when I was doing my bachelor’s degree at the University of Hong Kong. The university professors picked who they wanted to work with for the students’ dissertations. My voice professor, Edwin Yiu, recruited me to his team and I found the topics posed in voice very interesting. Edwin had a connection with Dr. Katherine Verdolini Abbott at the University of Pittsburgh. Through that connection, I got to explore more in the field of voice and I went on to do my PhD with Dr. Verdolini Abbott. I also cultivated my interests in laryngeal tissue regeneration during my post-doctoral training in Dr. Susan Thibeault’s laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

SAC: What is your most recent research?

NLJ: My research program, which began with my PhD, is focused on computational biology. Alongside my research team from McGill University’s Voice Lab, I’m working to develop a computational model that can predict patient response in phonotrauma and surgical injury to vocal folds. In the clinic, we have observed that patient responses to voice treatment and surgery vary and we want to understand why. We want to determine whether that response is due to genetic factors, biological factors or if mechanical inferences in voice therapy can also affect a person’s outcome. So, my team is developing a computational model to try and characterize the biological and healing response of patients with vocal fold injury.

SAC: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in your research on this computational model?

NLJ: The model is data-driven, so we need a lot of data to make sure that what we predict is really what happens in the clinic. The model is multi-scale, meaning that we simulate what happens at the cell-level, at the tissue-level, at the organ-level and also at the functional level of the vocal folds’ behaviour. That makes it challenging to get enough data for the empirical study. Data from humans can be quite expensive in terms of funding and research dollars. So, we have to find a way to make a model that has good prediction accuracy. Also, since we cannot capture every single scale in the vocal folds of the human body, we need to find a moderate ground to make the model sufficient, but not overly detailed.

SAC: What do you hope clinicians take away from your research?

NLJ: Our model is very biological and cellular-based. The idea is that we know voice therapy will help people, especially those with nodules and other benign issues, but we don’t really know what biological factors make voice therapy beneficial. If we learn what biological mechanisms are involved in voice therapy, maybe we can better tailor therapy and optimize treatment outcomes.

SAC: What’s next in your research?

NLJ: I’m expanding my research. In addition to computational modeling, I will be working with Luc Mongeau, a mechanical engineering professor at McGill, on designing injectable biomaterial for vocal fold regeneration. In some situations, when there is very severe vocal fold tissue damage, the patient needs more than voice therapy and the regular pharmaceuticals. We need something that we can inject or implant into the vocal folds to regenerate new tissue. We are collaborating to develop a biomaterial for vocal fold regeneration.

SAC: Was there anything else you wanted to mention?

NLJ: I know that in S-LP training, we don’t get much background in cell molecular biology or computational programming. For students who are interested in doing research, not just in voice, but in other areas, I think that computational biology is very big in the scientific community. So, I would encourage S-LPs to explore the area of computational biology and apply it to their own area of research.

Read Dr. Li-Jessen’s work on vocal fold computational biology:

Read Dr. Li-Jessen’s work on vocal fold tissue engineering:


Feature image caption: Dr. Li-Jessen’s Voice Lab research team from left to right: Samson Yuen, McGill University undergraduate research assistant, Aman Garg, McGill University master’s graduate student, Patrick Coburn, McGill University PhD student, Annie Douilette, Voice Lab manager, James Cui, McGill University undergraduate research assistant, Dr. Li-Jessen and Jalil Nourisa, McGill University PhD student.

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