Sean Peterson

Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering

The Ability to be Heard Above the Crowd


By Katie Webb, CBB Biographer
January 8, 2013

There are things we do instinctively, without ever considering how they happen, and until we lose the ability to perform these things, we may never feel the need to investigate how we accomplish them. Speaking is one of these activities. Most of us speak every day, using the sounds we produce to communicate with those around us, never considering the possibility of losing this valuable ability. Thankfully, there are members of the the scientific community who dedicate their efforts to understanding the things we take for granted. Dr. Sean Peterson, member of the Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology, is one such individual. And for those who may one day come to find their speech impaired, they may well be grateful for Peterson’s study of how air passed between the vocal fold to produce human speech.

This is not to say that currently there is no way to improve speech. Doctors do perform surgery to improve quality of speech. However, the surgeon often must rely on “gut feel” and experience to try to rectify each specific speech problem. The imprecise nature of this process, which is largely due to a lack of quantitative information about a given case, leaves room for improvement, particularly if surgery can be tailored to the specific needs of the individual. Peterson is working towards this goal by examining the underlying physics of how air passes between and interacts with the vocal folds during the production of speech and how these things can be manipulated to improve post-surgical speech quality.

In providing solutions to vocal fold paralysis, Peterson is creating a method of achieving better precision in these surgeries by creating a hybrid physical/mathematical model of specific patients in order to perform virtual surgeries to determine the best method to reach the highest possible speech quality. Such patient-specific models will hopefully work predictively to both help diagnose specific types of paralysis and determine the best techniques to improve it. The ultimate goal is to return high quality speech to an individual, allowing the patient to be heard even in a crowd.

To model changes to the human vocal folds, Peterson is in the process of validating a scale physical model of the vocal folds. This model is ten times larger than the vocal folds found within the human body and with it, he can use the parameters of the vocal chords that are given to him by a physician and replicate them. He can then modify these parameters in ways which can be replicated through surgical means (such as implants), and see which modifications yield the greatest improvement to quality of speech. These new, more targeted, problem-specific solutions may then be sent on forwarded to a surgeon who can work with the patient to improve their speech quality.

Peterson’s model of the human vocal folds provides a way to test the effects of changes to them, prior to surgery. This ensures the best possible results for patients who are struggling to communicate while their vocal folds are paralyzed. Peterson’s model ultimately aims to help patients to achieve high quality speech following surgery on their vocal folds, allowing them to once again communicate clearly with the world around them.

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