People of I-LABS: Sue McLaughlin

Vibrant, super-smart and caring: these are just a few of the qualities that describe the dozens of interdisciplinary researchers at I-LABS. Their innovative ideas and technological savviness help drive the Institute's reputation as a world leader in child development and brain science.

And their kindness, professionalism and sense of humor greet all of the hundreds of families that volunteer each year for studies at I-LABS.

In the "People of I-LABS" series, we get to know the research scientists, post-doctoral fellows and other researchers who make up the elite team at I-LABS. This month, we learn all about Sue McLaughlin, a Research Scientist in KC Lee’s Auditory Brain Sciences & Neuroengineering Lab.

Please tell us a little about yourself. Where do you come from? What are you doing at I-LABS?
I’m a Research Scientist in KC Lee’s Auditory Brain Sciences & Neuroengineering Lab. I’m from Seattle and so was my Mom, and her mother before her grew up near Mt Rainier where her father was a coal miner (before Washington became a state!).
What big questions to you hope to answer with your research?
I hope to characterize how cortical sound processing and auditory attention mechanisms essential to picking out speech sounds and following conversations in noise may be disrupted in some individuals with impaired communication due to neurodevelopmental/neurologic disorders.
What research questions are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a pilot study using psychoacoustic, EEG and MEG assays to systematically assess the presence of central auditory processing deficits in individuals with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), and to begin to disentangle the neural processing levels at which auditory impairments may occur. Research suggests that one of the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure may be insults to the auditory system, both at the periphery (the ear) and in the brain. Central deficits may result in impaired sound-in-noise listening (even in the absence of peripheral hearing loss) essential to daily life – think classrooms, restaurants – and, importantly, may also critically disrupt acquisition of fundamental language skills.
What inspired you to study this topic?
The role that impairments to central auditory processes may play in communication deficits that are seen in a variety of neurodevelopment/neurologic disorders has not been well studied. Relatively subtle but impactful communication impairments are common in individuals across the FASD spectrum, and – given the known teratogenic effects of prenatal alcohol exposure – may be particularly related to disordered central auditory systems. The opportunity to collaborate with the researchers and clinicians of the UW Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnostic and Prevention Network (FASDPN), located next door in CHDD, will provide the expertise and infrastructure for an informed and complete investigation of this issue.
What's your favorite part of working at I-LABS?
Because our experimental protocol is relatively lengthy, I get to know study participants quite well. I enjoy interacting with them and providing hope that, in the future, we might better understand the listening difficulties that many of them are afflicted by on a daily basis.
What’s something we might not know about you? 
Before getting my PhD and becoming a research scientist, I made documentary films for public television. My last project, a 3-part series broadcast nationally on PBS was called The Meaning of Food. As a documentary filmmaker, I got to travel quite a bit – to Papua New Guinea, Ghana, and Israel, among other places – and, in some ways, get immediate access to people’s lives and feelings. It was wild!
I am married and have identical twin daughters, 2 cats, 2 frogs, and a 14-year old deaf “hospice foster dog” that we recently adopted.