Helping children find their voices

I have a dreadful habit of running late. It might have only been a short walk from my room to where I was supposed to meet Australia’s leading speech pathology researcher, yet even with that in mind I found myself ten minutes late.

“Hello! Good to see you!” chimes a voice in the courtyard.

The voice belongs to Charles Sturt University Professor of Speech and Language Acquisition Sharynne McLeod. She begins talking as I frantically get myself together.

“You know, this all came at such good timing. See, I’m due for surgery on Monday,” she says casually, as if she were just getting her car serviced.

“They’ve found a cancer in here,” she says as she points from the bridge of her nose to her eye. “They’re going to cut somewhere thereabouts. At the end of it all, I might look completely different! So thank goodness you’re here to get a photo before that!”

No pressure.

A person sitting on a bench
Sharynne McLeod ready for her close-up. Photo by Noah Secomb.

A public service announcement for cancer screening

Professor McLeod’s experience with cancer began in 2018.

“I’ve been very open with this the whole time. I feel like I’m a public service announcement to tell everybody to go for cancer screening. In 2018 I went for routine screening and they said, ‘oh my goodness, have a surgery next week.’ Then I had chemotherapy and radiotherapy and other treatments that lasted for the next year.”

But Sharynne’s personal battle with cancer was just another chapter to an already incredible and unpredictable life. As we move to her office of 19 years on the Bathurst campus of CSU, Professor McLeod’s illustrious career becomes tangible.

Bookshelves are full to overflowing with academic publications and there’s an entire shelf dedicated to the books she’s written or co-authored. Newspaper cuttings are hanging over the edges while the walls are covered with posters, kids art or handmade gifts from past students.

Then in the corner is the filing cabinet with awards and accolades piled on top.

Each framed certificate tells a unique story in the career of Professor Sharynne McLeod.

A group of people in a room
Sentimental photos taking centre stage on the filing cabinet. Photo by Noah Secomb.

After ten years working at The University of Sydney, Professor McLeod received a teaching excellence award, despite receiving no formal teaching qualifications.

“Academics never got taught how to teach!” she says with a smile.

“Except at CSU … you actually have to do courses on being a good teacher. And that was complex for me, because I had to do the course, but I was teaching in it at the same time!”

Young Sharynne was the first in her family to graduate high school, first to go to university and certainly the first to complete her Masters.

“My parents were so excited if I anything-ed!”

After landing a teaching contract at The University of Sydney, Sharynne found herself co-ordinating the honours students, working full time, completing her PhD in the area she was lecturing in and having two kids.

“That was a bit of a challenge,” she says rather nonchalantly.

Also in the pile of achievements is her certificate from the Royal Society of NSW bestowing her a fellowship. An honour which as she put it, “Sounds quite nice doesn’t it!”

Then Sharynne pulls out one of her most recent achievements. She received Honors of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, who officially changed the rules to allow Professor McLeod to be the first non-American to win the award.

“What that award enabled me to do was to speak on the radio about why children’s speech matters, and how we need to support their communicative capacity,” she said.

“Every time I get these awards, to me it’s another opportunity to speak and make a difference in a child’s life.”

If it’s small and boring, we don’t do it

Once Sharynne sits down, she is quick to divert the conversation to her PhD students.

“They are amazing because their hearts are in it and they do such interesting work. If their research is going to be small and boring, we don’t do it. So of course they’re going to win awards! They’re brilliant!”

A person standing in front of a book shelf
Professor McLeod and her shelf of publications Photo by Noah Secomb.

While talking with Sharynne, it becomes clear where her priorities are. No matter how many framed awards lay stacked against the wall, or how many books ‘by Prof. Sharynne McLeod’ line the shelves, she and her team remain focused on one goal.

“I’ve just been very blessed to have amazing people around me that I just learn so much from. We wake up every morning and go, will this make a difference in a child’s life. If we can’t see that it will, we say well, it’s not worth doing that and move on to something else.”

Despite any challenges that may have come her way, Sharynne McLeod has garnered an impressive catalogue of writing.

She has published 11 books, over 230 peer reviewed journal articles and chapters, nearly 10,000 citations according to Google Scholar and over a quarter of a million views on her professional blog.

She has been named the world’s best in her field, presented her research to the United Nations, and is in the process of writing another two books, guest editing a journal and supporting her PhD students. She is a physical embodiment of hard work and a product of what free tertiary education can lead to.

And yet, Sharynne remains outward focused.

“We’re given gifts to do whatever we can, to enable people to thrive and do their best. That’s really the underpinning of what I do.”