From lab to clinic, HHS distinguished alumna’s work speaks volumes

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa,

Elizabeth Erickson-DiRenzo headshot

Elizabeth Erickson-DiRenzo(Photo provided)

Elizabeth Erickson-DiRenzo, a three-time graduate of the Purdue University Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences (SLHS), came to Purdue with the goal of doing one thing: improving human health. As an associate professor and clinician scientist in the Department of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery in the Stanford University School of Medicine, her career has allowed her to do exactly that as both a researcher and clinician.

“The training I was provided during my time at Purdue University opened the door to pursuing work in incredibly innovative and exciting environments,” Erickson-DiRenzo said. “I had this unique skill set I was able to leverage in a school of medicine and academic medical center where I could have access to wonderful resources for research and from a clinical standpoint, make a difference in patients’ lives as well as train future scientists and clinicians.”

Erickson-DiRenzo is being recognized with the 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award from Purdue’s College of Health and Human Sciences for her significant accomplishments at Stanford University and her leadership within the broader speech, language and hearing sciences field.

“I feel incredibly honored by this award,” Erickson-DiRenzo said. “It was the people, especially in SLHS, that always lifted me up and encouraged me to tackle the hard questions. To have them come back and nominate me and then to be awarded by the greater Health and Human Sciences committee that I have conducted myself and my career in such a way to be distinguished is incredibly humbling.”

Although Erickson-DiRenzo initially chose to major in biology as a first-year student at Purdue, she ultimately found her passion in SLHS, where she earned a consecutive bachelor’s degree, clinical master’s degree and PhD from 2002-2012.

Erickson-DiRenzo stands with her advisor Preeti Sivasanker and two other colleagues in front of a brick building on campus.

Erickson-DiRenzo (second from left) poses with now SLHS department head Preeti Sivasankar (left) and her other colleagues from the Voice Laboratory. (Photo provided)

As an undergraduate, she quickly became involved on campus as a tour guide and participated in cooperative life through Ann Tweedale. As she advanced her studies in the speech-language pathology program, she joined Professor Preeti Sivasankar’s Voice Laboratory and began working as a speech pathologist at IU Health Arnett. As a doctoral student, she was also a recipient of the department’s National Institutes of Health T32 training grant, which bridges clinical training and scientific research.

“Once I started at Purdue, I was looking for a potential career choice that had a deeply human connection to it,” Erickson-DiRenzo said. “The training that you receive in Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences is exceptional, and the faculty, while having high expectations, are also incredibly supportive, and it’s clear that they want you to succeed.”

As a clinician, Erickson-DiRenzo sees her work make a difference on a smaller scale every day, one patient at a time, as she helps individuals manage communication and swallowing impairments.

“Every week I see patients in our Voice and Swallowing Center clinic, and I get to assess and treat them for a variety of voice, swallowing and breathing disorders,” Erickson-DiRenzo said. “So, I get this immediate gratification and connection in a way of working with people, getting to know their story, and watching their communication or eating and drinking improve in a very meaningful way by what I do in the clinic.”

Erickson-DiRenzo writes on a whiteboard in a white labcoat

Erickson-DiRenzo collaborates with colleagues in her research lab.(Photo provided)

Erickson-DiRenzo’s research in the DiRenzo Voice Lab is also providing the basis to make waves in the treatment of voice disorders and in training of the next generation of voice scientists. Work in her lab is funded by multiple organizations, including the National Institutes of Health, American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. On the basic science research side, Erickson-DiRenzo is investigating specific cell populations that help the vocal folds regenerate when they are injured, which could have a major influence in creating healthier tissue.

Within her clinical research program, her team is working with neurologists and neurosurgeons to examine how certain minimally invasive brain surgeries can potentially improve neurologic-based voice disorders, delivering important findings that could pave the way for future treatments.

“Our findings have provided the impetus for further studies, and these surgeries could be a novel new treatment for very difficult-to-treat voice problems,” Erickson-DiRenzo said. “It is exciting to see this line of research moving forward. Our study team has provided a lot of foundational evidence surrounding potential beneficial voice changes with this treatment.”

Although she noted there’s still more work to be done to make advances in patients’ health on both large and small scales, Erickson-DiRenzo remains motivated to build on her clinical and research achievements and continue making strides in the field.

“(This recognition) definitely inspires me to keep doing the work that I’m doing and giving back to my field, the community, and Purdue Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences,” Erickson-DiRenzo said.