Student Spotlight: Charlie Nudelman, a trained ear
- Department of Speech and Hearing Science
- Pasquale Bottalico
- College of Applied Health Sciences
- University of Illinois
- Speech-language pathology
- Student Spotlight
By ETHAN SIMMONS
What comes to mind when you hear “professional voice-user?” Perhaps the image of an opera singer or a sports announcer pops in your head.
Ask Department of Speech and Hearing Science doctoral candidate Charles Nudelman, and he’ll conjure dozens of examples: Canvassers, radio DJs, telemarketers, clergy and lawyers are just a few of the professions who’ve come to him with vocal problems.
“The voice is something I feel like we take for granted—we wake up in the morning and expect everything to go fine,” Nudelman said. “If you’re relying on your voice for your job, hoarseness is going to get worse as you use it. And there’s a lot of costs related to that.”
After spending a year diagnosing voice issues in a clinical setting, 2019 SHS graduate Nudelman has returned to his alma mater to obtain his doctorate, focusing his research on preventing vocal disorders for the near-30 percent of adults who face them.
Nudelman, from Gurnee, Ill., was raised by a speech language pathologist: His mother. But he came to the University of Illinois with his major undeclared, initially hoping to veer from the course she traveled.
“I wanted to carve out my own path, but I ended up loving the classes and loving the faculty of (SHS),” Nudelman said. “That’s what drew me here to the U. of I., knowing regardless of the path I took I would have a really good education. And it was true.”
Under his adviser and friend SHS Associate Professor Pasquale Bottalico, Nudelman has become a decorated student researcher within the department, receiving the Phyllis Ariens Burkhead Memorial Fellowship and the Elaine Paden Award this spring.
And for his presentation at 2023’s “Research Live!,” where graduate students describe their own studies to a judge panel of high school juniors, he came away with the grand prize of $500.
From the start of his undergraduate experience, Nudelman was using his communication skills often, joining student radio and broadcasting Illinois athletics events through Big Ten Network’s Student U.
“It brought me to figure out what exactly is the voice, how does it work, what is this instrument we all have? And how can I make it better while I’m on TV? That’s a wormhole to itself, and I’m still living in it.”
Those questions brought him to SHS 301: General Speech Science, taught by then-first-year Assistant Professor Bottalico. Nudelman sat in the front row every lecture, taking copious notes. He quickly attached to Bottalico’s “distinct” teaching style, and gratefully accepted an invite to his lab.
For the better part of six years, the pair have worked “nonstop” on projects together, even when Nudelman left to obtain his master’s degree from the MGH Institute for Health Professions in Boston. Now back at the Illinois, he’s set to obtain his Ph.D. in 2025.
“The stars aligned, he’s an amazing mentor and friend and person,” Nudelman said. “He’s not only looking to open doors for me but any person who works with him.”
What’s “astonished” Bottalico about his mentee is how Nudelman has responded to escalating expectations with every new research project. Just one year into his Ph.D. program, Nudelman’s research output is already comparable to that of an advanced scholar, Bottalico said.
“I have a very high standard, it’s not easy to surprise me.” Bottalico said. “And Charlie has done it constantly since we met.”
Nudelman’s winning study for Research Live! took a close look at the vocal performance of teachers. He used a virtual reality headset to simulate various classroom environments for 30 schoolteachers, closely monitoring the acoustics of their voices.
What it showed: Teachers who spoke to virtual classrooms fuller with simulated students reported more vocal discomfort and fatigue, Nudelman said, while larger virtual classrooms negatively affected the teachers’ voice quality.
“I think it's something to think about within classrooms when class sizes are only increasing and we want our teachers to be comfortable,” Nudelman said. “I guess I'm a proponent for smaller class sizes based on this study.”
He has his sights set on a career in academia, “hopefully being a mentor like Dr. Bottalico has been to me to as many students as I can,” he said. But the doctoral student finds fulfillment in making research accessible to the general public as well.
For example: Instead of clearing your throat before speaking, sip on some water. Avoid whispering — it’s worse for your voice than just talking. And if you’re speaking to a large group, use a microphone and take pauses to breathe to avoid hoarseness afterward.
It’s this brand of practical science that made Nudelman feel right at home at AHS.
“It doesn’t matter what AHS major you are, you’re working with people to improve their quality of life,” he said. “Even though we’re all doing different things, the goal is the same, and you can feel that whenever you’re interacting with anyone in this college.
“It’s a great place to come if you’re interested in helping people.”