Retiring Chair of Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders reflects on 27 years at the MGH Institute

Marjorie Nicholas didn’t have a career in mind when she enrolled at Brown University. 

Sure, she had always had a love of language since high school, taking courses in German, Russian, even Latin, then majoring in linguistics at Brown, where she graduated in 1978. But moving to Boston and starting her first job put her on a path that led to a well-respected and successful career culminating in the role she is retiring from, chair of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the MGH Institute.

Working as a lab assistant at the Boston VA Medical Center in Jamaica Plain, she was introduced to a little-known language disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate due to a stroke or other brain injury. 

“The VA had this big aphasia research center where a lot of famous people were investigating aphasia – psychologists, behavioral neurologists, speech-language pathologists, and other rehab physicians,” she recalled. “I learned a lot just being there. I saw a lot of people with aphasia and I saw how they were helped and I thought, ‘I want to become a speech-language pathologist.”

By 1985, she had graduated from Boston University with a master’s in communication disorders. After a year in a clinical fellowship, she returned to the VA where she worked for the next several years as an SLP where she published research about normal aging and dementia, successfully received a R-21 grant funded by the National Institutes of Health and spent three years as a supervisor and research associate with the hospital’s Language in the Aging Brain project. 

While successfully pursuing a doctorate, she also taught at area colleges and quickly realized she enjoyed it. Deciding to leap further into academics, she was recruited to the IHP in 1997 as a lecturer by then-program head Kevin Kearns. Four years later, she joined the school as an assistant professor.

Recalling her time at the VA where she participated in aphasia rounds each week, Nicholas thought that having a place where patients could work with students would be a way for her to continue her research while adding a new dimension for students. 

What began with one student working with a couple of her research subjects eventually grew to having dozens of students work with more than 60 clients each semester. “I didn't have any plan to create this big community program. It’s just grown organically over the years,” she said of the Aphasia Center that’s part of the Speech, Language, and Literacy Center at the Sanders IMPACT Practice Center.

Although Nicholas enjoyed teaching, she eventually moved into administrative roles, first as associate chair and then chair after Gregg Lof retired in 2017. More recently, she twice was co-dean of the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences while maintaining her CSD role. 

She was instrumental in several initiatives, including the creation of the S-IHP’s CAP aphasia program, a collaboration with the school’s occupational therapy department and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital where students from both programs work with clients and features 1-on-1 and group therapy sessions, music therapy, swimming, a wellness program, and an adaptive sports program.

And under her watch, new doctorate programs in speech-language pathology and audiology have launched in recent years. She also was integral in the creation of the Tedy’s Team Center of Excellence in Stroke Recovery, which began in 2023.

Very much not a self-promoter, Nicholas reluctantly allowed the spotlight to shine on her at times, such as when she and a former SLP colleague helped U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords recover from aphasia after being shot in 2011 during a speech in Arizona.

Looking back as she approached retirement, coming to the Institute proved to be much more than she could have imagined. Like that first job right out of college, it proved to be the perfect place for her to flourish.

“I've always felt the IHP was a place where if you took initiative and you worked hard, you could make your job what you wanted it to be,” she said. “And if you had a good idea, people said “OK, go for it’. Not every academic institution is like that. 

“I feel like I’ve done good things for the department,” she continued. “I will never forget what a great experience it’s been and I’m so grateful to so many people at the IHP. I have loved my job.”

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