Student Spotlight | Kyah Cobb and Robert Abarca

The SJSU Lurie College of Education provides a range of opportunities to support students in their academic endeavors to become transformative educators, counselors, therapists, and leaders.  We spoke with our Communicative Disorders and Sciences students Kyah Cobb and Robert Abarca, who were able to collaborate with Professor Paul Cascella on a research project that explores communication supports for elders dually diagnosed with intellectual disability and dementia.  Listen to their insights in the podcast below!

The project has two focus areas: 1) a systematic review of the literature, and 2) the development of a new rating scale identifying positive communication supports for people with dual diagnoses. To date, the systematic review has surveyed and analyzed contemporary peer-reviewed academic journal articles, doctoral dissertations, professional organizations’ webpages, and professional blogs. Initial results suggest two findings. First, there is a gap in literature
describing communication supports for people with dual diagnoses versus people with dementia. Second, dementia-alone recommendations are rarely applied to people with a dual diagnoses. To date, a draft of the new rating scale is in the pilot-phase of verifying its reliability and validity.

SJSU Lurie College of Education Communicative Disorders and Sciences Students Kyah Cobb and Robby Abarca

“The whole research project is about the connection between intellectual disabilities and dementia.  What we have been looking into focuses on aspects of Down syndrome and the correlation in communication strategies for those who are also dual diagnosed with dementia.”

What is your name, academic affiliation (undergrad, grad., etc.), and major / academic concentration?

My name is Kyah. I’m an undergraduate student and my major is Communicative Disorders and Sciences. With that major, you can become either a speech language pathologist or an audiologist, and I’m looking into both of those

Hello, my name is Robby Abarca. I’m currently a third-year also majoring in Communicative Disorders and Sciences, and I am hoping to pursue a career in speech language pathology as well.

Can you provide a brief description of the research project that you have been contributing to this year?

Robby: Our whole research project is about the connection of intellectual disabilities towards dementia. What we have been looking into focuses on aspects of Down syndrome and how there’s a correlation to communication strategies for those who are also dual diagnosed with dementia. We want to have an emphasis on communication strategies because there is a lot of literature and research done for individuals that solely only have dementia and are in nursing units or working with caregivers, and so we want to have information for those who have a dual diagnosis with Down syndrome or intellectual disabilities and dementia.

What has the project consisted of thus far?

Robby: We first started with working on getting our toes into the water of what’s actually out there. What we learned through talking to our librarians was to look into blog posts, which we wouldn’t really initially think of going to for research. This helped to expand our knowledge on what is actually being said – not necessarily what we can use within our research, but just building off of what we already know and what’s already out there. From there we also looked at organizations and dissertations of current research. The main focus was intellectual disabilities and Down syndrome and then from there, we switched to just looking at literature that is mainly focused on dementia. We were trying to pool communication strategies that were said within each of those pieces of literature and research topics that we had encountered. From there, we were able to build a current list that we’re currently revising and testing whether or not certain communication strategies are seen as enlightening to specific individuals that we’re wanting to test, such as speech pathologists, caregivers, and caregivers that are paid within nursing facilities.

Who is your faculty mentor?  What has your relationship has been like working with them?

Kyah: We’re working with Dr. Paul Cascella. So far, I’ve really enjoyed our working relationship mainly because he strove to create a collaborative environment.  Even though he’s in a higher position and has more years of experience and knowledge about the topic than we do, he remained open-minded to our input. There were times when he would even change his ideas if we had logical explanations for our reasoning. Even when we speak to others outside of our group, he would allow us to take the lead – explain what we’re doing, talk about where we’re going from here – and then he would just provide support when needed. Even now, I address him as Paul. I remember when we first met, I kept referring to him as Dr. Casella and he quickly told me that I don’t have to do and that Paul is fine. There’s obviously still those academic and professional boundaries, but it’s not too extreme where it’s like, “I’m your superior. Do as I say.” I really respect him for that.

Can you share an experience that you’ve had with this project so far that has been enlightening, surprising, challenging, etc.?

Kyah: I like how this project taught me that there’s never such a thing as too much research. I know when I would do research projects for other classes years prior, I would go on the databases and think, “Wow, there’s all these articles just for this one topic.” But now that we’re looking for something specific, you realize “Wow, there’s like no articles for this one topic.” So, it just taught me don’t be afraid to put out more research about a topic. You might feel like there are already 30,000 articles, but there are not 30,000 articles about intellectual disabilities and dementia and communication supports. There may be 30,000 about intellectual disabilities and 30,000 about dementia, but not for both so there’s always a way that you can structure a project to make it more specific, and there’s never too much research for that.

How has this opportunity overall shaped you – personally, academically, or professionally – going forward?

Robby: Overall, this project has benefitted me in every aspect possible. I know that when the applications first came out, I was very hesitant about applying. We had orientation at the very beginning of our program with just our major and hearing about research seemed very intimidating to me. I remember thinking “Oh, I don’t think I’d be good enough for that, or I don’t have the strength for that.” Even when I applied, I remember I applied the day before it was due because I just had so much anxiety within myself whether or not I had the confidence to even pursue such research with like one of my favorite professors. I didn’t want to be seen as letting him down or as a failure, and that’s where all those thoughts were coming through my head.  But, overall, this experience has totally flipped the view on everything. It has made me want to pursue more research and I’m looking forward to Master’s programs and hopefully obtaining my Ph.D. in order to do more research and work alongside other people. It’s opened up my horizons of future career paths and working alongside other people.

Kyah: I agree with Robby about feeling apprehensive about applying. When I first heard about the opportunity I thought “Research might be a little bit boring” so I wasn’t going to apply at first. I’m glad that I did because this experience was actually interesting to learn how there are so many steps to get to this big product at the end. When it comes to the topic, I really enjoyed learning about it because I have a family member with an intellectual disability. Even though they’re still young, having this knowledge allows me to prepare not just for a few years from now but decades ahead of when this issue may arise. I’m glad that I’m getting this knowledge now and this experience, that way, down the road it won’t be as daunting or as stressful. It’s relieving some of the stress already.

Connect with Lurie College at to receive more news about academic and student life!  Audio recorded by Brian Cheung Dooley.  Interview transcription provided by and edited by Sydney Ahmadian.

One thought on “Student Spotlight | Kyah Cobb and Robert Abarca

  1. Yes, Kyah and Robby! Thank you for setting a high example of ambition and research. Sounds like you both had to overcome some anxiety to do this work. CDS is lucky to have you both. 🙂