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A computer science major, Aashaka Desai helps with speech language research

Aashaka Desai’s parents could tell something was wrong; when they called her name from the next room, she wouldn’t respond.

A trip to the doctor revealed significant hearing loss, and at 13 years old, Desai had to get hearing aids.

While the hearing aids have helped, navigating the world has still been difficult.

“I still have to read lips a lot. I guess a lot of the time what’s going on around me. I use body language, facial expressions, things like that,” Desai said. “It’s mentally draining.”

Desai, who was born in India but grew up in Dubai, knew that she wanted to play golf collegiately in the United States and wanted to go to a school with a good computer science program. The University of Delaware was the ideal fit, and Desai is double majoring in computer science and cognitive science.

“Delaware was the perfect match in the sense that I got onto the golf team and academically, it was exactly what I was looking for,” Desai said.

Aashaka Desai

Aashaka Desai was recognized nationally as a finalist for the 2020 Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar of the Year Award, given annually to outstanding young minority men and women who have distinguished themselves in their academic and athletic pursuits.As her collegiate career progressed, she also knew what kind of impact she wanted to have with her studies.“I know what it feels like when you’re surrounded by people and you just don’t know what’s going on because it’s like being in a country where you don’t know the language,” Desai said. “I wanted to do something to help people in the same situation.”

Desai has worked as an undergraduate research assistant with Delaware’s SLAM (Speech Language Acquisition and Multilingualism) Lab, writing code to help analyze data from the lab’s work in studying how hearing loss affects children acquiring language.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic caused the world to come to a standstill, she was also working on a project related to anomic aphasia. Generally, aphasia is the loss of ability to understand or express speech, caused by brain damage (often a stroke). Anomic aphasia is specifically when individuals can’t express the words they want to say. Essentially when a word is on the tip of your tongue, but you can never figure out what it is.

Desai’s group was researching how technology can help bridge those gaps in communication, and how apps can help people connect what word they’re trying to express to maximize their independence. Desai was recognized nationally as a finalist for the 2020 Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar of the Year Award, given annually to outstanding young minority men and women who have distinguished themselves in their academic and athletic pursuits.

“Having any kind of communication disorder, it’s very isolating,” Desai said. “I don’t think communication should be a privilege.”

Even though computer science doesn’t seem like it fits into communication disorders on the face of it, Desai knows that she can be a valuable part of an interdisciplinary solution to complex problems. That same sense of teamwork is why she’s a valuable part of the Blue Hens women’s golf program as well.

“She has this unbelievable passion for team and for belonging and pushing everybody,” Delaware director of golf programs Patty Post said. “She’s the one that’ll bring an inspirational quote to everybody before they play and really try to help them be as confident in their abilities as possible.”

While Desai was not often featured in the Delaware lineup early in her career, her game came together in her senior season and she played in three tournaments for the Blue Hens in the fall of 2019 before the spring season was cut short.

“She’s sneaky good,” Post said. “She doesn’t hit it far, she’s a small, petite girl. But she’s super dedicated and hardworking and so I think that finally paid off for her. She has good [golf] knowledge. She’s a super smart human being, so obviously she uses her brain.”

Desai said of her run of tournaments in the fall, “That was amazing, I had so much fun. I love that. Being with the team, playing for the team and not as an individual.”

While her time at Delaware is drawing to a close, Desai has her next step figured out already: a doctoral program at the University of Washington in computer science, where she will continue to work towards making the world more accessible for those with communication disorders.

 Photo by Scott Campbell | 

Computer Science, Feature Story, News, Students Hearing Loss Drives UD Golfer