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NIH awards $200K to researchers creating ‘transgender voice training’ app

Biden admin says study relates to ‘communication disorders’

A transgender professor and two speech therapy experts have teamed up to create software designed to teach men how to sound feminine – and were awarded $213,878 in taxpayer funds for the effort.

The project, “Improving the Accessibility of Transgender Voice Training with Visual-acoustic Biofeedback,” aims to improve “gender-affirming voice and communication training (GAVT)” with “novel GAVT software” that coaches men on their “pitch and resonance” through voice exercises, according to an abstract. The study began in December and ends in November 2025.

The research is being conducted at the University of Cincinnati and led by Associate Professor Vesna Novak, a male computer scientist who now identifies as female and formerly was known by the first name Domen. Speech scientist Victoria McKenna of UC and speech-language pathologist Tara McAllister of New York University also are involved.

The research money for 2024 comes from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, an agency of the National Institutes of Health. The federal agency lists the project as “research related to deafness and communication disorders.”

The NIDCD declined to answer what communication disorder the study addresses or why it deemed the research worthy of funds in response to multiple emails from The College Fix in the past several weeks.

“Transgender and gender diverse people exhibit a significantly lower quality of life than the general public,” the abstract reads. “One reason for this is voice dysphoria: distress because a person’s voice does not match their gender identity (e.g., trans women with deep voices).”

“Reducing this voice-gender incongruence can improve quality of life, but is difficult to achieve,” it continues. “It can be done with surgery, but the process is expensive and invasive.”

Voice training by a therapist is also “time-consuming, costly, and has additional barriers such as lack of qualified GAVT providers,” according to the researchers.

“While some smartphone apps have been developed for GAVT, they are limited in scope and not accepted by transgender people,” the abstract states. “A critical reason for this is lack of visual-acoustic biofeedback: visual information about how the user’s voice ‘sounds’ and how this should be modified during exercises.”

The researchers said they will use “forty trans women” to compare the results of the “prototype software” with that of “a generic voice analysis app.”

Novak’s creation “will be released for free” and “may become an essential tool to reduce gender dysphoria in transgender and gender diverse individuals, thus improving quality of life for this marginalized population,” the page states. “Furthermore, advancements in this area may generalize to computer-aided therapy for communication disorders, increasing potential impact.”

The College Fix asked Novak via email why the test subjects are exclusively men and why he thinks the project could lead to other developments in speech therapy, but did not receive a response to two inquiries in the past several weeks.

The Fix also emailed the other researchers in the past two weeks to ask the same questions as well as why they treat the voicing difficulties of transgender people as a communication disorder, but they did not respond.

McAllister acknowledged the role of biology in these struggles in an NYU news release about the project.

“In addition to the pitch of the voice, male and female vocal tracts also differ in their resonating characteristics, but resonance is harder to understand than pitch, and harder to target in therapy,” she said.

The three scientists all previously studied how to help transgender people be satisfied with their voices at taxpayer-funded institutions.

Novak co-authored a 2022 survey in the Journal of Voice, which found that transgender people “were positive about the idea of a [voice training] app and considered it more accessible and less dysphoria-inducing than human coaches as well as more effective than self-guided training.”

“What we should do is make some software that will kind of tell you what to do and will give you feedback on how well you’re doing it,” Novak told WKRC-TV after the study came out.

“[For] some of them it’s an internal motivation,” Novak said of transgender people’s desire to change their voices. “They say, ‘Oh I don’t like the way I sound, I want to change it.’ And some people it’s external and they say, ‘I don’t care how I sound but other people judge me for the way I sound so I want to change this.’”

McAllister directs NYU’s Biofeedback Intervention Technology for Speech Lab, which is funded by the NIDCD. A 2018 study that she helped conduct at the lab concluded that biofeedback therapy “could be a useful tool” for men who want to sound feminine.

Meanwhile, the University of Cincinnati also awarded $17,000 to McKenna, director of the school’s Voice and Swallow Mechanics Lab, for the ongoing project, “The relationship between vocal congruence and wellness in gender-diverse patients.”

The scholar hopes the study will “refute insurance denials of gender-affirming care,” according to her lab’s website.

MORE: ‘Gender-affirming’ surgeries are ‘essential’ for med school students, Harvard says

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Hudson Crozier is a student at the University of North Texas studying journalism and political science. He is senior contributor for Upward News and has also written for The Federalist, Red Liberty Media, and others.