Spotlight on Natural Sciences and Humanities Alumni: Matt Hall

Name: Matt Hall

Education (UR and additional): BA (Brain and Cognitive Sciences & American Sign Language), University of Rochester, 2003; MA, UC San Diego, 2008; Ph.D. UC San Diego, 2012.

Current city/state of residence: Storrs, CT

Job Title: Postdoctoral researcher

Employer: UConn

Community activities: I just arrived in Connecticut as fall turned into winter, so to date it’s mainly been raking leaves and shoveling snow!  In time, I look forward to becoming more involved in local choral, Christian, LGBT, and recreation groups.

When and how did you choose your major?

I came to UR specifically because the Brain & Cognitive Sciences department offered a track in psycholinguistics.  Coming out of high school, I knew that I loved both biology and language, and I thought I was going to have to choose between them.  Studying the biological basis of language was even better!  I had also been curious about sign language in high school but never had an opportunity to learn.  Imagine my surprise -and delight- at discovering that my psycholinguistics professor was Deaf and giving lectures in ASL (with a voice interpreter for the sign-impaired)!  The rich interconnections between psycholinguistics and ASL were apparent to me from day one of my freshman year, and I quickly became a BCS-ASL double major.

What did you do immediately after graduation? How did you decide to take that path?

I knew that grad school was likely for me at some point, but before diving into a PhD program that required 60-80 hours of studying & research per week, I thought I’d start by looking for a research assistant position at 40 hours per week.  I applied to several labs around the country and received offers from leading researchers at Columbia and Harvard.  However, I decided to stay at UR to continue the research I had begun for my senior honors project, thanks to generous support from two BCS professors.  I worked full-time doing behavioral and neuroimaging research for three years, during which time I refined my ultimate research goals and assured myself that I was prepared for grad school.

What do you do now and why did you choose this career?

I am in the final stages of obtaining a PhD in cognitive psychology from UC San Diego, where I take advantage of the diversity of human communication (speech, writing, sign language, gesture) to ask questions about how communication and cognition interact with and mutually constrain each other.  I am fortunate to follow the pioneers whose life’s work convinced scholars that sign languages are full human languages; now, my generation has the opportunity to ask what sign languages can teach us about how all human language works.

What skills, tools, or knowledge from your major have been most useful to you since graduation?

It’s hard to imagine what skills, tools, or knowledge might not have been useful!  The work that I do now is a direct outgrowth of my undergraduate education.  The coursework laid an appropriate foundation for further study, and prepared to me to teach broadly about cognition.  My research experience in labs and in through the honors research program set the stage for my current research pursuits.  My sign language skills have also proven to be a highly marketable asset, and that has been true for my first job after graduating, for admission to graduate programs, and even now in my postdoctoral job search.

Where would you like to be in five years?

Five years from how I hope to have secured a faculty position at a research university where my work would focus on establishing evidence-based best practices for maximizing both language and cognitive development in deaf children.  Many medical professionals continue to recommend that deaf children not be exposed to sign language, especially if they receive a cochlear implant.  My goal as a researcher is to first determine whether there is any empirical justification for this practice, and if not, to pursue what other approaches most fully maximize a deaf child’s potential.  I predict that early exposure to natural sign language will be chief among these, but at present it remains an empirical question.