By Blake Silberberg ’13
Former University of Rochester students Catie Hilliard ’10 and Katrina Furth ’10 recently saw two research papers written during their undergraduate studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition and Frontiers in Psychology. Working with Florian Jaeger, Wilmot Assistant Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Furth and Hilliard examined how word choice is affected by phonological overlap, or how the sounds of words affect how we choose them in everyday conversation.
Furth became interested in the field of brain and cognitive sciences because she wanted to research psychiatric disorders and how the brain creates perceptions and thoughts. “I was inspired by a family member who dealt with episodes of mental illness to understand how normal brains work and develop in the hopes that we may be able to prevent serious mental illness someday,” she explained.
As an undergraduate student working part time at Tim Horton’s, Furth sought out undergraduate research opportunities in the hopes of doing something with her summer that was more meaningful and relevant to her studies. She was referred to Michael Tanenhaus, who hired her to create videos that would be used in psycholinguistics experiments.
For one of her projects, Furth worked with Susan Cook to study people’s gestures as they described videos to their friends. “As we were making the videos, I noticed that people were using the verbs ‘hand’ and ’give’ at different frequencies to describe videos in which one character passes a gift or a hat to another character.”
This is where the idea for their project was born. “Dr. Jaeger had just joined the University and I started discussing my idea with him. He offered to continue paying me to figure out what was going on,” she said. “I was particularly curious to know if people avoided repeating the same initial syllables if they had the choice. No one knew whether people naturally avoided tongue twisters, though.”
The initial goal of the project was to examine if people avoid phonological overlaps (“hand hammer,” for example) when planning sentences. The project quickly expanded to include word order, speech rate, and fluency to see if people “strategically” avoid sentence constructions that may make them less fluent. “One idea that always really excited me was that we could make these choices without consciously thinking them through – people speak at about 3 syllables per second and so we certainly were not stopping to choose the best words,” she explains. “I was also really excited by the idea that information about how words will be produced can affect things that we think of as getting planned early – you choose your words and the sentence structure before you retrieve all of the sounds, right? Well, the whole premise of this work was that the sounds of words are getting accessed so early that they are affecting which words even get chosen, and in which order you produce those words.”
Furth was tasked with designing the experiment, creating the videos that would be used to test the subjects, recruiting and testing subjects, and instructing other undergraduates on how to annotate the collected utterances. Once the data was collected, Furth sought Jaeger’s help to calculate statistics on word frequency. “I learned a great deal about experiment design and data analysis by working on this project. Since I had never designed an experiment before, I made a lot of mistakes at the beginning, but the biggest piece that I learned about experiments is that one extra hour of planning before you start can save 40 hours of careful analysis at the end of the experiment.” Jaeger, Furth, and Hilliard found that speakers are less likely to choose words that result in phonological overlap, and that this tendency is based on early effects on lexical selection rather than later corrective processes.
About a year and a half into the project, Hilliard joined the team as they began to design more experiments looking at word order and fluency when the words shared similar endings instead of similar onsets. “That was the most fun/weird part of it — having an idea in your head and trying to come up with a way to test it,” Hilliard said.
Hilliard had been on track to complete a major in linguistics, but after a family member experienced a stroke which resulted in a loss of nearly all language abilities, she became increasingly interested in brain and cognitive sciences. “Suddenly, all of these cognitive processes that I had taken for granted seemed so complex and laborious. I wanted to learn more about cognition, how it develops, and the neural structure underlying these abilities.”
Hilliard combined her interests to pursue a concentration in psycholinguistics within the BCS department. After taking a psycholinguistics class with Jaeger, she worked as an assistant in his lab for the summer. This experience with the research process led her to join Furth and Jaeger’s project for the following year.
Both Furth and Hilliard refer to their research with Jaeger as one of the most valuable experiences of their undergraduate career. “I was particularly blessed to have an opportunity to pursue my own research idea as an undergraduate, present the work at international conferences, and be an author on multiple manuscripts,” Furth says. “My mentor, Florian, also sent me to the Yucatan peninsula to help collect data working with native Mayan speakers. These were once-in-a-lifetime experiences as I navigated the world in Spanish and attempted to do basic research in rare languages.”
Furth said the research experiences were pivotal in the graduate school admission process. “I believe that these experiences, and the letters of recommendations that came from them, were the major reason that I was accepted by 12 of 14 graduate schools to which I applied.”
Hilliard has similarly positive things to say about her experience. “Before I had even realized I wanted to continue doing research in graduate school, working in a lab gave me a sense of responsibility and independence that I didn’t always feel for my classwork,” she said. “I became really invested in the projects I was working on. I thought about them a lot, and learned how to communicate my research ideas to other people.”
Like Furth, Hilliard said that conducting research as an undergraduate prepared her for graduate school. “I felt confident in my abilities, and continued to feel supported by Florian, Katrina, and other members of the lab. When I applied for admission, several lab members shared their own experiences and advice, and I ended up in the best program for my research interests.”
Jaeger also emphasized the importance of having Furth and Hilliard in his lab. “Katrina was the first RA I hired six years ago. It was wonderful having Caitie and Katrina in the lab, I got lucky,” he says. “I hope that the University will continue to expand their support for undergraduate research and that we can strike a balance between providing research opportunities for undergraduates and all the other responsibilities of faculty. I think it’s one of the most appealing properties of a place like Rochester that you can actually get your feet wet and get involved in research.”
Katrina Furth (Pictured top right with Professor Florian Jaeger) is now enrolled in the Graduate Program for Neuroscience at Boston University, and is working at the National Institutes of Health with Dr. Andres Buonanno. She is examining the role of the dopamine D4 receptor in modulating cognitive ability and neural network oscillations called gamma rhythms. “Children with an allelic variant of the D4 receptor are more likely to have ADHD and many antipsychotic medications target this receptor as well as others. I am recording from individual neurons using patch-clamp electrophysiology.”
Caitie Hilliard (pictured bottom left) received the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship for her work with Dr. Susan Cook, a full scholarship for three years of graduate study in the University of Iowa Psychology department under Dr. Cook, a former Post-Doc at the University of Rochester. Hilliard is studying the role of hand gesture in communication, focusing on how speakers modulate their gestures based on the shared information they have with their listeners. She has run two studies examining how speakers’ gestures change when they know that their listener lacks task-relevant information, and is currently investigating how the listeners’ perception of these gestures affects their own cognition.
Article written by Blake Silberberg, an intern with University Communications and a member of the Piggies. He is a senior majoring in political science.