Speaking of Research: How Four Undergraduates in Linguistics Have Defined a Research Path

By Claudia Tischler, February 9, 2017

As an undergraduate research peer advisor, I recently had an opportunity to interview four undergraduate researchers at Cal who major in linguistics and carried out senior thesis research, often with support from programs like the SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) and LRAP (Linguistics Research Apprenticeship Practicum) and URAP (Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program). We talked about their motivations for starting research, the challenges that they have faced, and their future plans growing out of the projects. One thing that all of these students had was their tremendous passion for their research and, in general, the incredible diversity and complexity of languages.

Here are some highlights from my interviews. I hope you enjoy getting to know these inspiring students! 

MichaelDohn.jpgMichael Dohn

 SURF Scholar 2016

Senior in Linguistics 

  • Michael studies the endangered Amazonian language Machiguenga.
  • He started research as a sophomore after taking an upper division class with small  guided research projects. He recommends doing research as a complement to the classes you take.
  • Doing SURF taught him how to read papers with the mindset of the author, and it provided him the funds to have time for this rigorous work.
  • Ironically, as a linguist, Michael says he would much rather spend his time tweaking his theories in his own mind than facing the challenge of communicating them to others in writing. The community cohort model of SURF helped him to push through this obstacle and present his work at the summer conference and other venues.Michael Dohn

libbyperfitt.jpg Libby Perfitt


SURF Scholar 2016

Senior in Linguistics

  • Libby is a professional singer and vocal coach. Driven to study linguistics by her interest in the phonetic basis of singing and speech language pathology, she returned to school to prepare for graduate school and understand the science of singing. As a LRAP student (Linguistics Research Apprenticeship Practicum), she started working with a graduate student to “peek through the window” of linguistics research.
  • In her SURF project, she studied the effects of singing on speech quality for elders.
  • SURF proved to be great preparation for grad school and gave her the opportunity to practice writing grants.
  • Research can seem isolating, so meeting with other SURF fellows helped her see that many students are going through similar struggles in their research.
  • The highlight of her work was working with the seniors.
  • She plans to study how music affects cognition and emotion as potential preventative care for aphasia and Alzheimer’s.
  • Life advice: Remember to keep your voice “fit” as you get older.'


Lara McConnaughey

Junior in Linguistics and Computer Science

  • Lara does phonetics research with Professors Sharon Inkelas and Susan Lin. She studies the articulatory differences between children and adults in consonant clusters.
  • Linguistics research relies quite a bit on coding, so her CS double major comes in handy for this deeply interdisciplinary work!
  • Her advice for getting started: Some people might be wary of talking to professors or feel like you need a lot of linguistics knowledge beforehand. Lara says getting started in research can be as easy as knocking on a professor’s door and explaining your interests.
  • She really appreciates that the linguistics department makes an effort to give undergraduate students an opportunity to do meaningful work as research assistants.
  • Recently, Lara presented at an international phonetics conference, LabPhon15, and at Cornell through URAP. She even got to be a co-author on the abstract for the conference.
  • Recommended classes: Ling 100, 115, 140, and 5 (as intro)
  • Currently taking a NLP seminar and interested in doing research in this topic and combining it with machine learning
  • Planning to start an honors thesis if she has time next year. She will be busy applying to graduate school for computer science.


EmmaWilcox.jpgEmma Wilcox

SURF Scholar 2016

Recent graduate in Linguistics

  • Emma was so on top of her game that she started writing her honors thesis even before applying to SURF.
  • Having grown up in Russia, Emma had a wealth of knowledge of Russian and in particular the pervasive aspect of Russian verbs. Emma became curious in borrowed verbs in Russian that didn’t behave in the normal way in the language through a term paper in her Introduction to Slavic Languages class. Her professor, Darya Kavitskaya, inspired her to keep digging and write a thesis on this topic.
  • Since the the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian language has gone through considerable changes. Emma needed to rely on online corpuses to analyze the usage of the newer borrowed verbs in her project.
  • Emma loves how diverse languages are and is interested in understanding how languages as different as Russian and English could have evolved from a common ancestor.
  • Emma found that having two professors from different disciplines helped give her a good balance of theoretical perspectives and new questions to ponder while working on her thesis.
  • If Emma could ask any prominent linguist any question, it would be to Noam Chomsky, about his theory of Universal Grammar—“What’s up man? Where did you get this idea?!”