Psychology Department Takes Research on the Road
Jennie Pyers and Students Present Work at Home and Abroad
Wellesley's Jennie Pyers, associate professor of psychology, studies language-specific effects on human cognition. Pyers and her students kicked off the summer with presentations at the Selective Liberal Arts College (SLAC) Cognitive Development Research Conference in July. Faculty, research assistants, and undergraduates from Wesleyan, Smith College, and Barnard College also attended the SLAC conference, which was hosted by Wesleyan University’s Psychology Department. (For additional photos from the conference, visit the Wesleyan community blog.)
Pyers just returned from Lund, Sweden, and the International Society for Gesture Studies (ISGS) conference where three of her former students, Rachel Magid '12, Annemarie Kocab '10, Neon Brooks '08, presented their research.
"In all of my classes, my goal is to teach students how research is conducted in the field of psychology, and how that research can address both theoretical issues and real-world problems," Pyers says. Her classes typically include observations or research at the Wellesley College Child Study Center. She says students and their observations play an integral role in all of her research projects.
This summer, Magid presented a poster on the research she conducted as an honors thesis student in Pyers’ lab. Her paper was titled "Iconicity Facilitates Word Learning in Preschoolers." Kocab, who has just been admitted to a psychology Ph.D. program at Harvard, presented a paper titled "Facial Gestures as a Source of Sign Language Non-Manual Evidence (and counter-evidence) from Nicaraguan Sign Language," on work she conducted as an independent study student; and Brooks, now a graduate student in psychology at the University of Chicago, presented a paper on her research on Indian children's gesture while solving problems with an abacus, entitled "Gesture and Mental Representation in Abacus Problem Solving. "
Magid and Kocab both worked in Pyers’ lab; Brooks worked with Pyers' colleague Tracy Gleason, Whitehead Associate Professor of Critical Thought. Gleason is a developmental psychologist who studies relationships with a focus on young children's imaginary companions.
Current students who worked with Pyers in her lab this summer are Andrea Takahesu Tabori ‘13 and Felicia Brown ‘14. Takahesu Tabori’s work looks at how age of acquisition of a second language affects a bilingual person's ability to remember words in that language; she has also been mentoring a Framingham high school student who was helping to translate a dictionary of Nicaraguan Sign Language.
Brown is finishing a project that is looks at how children's developing spatial language helps their reasoning about spatial relationship, and is starting another project that looks at how children gesture about common actions, like brushing their teeth.
Pyers' research interests focus on the relationship between language and cognition, bilingualism, and the psycholinguistics of sign languages. Her recent investigations also include language processing in hearing bimodal bilinguals—children of deaf adults who are fluent in both a signed and a spoken language—and the relationship between gesture and speech.