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Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment announces 2017-18 interdisciplinary scholars awards

July 31, 2017

illustration of Human Brain Intelligence

Human brain

Six teams of investigators received 2017-18 Scholars Awards from the Virginia Tech Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE). The recipients from across campus are pursuing an array of interdisciplinary pilot projects in preparation for seeking external funding from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and elsewhere to support their research agendas.

Abby Walker, an assistant professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and Mike Bowers, an assistant professor in the School of Neuroscience, will use their ISCE Scholars Award to solidify their collaboration.

 “Mike and I are fairly new faculty members, looking at language from different angles and radically different methodologies,” said Walker. “This project is not just exciting for the specific research questions we're tackling, but because of the way it establishes a research connection between his lab in the School of Neuroscience and the Speech Lab in the English department. We're already plotting about other ways we can combine our research skills and agendas, and it really is truly collaborative, where together we are able to answer questions we might not be able to tackle alone.”

Their project will attempt to understand the reasons why some people struggle less with understanding unfamiliar accents.

“The extended logic is that if we can understand these listeners' advantage, we might be able to improve cross-dialectal communication in others,” said Walker.

Walker and Bowers will use brain imaging technology to explore listeners’ reactions to unexpected, regionally-marked pronunciations. The technology will allow the team to get immediate, unfiltered reactions from listeners, and then compare their brain activity in responses to unfamiliar accents to the existing literature on brain responses to different types of linguistic stimuli. This will increase understanding of how comprehension is being affected.

“This technique is super exciting, especially from my perspective as a sociolinguist,” stated Walker. “No one in my field is doing anything like this right now, and it opens up the possibilities of asking and answering new questions that weren't even really conceivable before.”

Karen Roberto, director of ISCE, said the institute was very excited about this year’s scholars projects. 

"The faculty teams are focused on innovated and timely issues that require transdisciplinary collaboration and exemplify the value of the social sciences to effectively address the complexity of individual development and societal challenges,” she said.

The 2017-2018 ISCE Scholars and their projects are:

·       Martha Ann Bell, a professor of psychology; Richard Ashley, a professor of economics; Angela Scarpa, an associate professor of psychology; Cynthia Smith, an associate professor of human development; and Julie Dunsmore, an associate professor of psychology, will examine children’s self-regulation in interactions with parents to see how those processes contribute to children’s developing self-regulation and general cognitive and emotion development.

·       Navid Ghaffarzadegan, an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering; Ran Xu, a postdoctoral associate of industrial and systems engineering; and Joshua Hawley from Ohio State University, will investigate the trends of career choices, research focus, and collaboration patterns of new doctorates in health policy.

·       James Hawdon and John Ryan, both professors of sociology, will explore cross-national online extremism risk, exposure, and participation.

·       Shalini Misra, an assistant professor of urban affairs and planning, and Patrick Roberts, an associate professor in the Center for Public Administration and Policy, will investigate the challenges that digital overload poses for managerial thinking and decision making.

·       Divya Srinivasan, an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering; Susan White, an associate professor of psychology; Shyam Ranganathan, an assistant professor of statistics; Maury Nussbaum, a professor of industrial and systems engineering; Zhenyu Kong, an associate professor of industrial and systems engineering; and Joseph Gabbard, an associate professor of industrial and systems engineering, will research innovative technological solutions to self-injurious behavior in persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

·       Abby Walker, an assistant professor of English, and Mike Bowers, an assistant professor of neuroscience, will explore the brain’s response to shifts in dialect and the potential for poor comprehension. 

Written by Katie Williams.

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