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Kathryn Hiolski | Faculty Mentor: Bob McMurray

April 07, 2015
Kathryn Hiolski in the MACLab

Kathryn Hiolski, a December graduate in the Department of Psychology, first became interested in research her sophomore year. After encouragement from her advisor, she searched for a cognitive research lab that she could join. Hiolski became a student research assistant in the Mechanisms of Audio-Visual Categorization Lab (MACLab) and is currently volunteering in the lab to finish up her projects.   

The MACLab studies psycholinguistics, with a focus on the development and perception of language. While the lab covers a very broad range, Hiolski explained many of their experiments involve a device that tracks subjects’ eye movements—and in turn, their thought processes—after hearing certain words and sentences.   

Hiolski’s responsibilities in the lab include running participants (which involves getting consent, telling them about the lab, and getting them set up for the experiment), being available if the participants have any questions, and working one-on-one with them.

Hiolski has been particularly involved in conducting her own experiment, which looks at how listeners are sensitive to ambiguous language. Specifically, Hiolski’s study focuses on lexical ambiguity, or when a sentence could have multiple possible meanings.

“For example, the sentence ‘the man who whistles tunes pianos.’ At first, you may think the sentence is just about a man whistling tunes. After receiving more information however, you have to go back and revise your interpretation of the sentence,” Hiolski said in an email.

In her research, participants are hooked up to an eye tracker to discern their thought processes while hearing ambiguous language.

“We’ve found that listeners will actually maintain, or hold onto, subtle details throughout the speech signal as a mechanism for better recognizing speech,” Hiolski said in an email.

Hiolski came up with the experimental design, ran the subjects, and is currently analyzing the data. This research will help find out how people perceive language, Hiolski said, adding that the lab director Dr. Bob McMurray has been a great help throughout the process.

McMurray believes working in the lab as a student research assistant has numerous tremendous benefits. Doing research benefits students by preparing them for their PhD and for their professional life because they learn how to write, work with numbers, and think in a rigorous way. McMurray can testify the benefits of working in the lab as a former student research assistant himself, who stumbled upon a music perception lab in college.

“I wouldn’t be a psychologist if I hadn’t been an undergraduate research assistant,” McMurray said.

McMurray added that students who work on their own research projects see benefits as well. He believes that having your own research question helps to fit everything together.   

“I think you learn something from doing an experiment that you originated,” McMurray said.

Many of the students who choose to conduct their own research end up getting their work published in journals. He added that students are not simply doing research for self-gratification; they are asking questions other scientists actually want answers to. Hiolski’s research exemplifies that, and the lab will build on her findings, McMurray said.    

Several years ago, Hiolski may not have guessed that she would get to work in a research lab where she could conduct her own research experiment. She did, however, know that she was interested in psychology from the moment she was introduced to it.

“I took one AP Psych course [in high school], and I was hooked,” Hiolski said.   

One person who has kept Hiolski “hooked” on psychology is Bob McMurray himself.

“You can tell he’s so into what he does. He is genuinely very, very excited when graduate students come up with new findings, come up with a new design, or have a new thought,” Hiolski said. “He’s just very passionate about it, and he’s also a great guy.”

Looking to the future, Hiolski plans on getting her Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. Specifically, she plans on pursuing community and behavioral health, a field that explores preventative techniques. Public health is a very research-based field and is always changing and developing, and Hiolski believes her experience in the lab has prepared her for that.