Carnegie Mellon University

Just Me & the Birds

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Detective Work Sparks Career

Lori Holt

On a quiet, cold winter morning, the undergraduate walks into the nearly empty building on the deserted University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. She moves down the hall and enters the windowless lab, alone except for the birds gathered in cages. She's ready for another day of her winter vacation.

Now a professor at Carnegie Mellon, Lori Holt was then a sophomore, working over the three-week break. Her psychology professor found her a research position in his lab, running experiments on speech perception.

On this solitary morning, she begins to feed the quail and gets ready to run their auditory experiments. They're trained to peck for food based on what they hear. By programming the computer to play various sounds, she can learn categories of speech sounds. Holt continues this, "just me and the birds, 10 hours a day, 7 days a week," for the entire break.

Mostly alone in the silent building, she occasionally runs into a graduate student in the psychology department. They strike up a friendship. The graduate student understands the downtime Holt will have during her testing periods, so he offers her a stack of department literature to add to the textbook left by her professor.

As the days wear on, Holt becomes fascinated by the research process. The days may be lonely, but she's intrigued by the detective work, what she calls the "challenge in solving the puzzle."

She has taken only a few psychology classes but finds herself immersed in the subject of "how humans understand language ... the tiny fluctuations in air molecules that allow us to have all of our communication through spoken language."

What started as a simple three-week job sparked a career.

Holt continued her research in the psychology department and earned a BS in psychology and then a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Not long after, she came to Carnegie Mellon in 1999 and is now an associate professor of psychology, running the Speech Perception and Learning Laboratory, where she focuses on two areas.

First, how our brains are shaped to perceive sounds based on our own native language-beginning in the first year of life.

Second, how much of our understanding of speech is explained by general mechanisms like hearing and learning. Holt still works with animals, too, but the quail have been replaced by gerbils, who hear frequencies in the human speech range, a harmless procedure.

Through her work, Holt challenges the boundaries of her field. For 50 years, scholars assumed that speech perception was a complex phenomenon explained only by unique human processes. Holt's research has shown that a number of the mechanisms that humans use to hear speech sounds are also used by animals.

Her conclusions aren't falling on deaf ears. She was recently named a Rising Star by The Observer, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science — an organization that has approximately 18,000 members and includes leading psychological scientists, academics, clinicians, researchers, teachers and administrators.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 2008 issue of Carnegie Mellon Today.

Related Links: Dept. of Psychology  |  College of Humanities & Social Sciences