Carnegie Mellon University
February 27, 2020

Applications for Senior Honors Program & Fellowship Open

By Cameron Monteith

Stacy Kish
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-9309

Rising seniors who may be interested in furthering their careers in academia, pursuing a creative project or exploring a career in research will be interested in the Senior Honors Program offered through the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“The Honors Program is an opportunity for students to undertake a research project or creative practice that allows them to synthesize their studies in Dietrich College,” said Jennifer Keating, assistant dean for educational initiatives at CMU. “The thesis allows students to pursue a question or a theme with a faculty mentor, that is just their own.”

The program also offers a fellowship option that allows rising seniors to begin their project the summer before their final academic year.

“The community in the Honors Fellowship Program, in combination with input from a faculty advisor, really enriches the thesis experience for students who participate in this program.  An added bonus is support in the summer without the pressure of other academic year classes,” Keating notes.

One such student who pursued the Honors Program Fellowship is Anjie Cao, a senior who double majors in Cognitive Science and Philosophy. Her project, “From World to Word and Back: An Empirical and Philosophical Investigation on Syntatical Bootstrapping,” seeks to understand how infants acquire causal language.

“Causal language refers to any linguistic structure that expresses causality,” said Cao. “We know that infants from as young as 6.5 months old can perceive causality. For example, if they hear ‘The bunny is gorping the duck,’ they know that gorping refers to the causal action that happened between the two agents.”

Cao’s research focuses on whether this same learning mechanism can happen earlier in a child’s development and if it can be applied to noun-learning as well.

“So, instead of giving them gorping as a verb, we see if they can map the noun to the verb,” said Cao. “For example, ‘Neem pushes that.’ I’m testing whether this Neem, the causal agent of the sentence, can be mapped by the toddlers using syntactic information to figure out what the nouns mean.”

As a product of the research conducted through the Honors Program and the Fellowship, Cao hopes to produce a formal report of her research findings as well as a theoretical review explaining the foundations and justifications for her research process.

“Anjie’s work is a beautiful example of how one can successfully tackle a problem from multiple directions,” said Wayne Wu, an associate professor and the associate director of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, as well as one of Cao’s project advisors. “The honors program/fellowship afforded the opportunity for her to pursue a substantial research project rich in connections with Philosophy and Psychology.”

The experience of the fellowship is highlighted in blog posts by Cao and other fellows, as they advance through their research as well as new experiences and opportunities received as part of the fellowship.

Cao is grateful for the fellowship and believes it gave her the ability to explore the connections between psychology and philosophy in a manner that suited her style and not limited by mainstream studies.

“The Honors program has given Anjie the chance to design and implement her own study on causality and language,” said David Rakison, associate professor of psychology and another adviser on this project. “This work goes along with Anjie’s other achievements of coordinating the undergraduates and invoking new lab practices to streamline research practice in my research lab. She’s a gem.”

Cao serves as an example of the opportunities within the Honors Programs. She sees the program as providing research experience that will aid her as she continues her academic pursuits. She hopes the product of her thesis will form a stronger connection between the theory and methods of developmental psychology. She is thankful for the opportunity to be a part of the Senior Honors Fellowship and the larger Senior Honors Program.

“One added facet of the summer fellowship experience is the extent to which students immerse themselves into research or creative practice on something approaching a full-time basis,” said Joseph Devine, the associate dean for undergraduate studies. “For any [student] considering graduate school or careers, the honors fellowship experience can offer a unique window into this world and allow students to be better informed about this as a post-baccalaureate choice.” 

The deadline to apply for the Senior Honors Program and the Senior Honors Fellowship is March 20. An informational session will be held on March 2 and workshops to help students with writing applications are available on March 3 and March 5. More information on these sessions is available on the Honors Program website. Questions about the applications can also be sent to Joseph Devine.