Carnegie Mellon University

Dietrich College Research Training Program

The Dietrich College freshman-sophomore research training program is open to second semester freshmen and sophomores with a 3.0 QPA or by petition. It is designed to give eligible and interested students some real research experience working on a faculty project or lab in ways that might stimulate and nurture the students' interest in doing more research.

The projects take the form of a one-semester/9-unit research apprenticeship with a faculty sponsor. Faculty members are expected to meet with the student regularly and provide a grade. The benefit to faculty is some potentially quite useful research assistance, where projects can be broken down into manageable chunks (e.g., literature reviews).

Fall 2019 Course Offerings

79-198 Research Training in History

Section A, Prof. Lisa Tetrault

Women and the Vote
2020 marks the hundredth anniversary of women's suffrage and commemorations will be happening everywhere, to much fanfare and criticism (owing to racism in the movement).  How has the women's suffrage cause been remembered over the past 100 years?  And how can that inform a responsible memory today?  My work involves feminism and memory, and I'm interested in having a student join me in the research process, documenting the past struggles, of very different women, for voting rights.  Some familiarity with the campaign is helpful but not a prerequisite.

Open to two students. 

Email and include information about your interest in this project and why you think you'd be a good fit.

Section B, Prof. Noah Theriault

Hostile Environments of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh has come a long way since the mid-twentieth century, when coal smoke blocked the midday sun and coated the land in a layer of soot. Even so, the City of Bridges is by no means free of toxic pollution today. Its air quality is among the worst in the nation, many of its waterways and soils remain heavily polluted, and communities across the region continue to struggle with contaminated drinking water. This pollution comes both from legacy sources, such as acid mine drainage, and from newer ones, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. To support my research and teaching, I am assembling a database entitled “Hostile Environments of Pittsburgh,” which will serve as a resource for studying toxic exposure in the region past and present. The database will include historical, sociological, technical, journalistic, and activist perspectives both on the sources of toxic exposure and on how communities are responding to them.

Open to 1-2 students.

If you’re interested in learning more about your local environment while developing widely applicable research skills, please send email to Prof. Theriault, briefly introducing yourself and your interests: No prior skills or knowledge are required, though familiarity with basic web design would be a plus.

Section C, Professor Joseph E. Devine

On the Road: A Selective History of Pre-World War II America
Early one morning in late May of 1937, four young men – close friends, barely one year out of high school – set out from their home in Bayonne, New Jersey, in an old sedan that leaked oil, with a specific task: drive to South Bend, Indiana and pick up and bring home another friend who was finishing his freshman year at the University of Notre Dame. But the trip became much more. It became their first great adventure as young adults, outside of the rather narrow world they’d known as boys, with no idea of what lay in their futures, but with a vague sense that life might start to pull them apart.

They called themselves “The Rover Boys.” They packed an old manual typewriter, and kept a daily journal that gives a travelogue of their trip, which they stretched into a route that took them west to South Bend, south to New Orleans, east to the Atlantic, and north again to new Jersey and home, over a stretch of several weeks.

What they did was, certainly for them then, and maybe also for us now, remarkable. They transformed this simple task into a collective odyssey that, no matter where or in how many directions their futures would take them, would bind them together as close friends forever.

For us, this journal now holds promise as a set of first-hand observations by four young men from a different time and place in America, seeing and reacting to parts of the country they’d never seen (and probably never expected to see). What this journal says about them, and the America they observed, is the focus of this research project. Their journal will be the project’s central “text.” Students will be challenged to identify and critique works of history, literature, economics, cultural studies, and other relevant fields that expand and illuminate the contexts of the regions through which these boys passed, and that also shed light on them and their world (and world view) at home. Possible long-term end-results of this project include a course of study built around this journal, and a monograph of what it represents as a “social/cultural history” of a slice of pre-World War II American life.

Open to more than one student.

Contact by e-mail:; and include information concerning interest in this project. Recommended: strong background and interest in 20th century American social history and cultural studies.

80-198, Research Training in Philosophy/Psychology/Social & Decision Sciences

Section A, Professors Daniel Oppenheimer and Simon Cullen

Reducing Political Polarization by Improving Argument Understanding
Project: Recent theories of political ideology suggest that liberals and conservatives may prioritize different values. For example, while fundamental values such as tradition, purity, equality, and inclusiveness are widely held across the political spectrum, conservatives are theorized to prioritize tradition and purity while liberals are theorized to prioritize equality and inclusiveness. This can lead to ineffective political communication, as conservatives attempt to persuade through purity and tradition based arguments which are not as persuasive to liberals, while liberals attempt to persuade through equality and inclusiveness arguments which are not as persuasive to conservatives. This can lead to polarization, as each side feels the other is ignoring important values in the debate.

For this project, we are seeking assistance in developing arguments for and against specific issues, based in the logic of different fundamental values. (e.g. tradition based appeals in favor of stricter immigration laws, tradition based appeals in favor of looser immigration laws, equality based appeals in favor of stricter immigration laws, and equality based appeals in favor of looser immigration laws). The ultimate goal is to reduce partisan polarization by allowing people of different ideologies to better communicate with one another.

Contact: Interested students should email Danny Oppenheimer ( with the subject heading "RA for political values and communication project." In the email, please include a sentence or two about why this project appeals to you, and a sentence or two on any relevant experience (none is required, but if you have some, please let us know). Then, choose an issue of political relevance, and write

  1. a 1-2 sentence argument that you believe would appeal to liberals
  2. a 1-2 sentence argument ARGUING THE SAME SIDE OF THE ISSUE that you believe would appeal to conservatives

(e.g. if you argued for stronger gun control in your appeal to liberals, you also need to argue in favor of stronger gun control when appealing to conservatives, but your argument should be based in values that conservatives prioritize).

82-198, Research Training in Modern Languages

Section A, Professor Kenya C. Dworkin

Independent Civil Society and the Struggle for Democracy in Cuba
As part of an ongoing project on contemporary, independent, civil society in Cuba, its struggle for democracy, and the tools it employs for this purpose, this study will involve guided research, analysis, and evaluation of the impact of their use of: (a) the methods of deliberative democracy and (b) digital platforms, and the impact of the Cuban government’s use of (c) traditional repressive methods, and (d) similar digital technologies. Open to one or two students. Prerequisites: Students must have at least advanced-high level reading skills in Spanish and be fully proficient in English.

Contact by email:, and include information about your interest in this project and why you think you'd be a good fit.

Section B, Prof. Seth Weiner

Using Eye-tracking to Understand Spoken Language Processing
There is a moment in speech when a listener can disambiguate the word 'candle' from 'candy.' One way to capture and understand this moment is by analyzing a listener's eye movements as he/she views photos of candles and candy. Eye movements are closely aligned to speech and therefore provide insight into language processing. In this research project, students will take part in the development of an eye-tracking study that explores spoken word recognition in native and non-native listeners. Students will gain experience preparing the experiment, testing participants, collecting data, and learning to analyze and visualize the data.

Open to one or two students.

Email and include information about your interest in this project and why you think you'd be a good fit.

Section C, Professor Bonnie Youngs

Using Data to Improve Learning in French Online
For this research we will analyze the data gathered from students using the French Elementary 1 Online course. This semester we will examine patterns of student use behaviors, for example, why do students skip certain items and why do some questions or question sequences result in all correct or all incorrect answers? Using the plotted data we will cross-reference student behaviors with actual course material to find solutions to improving the course. No knowledge of French or statistics is required, just a good eye for detail and a willingness to share ideas.

Section D, Professor Felipe Gomez

Encoding Latin American Comics
This project involves research of Spanish-language Latin American comics. The course will teach Comic Book Markup Language (CBML, a TEI-based XML vocabulary) for encoding and analyzing the structural, textual, visual, and bibliographic complexity of digitized comic books and related documents. Student researchers will assist in: a) editing, marking up, and structuring digitized Spanish-language comics; b) reading and subjecting these texts to interpretation, making inferences, and embarking in theoretical explorations of issues according to given criteria.

Long-term results of this project entail possible inclusion of encoded materials in the Latin American Comics Archive (LACA), collaboration with national and international students and researchers, and perhaps a published work (for which student participants would be acknowledged as contributors).

Open to one or more students with at least intermediate level reading skills in Spanish.

Interested students should send an email to Prof. Gomez ( and include information about your interests in this project.

84-198, Research Training in the Institute for Politics and Strategy

Section A, Professor Ignacio Arana

World Leaders Database Project
The World Leaders Database Project will contain biographical information about the 1,616 heads of government that have governed in the world since 1970. Assistance is needed to:

  • a) Code the biographies of national leaders based on online and printed sources.
  • b) Fact-check that the nearly 500 biographies coded so far are free of errors.

This database is part of a long-term effort to answer a series of research questions about the most powerful national politicians, such as:

  • What happens to leaders after they leave office? Relatedly, which leaders decide to remain active in politics? What happens to leaders who leave office involuntarily?
  • How the political experience (or lack thereof) that national leaders accumulate before reaching office explain their behavior once in power?
  • Do democracies select more educated leaders?
  • Which type of leaders is more likely to erode democratic institutions?
  • How the relation to the previous government conditions what a government can do?

Research assistants will gain research and data collection experience, and their contribution will be acknowledged once the database is published.

Open to more than one student.

Interested students: Send an email to and include information about your interests in this project

Section B, Proffesor John Chin

Historical Dictionary of Modern Nonviolent Revolutions
Professor Chin is looking for help researching, writing, and editing an Historical Dictionary of Modern Nonviolent Revolutions. If you want to read and write about how "people power" movements topple dictators (or not), this is the project for you! The research assistant will help conduct historical research (compiling newspaper reporting from online databases, and reading secondary books and articles) on various nonviolent revolutions since 1945, write initial draft narratives of revolutions, and by the end help revise and proof-read a 350-400 page manuscript. No prior experience is needed. Professor Chin will be able to guide the student appropriately throughout the length of the project. There will be opportunities for continuing the research into the summer as well for those who are interested.

Open to more than one student.

Interested students: Send an email to and include information about your interests in this project.

85-198, Research Training in Psychology

Section A, Professor Lori Holt

Listen Up: Research Training in the Science of Sound
Have you ever wondered how people learn a second language? We are investigating novel approaches to helping the adult brain acquire the sounds of a new language. In Fall 2018 we conducted a classroom intervention with Carnegie Mellon University students learning Mandarin Chinese. The Freshman-Sophomore project will involve hands-on experience analyzing data from this study. You can also expect to be welcomed into a vibrant, cross-cutting laboratory of researchers with an interest in understanding how the human brain understands speech and other sounds. This project is best suited to a student who has a curiosity about language learning and is comfortable with some programming.

Possibly open to more than one student. 

Contact: Please contact Professor Holt by email,

Section J, Professor Laurie Heller

Auditory Perception
This course provides students with research experience in the area of auditory perception. Students will assist with research projects in the Auditory Perception Laboratory, obtaining hands-on experience with various aspects of conducting research. Students will gain experience in study design, participant recruitment & scheduling, working as an experimenter, data collection, and data management/analysis including acoustic analysis and possibly sound recording and sound synthesis.

For example, students may conduct an analysis of the acoustics of sounds which have similar perceptual qualities, or they may run an experiment in which listeners judge the causes of sounds, or listeners may do tasks seemingly unrelated to the sounds they hear and show evidence of unconscious priming when sounds and words (or gestures) are related.

Open to more than one student.

Contact by email:, and include information about your interest in this project. Students with a special interest in sound synthesis and/or matlab programming should bring attention to that interest.

Section K, Professor Erik D. Thiessen

The Role of Learning in Infants' Language Acquisition
In order to master their language, infants need to learn an extraordinary amount. They must discover what sounds occur in their language, how those sounds relate to meaning, the identity and meaning of words in their language, and how to string those words together into sentences. Infants are exposed to a rich linguistic environment, but little is known about how infants are able to take advantage of the richness of this environment. In the Infant Language and Learning Lab, we try to understand how infants are able to learn from their environment. In particular, we explore how infants respond to the distribution of probabilistic information across levels of linguistic organization like sound and meaning. To do so, we use a variety of experimental methods, such as habituation, in studies with infants between the ages of 6 and 24 months.

Our experiments present infants with novel languages, and examine what infants are able to learn from them. Specifically, upcoming projects will examine how infants learn that different sounds (like /d/ and /t/) indicate different meanings, how infants discover the rules governing word order in phrases, and how infants learn about the rhythmic structure of their native language.

Open to more than one student.

Contact:, and include information about your interests in this project.

Section M, Professor Brooke Feeney

Social Psychology
This course provides students with research experience in the area of social psychology. Students will assist with research projects in the Relationships Laboratory, thereby obtaining actual, hands-on experience with various aspects of large research projects on the topic of interpersonal relations. As a member of the Relationships Lab, students will gain experience in study design, participant recruitment & scheduling, working as an experimenter, data collection, and data management/analysis. For example, students may work with newlyweds and dating couples in an experimenter role, code videos of couple interactions, assist with data entry and data analysis, assist with preparation of research reports, and assist with library work.

Open to more than one student.

Contact by email:, and include information about your interest in this project.

88-198, Research Training in Social and Decision Sciences

Section C, Proffesor Gretchen Chapman

Choosing Health, Wealth, and Stealth
Students will gain experience in decision making research. Specifically, they will work on projects investigating incentives, unethical behavior, and risky investment decisions. In our studies we typically have subjects participate in simple decision making tasks and games, either individually, or in pairs. As a member of our lab, students will gain familiarity with the field of decision science by reading related articles as well as experience in study design, participant recruitment and scheduling, data collection, and data analysis. Students will attend and present at lab meetings.

We would welcome multiple students.

Students can contact our lab manager Ben Schenck