No Place Like Home

Professor Lori Holt

Professor Lori Holt

Sometimes there's just no place like home.

Ran Liu (CMU'08, HS'11) never forgot the inspiration and support she got as an undergrad from Professor Lori Holt at Carnegie Mellon University.

After a year away, she returned to her alma mater to continue pursuing speech and auditory perception research in Holt's lab.

"Lori is a brilliant scientist and a very generous and supportive advisor," said Liu. "She works very hard to ensure that her students and research are well-funded."

She added, "She also provides us with the flexibility to pursue the research questions that interest us while actively creating opportunities for our academic and professional growth."

Holt's research is focused on how the brain interprets sound. Her work is part of the broader Brain, Mind & Learning Initiative at CMU.

"Sound is a complex pattern of tiny movements of air molecules. We are interested in how the brain translates this code to interpret spoken language." Holt explained.

"While it's effortless for a two-year-old child to do it, it really is a complex computational problem."

Holt's lab is engaged in this system of speech and language processing, using it to study perception and learning among children and adults.

"The overall goal is to provide a model of auditory categorization that can be readily applied to challenges of speech perception and communication disorders," said Holt.

Think about how difficult it often is for adults to learn a new language. But children seem to have an ability to learn multiple languages easily.
"We're not born knowing which language will be used by our caretakers, so this system in our brain has to be flexible," Holt said.

But experience with a native language leads the brain to 'commit' to an organization to support the particular details of the native language.

"Before we're native speakers, we're native listeners," Holt explained. "Listening to our caretakers in the first year of life radically shapes the way we hear even as adults. How we interpret sound is deeply affected of the native language being spoken in the home."

For example, native Japanese have trouble with the English "l" and "r".

"This is because Japanese has a single sound instead of two like English. Learning Japanese requires that the brain learn to disregard subtle sound patterns distinguishing "l" and "r". This leads to trouble in learning English as an adult," Holt said.

"We are studying how listeners acquire native categories and how commitment to native categories so profoundly affects second language learning."

Sung-joo Lim majored in computer science as an undergrad; however, she decided to enter the psychology program during her senior year.

"Though I did not have much experience in psychology, Lori was very willing to help me out and provided me an opportunity to work in her lab." Lim explained.

"There is intellectual stimulation I received from her and other lab members as well, which kept me at CMU for my graduate program."

Lim says Holt leads her to think about broad implications of the research questions and appreciates the new ideas that Holt provides.

"Also she's attentive to my own research, which makes her a great mentor."

Related Links: Speech Perception & Learning Laboratory | Department of Psychology | College of Humanities & Social Sciences

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