Carnegie Mellon University

Faculty: Erik Thiessenthiessenthiessen

  • B.A. Stanford University

Graduate institution & focus:

  • University of Wisconsin Madison (Developmental Psychology)

Name of dissertation & year of defense:

Title: The role of distributional information in infants' use of phonemic contrasts

Year: 2004

Current Positions:

  • Associate Professor, Department of Psychology

Classes currently taught:

  • Developmental Research Methods
  • Cognitive Research Methods
  • Introduction to Cognitive Psychology
  • Language Acquisition in Infancy and Childhood
Current Research: The goal of my research is to understand how infants and adults take advantage of the statistical structure of linguistic input to learn language, and how this process changes across development.  There is a great deal of statistical information in language: sounds within a word predict each other, as do words in a sentence, and elements of the input are distributed in a non-random manner.  Infants are sensitive to this statistical structure, and it provides one of the first sources of information that allows them to discover how language works.  My research assesses how various aspects of statistical information is useful in discovering what speech sounds a language uses, how those sounds are grouped together into words, what those words mean, and how those words are combined into phrases and sentences.  Additionally, I'm interested in determining the similarities and differences between infant and adult learners, to understand why infants are typically more successful in learning languages than adults. 

Did you participate in research as an undergraduate student?  If so, how did that experience help you in guiding students?  I worked at the Center for Infant Studies (run by Dr. Anne Fernald) for three years, and did an honors thesis in the lab.  That experience was fairly formative - it was my first exposure to the field that I continue to work in to this day - so it shapes almost every aspect of the way I work with undergraduates.  Probably the biggest impact it continues to have in terms of advising students is that it taught me the importance of the way everything in a lab should work together so that even the smallest details are relevant to the big picture.  So as much as possible, I try to make sure that when I'm working with an undergraduate, I try to tell them *why* they're doing a job, and how it fits into the overall goals of the lab, rather than just telling them what to do.  This is good not only for undergraduate researchers (because seeing the big picture helps to make the boring parts of research seem more worthwhile), but good for me, because often when I tell students what the goal of a project is, they will come up with a more efficient way to get it done than I was thinking of in the first place. 

Why do you work with undergraduate researchers?  Does it impact your own career directly?  There are two reasons I work with undergraduate researchers.  One is that I simply wouldn't be able to get the research done without them.  Recruiting and testing infants requires a lot of labor, and if undergraduates weren't willing to volunteer their time, it wouldn't be possible.  The second is that I really enjoy working with undergraduates.  They're typically very enthusiastic about research, and that enthusiasm helps make the lab a fun place to work.  Additionally, answering all of their questions about why things work the way they do helps to refine my own thinking and makes me a better researcher. 

How do you approach and structure your mentoring of undergraduate researchers?  Why is it valuable to you?  I like to think about working in a lab as having a pyramid shape.  At the start, I try to make sure that students get a broad exposure to all the different kinds of things that we do in the lab, and research methodologies more generally.  This way, a student gets a chance to figure out what they like about research, and if there's some particular topic or technique that they want to focus on.  And even for those students that don't want to go on in research, having a broad base of experience to draw from hopefully helps to give a sense of how research is done, and makes students better consumers of science by knowing about the kinds of conclusions you can reasonably draw from research.

Once a student has found their focus, they can start to get immersed in the literature related to it.  At this point, a researcher isn't just doing things, they're starting to understand the kinds of questions the research is able to address.  My role at this point in the process is to point students to the right literature, and help them understand the theories in the field, and how the research process is related to those theories.

Then for those students who find that their focus has just made them more curious to know why things work the way they do, because the literature and the theory hasn't been able to answer all of their questions, I try to steer people toward an independent research project or an honors thesis.  My job here is to take students big questions and help them turn those questions into manageable projects that can be addressed with skills they've acquired and the resources we have available in the lab. 

Did you benefit from a faculty mentor in your undergraduate or graduate years?  Absolutely.  To the extent that I have been successful as a researcher, a lot of that success is due to the fact that I worked with two amazing mentors at the beginning of my career.  My undergraduate mentor, Dr. Anne Fernald, spent a lot of time instilling the methodological rigor that is absolutely necessary to create experiments that work with infants and young children, but which made very little sense to me in the summer after my freshman year.  In graduate school, I worked with Dr. Jenny Saffran, who helped me make the transition from understanding how experiments work to understanding how to find gaps in our knowledge of the world and to design my own experiments to address those gaps.  To this day, I still think of things they told me about reading, writing, designing experiments, or being a successful academic, and pass them on to the undergrads and grad students working in my own lab. 

What do you learn from working with undergraduate researchers?  Working with undergraduates helps me because they're endlessly enthusiastic and inquisitive.  Their enthusiasm is contagious, and their inquisitiveness helps to point me toward things that I don't yet know.  Sometimes even when I do think I know how something works, having an undergraduate ask me to explain it to them helps to point out gaps in my own thinking. 

When you face an obstacle in your work, what do you usually do? What advice do you have for students who may face a glitch or hardship in a project?  The first thing I do is take some time to be surly about it.  Getting that out of the way makes it easier to think clearly about the problem in a few minutes (or days, depending on the amount of surliness necessary).  Once that's finished, I find it's often helpful to talk the problem over with someone who knows more about it than I do.  CMU is a great place for finding helpful people like that. 

If you could summarize your own research experience in one word, what would it be?  Worthwhile.