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W&M Linguistics students continue summer research projects into the new year

Two linguistics students, Celia Metzger ’21 and Aubrey Lay ’23, successfully adapted their research projects this summer in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Metzger and Lay, both 1693 Scholars, created innovative project designs that expanded upon their academic pursuits in the classroom – and provided them with a litany of diverse intellectual tasks in the process.

Metzger, a Russian/post-Soviet studies and linguistics double major, started her research project during the first semester of her junior year. This timing fortunately enabled her to dig into the dataset before COVID-19 hit the United States in March 2020. These data come from a larger study headed by Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons Professor of Psychiatry Michael T. Compton.

Metzger’s research evaluates the interactions between language and the psychiatric disorder schizophrenia by examining the phonetics, or speech sounds, used by patients with the disorder. Specifically, Metzger helped analyze and code how people with schizophrenia describe relationships between objects in a picture, using 77 controls and 63 experimental cases.

“Our data is about two-minute-long transcriptions of patients with schizophrenia, or controls, describing a picture,” Metzger said. “We’re analyzing how they describe relationships in the picture, and we’re also looking at the completeness of the picture descriptions. So, are they cataloguing everything in the picture, or are there major things that are missing in their descriptions?”

Metzger said that this research project would hopefully illustrate broader trends in how people afflicted with the disorder interpret and evaluate the world around them, a woefully under-researched topic in mental healthcare.

“There’s unfortunately not a lot of research done about schizophrenia, and it’s often misdiagnosed,” Metzger said. “Our research hope is that this research can provide more information and better understanding of the disorder.”

Metzger began working on the project’s literature review over the summer in addition to attending multiple Zoom sessions with advisers, with whom she would code the observations through a blind review process. In fall 2020, she transitioned to coding narrative information and is now working on writing her Honors thesis on the topic during the university’s extended winter break. She’s also had the opportunity to present numerous times in the collaborative Linguistics Research Meetings that occur each week, and to apply to conferences to present on her research, showing that William & Mary’s undergraduate research can take students far beyond Williamsburg.

Metzger’s advisor on the project, Associate Professor of English and Linguistics Anya Hogoboom, said "Component analysis of transcripts is a new research area for me and Celia has been invaluable in thinking through how to measure the properties we want to capture. Her commitment to the project has enabled us to code the transcripts in three different ways, which has allowed us to probe different aspects of the speech."

Metzger’s Charles Center-sponsored research follows several other research endeavors with the university. The summer after her freshman year, she attended the W&M in St. Petersburg study abroad program. While she was there, she conducted an independent project about religion in Russia, which enabled her to interview relevant sources and pursue her own research goals for the very first time.

“It was very much directed by me,” Metzger said. “… I had to figure out how I was going to get the data, and I had the opportunity to interview people … I was able to interview clergymen at a church when I was there, and I feel like that experience helped me dip my feet into what research would be like.”

Metzger’s work in Russia, as well as her involvements with other campus organizations like geoLab, provided her with an intimate familiarity with the research process. These activities helped her substantially this past year as she navigated questions relating to methodology, data sourcing and research design.
Celia Metzger ’21 and Aubrey Lay ’23
Like Metzger’s project, Lay’s research also incorporated sociolinguistic interviews while still adapting to restrictions imposed by COVID-19. Alongside Emma Wise (’21) and Alex Johnson (’22), Lay is a member of Senior Lecturer of English and Linguistics Leslie Cochrane’s research group, known as the Discourse Analysis@W&M team. While they originally planned to conduct interviews with members of the disability community throughout Tidewater Virginia, limitations on in-person work led the team to pivot to another research venture.

“Professor Cochrane's Sociolinguistic Field Methods class carries out sociolinguistic interviews every year that are anonymized and approved for use in student research, so this Spring our group decided to work towards building infrastructure to make these searchable in a database,” Lay said in an email. “Given our difficulties in conducting interviews this summer, it seemed especially important to continue this work.”

Lay pursued a diverse array of tasks with this project over the summer. With the other two members of the Discourse Analysis research team, he finished data entry on pre-conducted interviews and is still working on how to best structure the database, an initiative which will continue into the spring semester. Lay also got involved with two of the team’s other linguistics research initiatives over the summer, including a project evaluating the usage of “inspiration porn” – a term coined by disabled activist and journalist Stella Young to describe images and stories about individuals with disabilities that objectify disabled people as ‘inspiration’ for non-disabled people – in popular culture, specifically in online memes. He also helped launch a new project evaluating chat discourse over Zoom, a video platform popularized during COVID-19. The Zoom discourse project is currently pending IRB approval.

“With this newly ubiquitous form of communication, there is still a big gap in knowledge about how people really communicate through video chat,” Lay said. “We are hoping to collect data soon to better analyze the qualities of this unique discourse, and how people of different identities navigate these virtual spaces.”

As a linguistics major, these initiatives have been especially engaging for Lay as he prepares to pursue further independent research in the department moving forward.

“… I feel the department has prepared me quite well for these projects,” Lay said. “I’ve been able to work on projects at various stages of the research process, and this experience has been really exciting in preparing me for my own independent work.”

All of Lay’s research has been done as part of a collaborative research team with Senior Lecturer Cochrane, who says "Aubrey has been such a valuable addition to my research team, along with Emma and Alex. He really had to hit the ground running as we adjusted our research projects to conditions during the pandemic. Faculty-student collaboration is one of the joys of doing research in linguistics!"

Both Metzger and Lay expressed their sincere gratitude for the linguistics department’s support during their summer research, referencing student and faculty researchers that were able to make the best of an imperfect situation.

“The linguistics department is amazing and I’m very grateful to them,” Metzger said.