New Professor Shows Psychology Isn’t just Talk Show Fodder
Sarah Anderson balances time between language research and dedication to students.
By: Tom Robinette
Psychology is much more than “Dr. Phil.” But that doesn’t keep students from occasionally stopping by assistant professor Sarah Anderson’s office to proclaim they’ve been inspired by the popular daytime-television shrink.
“I get a lot of people in my office who will say, ‘I want to be a psychology major because I want to be like Dr. Phil,’ which is fine,” Anderson says. “But there are a lot of things you can do with psychology that, as an incoming freshman, you might not be aware of.”
|Professor Sarah Anderson is researching language processing.|
Like those freshmen, Anderson is relatively new to the University of Cincinnati, having been hired in January 2011. After her first quarter of teaching, she knew she wanted to work more closely with undergraduates and help them learn all that psychology has to offer – the stuff beyond the canon of Dr. Phil. So she became advisor of the Psych Club, a student-run organization open to anyone curious about studying psychology. It was a way she could pass on the encouragement given to her when she was first introduced to her field.
“I got my original interest in psychology because somebody took me under her wing,” Anderson said. “Somebody took an interest in me and tried to help. It felt like that’s what I should do here at UC.”
Every other week, the club hosts fun and informative social events. Group members can form study groups, attend informative sessions and learn about how to get ready for a career in psychology, all while quaffing hot chocolate and noshing on pizza.
“There’s a great student population here,” Anderson says. “The students are really incredible.”
And, she says, so are her new colleagues in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences. During her doctoral study at Cornell University, Anderson became familiar with members of UC’s psychology faculty by attending industry conferences and reading their published works. She was excited about the research being done at UC and knew she wanted to be a part of the team.
“It’s been really amazing to work with the people here. Everybody’s been really supportive and very sharp,” she says, noting examples of her colleagues’ cutting-edge research such as the haptic perception and interpersonal movement coordination done by Mike Richardson, Mike Riley and Kevin Shockley, and the complexity analyses and self-organizing systems research done by Jay Holden and Guy Van Orden in the Center for Cognition, Action and Perception lab.
Anderson contributes to the array of innovative science being performed here through her research on language processing. Her work uses language as a test space to study the effects environmental cues have on various cognitive processes. It’s a key element to analyze because someone’s understanding of a particular word – how the word looks, how it sounds and what it means – influences his or her perception of the world.
|Sarah Anderson listens to discussion during a recent Psych Club meeting.|
One of the things Anderson’s work explores is how altering those environmental cues can affect comprehension of language and, by extension, the world. The data she collects can be used to help understand how children learn to use information in their environment, what’s happening when someone uses language in a noticeably different way or how a non-native English speaker speaks English. And while still in the early stages of her research, Anderson said what she’s discovering could be used to help children with learning disabilities and in English as a second language programs.
“Language is really arbitrary,” Anderson says. “The word ‘kick’ doesn’t sound or look anything like the actual kicking motion. And yet little kids can learn this word really easily. What plays into that? Your understanding of language, even though language is really arbitrary, is grounded in your senses and your action in the world.”
Anderson is also studying whether there are differences between how people perceive the recent and distant pasts, and how idiosyncratic information – such as the font and style of a printed word – influences thought. On top of her research projects, she still has a handful of Psych Club events to attend this quarter. But that’s all part of what attracted her to UC: the balance professors must strike between unique science and dedicated teaching.
“The university puts so much emphasis on being a well-rounded academic,” Anderson says. “That’s valued here in ways that I hadn’t heard of many other places. There’s a lot of support available to students and the faculty.”
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