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living the dream: UROP edition! by Shuli J. '22

in which i run experiments on children (well, kinda)

In my New Year’s reflections post, I mentioned that over the winter break, I applied to a UROP (an undergraduate research opportunity, aka a research assistant job). I didn’t say anything more, both because it wasn’t relevant to the post as a whole and because I didn’t know a lot of the details yet. Now, I’m two weeks into the semester and in the thick of being trained, so I feel much more qualified to write about it!

It’s a linguistics UROP, which I think is super hecking cool. Right at the end of last semester, in one of my many existential crises, I started to think seriously about pursuing something linguisticky. (Why? Because languages, and words, are just the coolest shit.) I reworked my schedule to include 24.9000/intro to linguistics. I wasn’t really thinking specifically about getting a UROP in linguistics: I mean, research experience would be useful… and money is nice… but I felt like I had a lot of time left at MIT to do my part for the statistic that 90% of students have had a UROP by the time they graduate. I wasn’t rushed.

And then a special someone came into my life: urop.guide! It’s a great little website created by two MIT students that pulls all the advertised UROP postings from the MIT website and puts them into a much more readable format, where you can sort by semester or department and search for keywords. ((Side note: It’s actually a pretty awesomely common phenomenon than an MIT student will just make a website or add-on to make life at MIT easier, like Courseroad or Firehose. Just one of the things I love about this place 😍)) I got an email in my inbox on maybe December 27th advertising urop.guide, and thought why not check it out?

So I typed linguistics into the search box. The very first one that came up absolutely blew my mind, because the second I read it, I realized it was my dream UROP! I’m serious when I say that basically the moment I read it, there was no question in my mind that I would apply. I started reading the job posting excitedly out loud to my mom and in my head, I was planning how I would update my resume. One cover letter later, I applied, and one Skype interview later, I had a UROP!

This semester, I get to work with the Language Acquisition Lab. The Lab looks at how children’s language develops into adults’, and what differences there are in their speech. For example: did you know that children often interpret the sentence “the cat only eats fish” as “only the cat eats fish”? In my work with the lab, I go to preschools and the children’s section of the Boston Museum of Science to run experiments with kiddos and tease out the details of differences like these. Armed with a puppet (Mr. Dog, our pig Wilbur, or our money, Mr. Nim Chimpsky) and a PowerPoint presentation, I show the child I’m working with scenarios, ask Wilbur to describe them, and turn to the kid to help me out: is Wilbur right when he describes the scenario, or is he being silly? Their opinion, and subsequent explanation, can be very enlightening. If the child is of the right age (4-6, in this case), and their parents have signed a consent form, this info will become a data point in our study.

So far, I have been having a wonderful time UROPing! I LOVE children (like. so much. i have serious baby fever and it’s terrible), and on a university campus I rarely get the opportunity to hang out with them. Plus, I think language is SO COOL. How we learn it is one of the coolest parts, and here I am, helping to figure that out piece by piece!!!

Of course, before being allowed to collect real data from real children, I had to go through several hours of training (in addition to the very careful wording necessary to maintain the validity of the experiment, those puppets are dang hard to operate!). It was this past Tuesday that I visited a daycare for the first time. I was super nervous, but it went really well (in part thanks to the persistent positive reinforcement of my UROP supervisor, lol). The kids were so nice, you guys… they were such wonderful kids. (All kids are wonderful kids, if you ask me.)

In addition to working with children and recording my data, I also get to help a grad student complete the next step in her project: analyzing a corpus (or giant folder of transcripts) of children talking with adults, to see if there is support for her hypothesis about *why* children say one particular thing differently than adults do. To do this, I will learn R! I’ve been saying for years that “I should really learn R…….” Well, last Thursday we agreed that I would learn it by this Wednesday. I thought, well, now I should really learn R! And that was my Tuesday :D I’m still a complete novice, but I can see the shape of my little programs coming together, and I think they’ll actually be useful to the lab — the first truly useful code I’ve written.

I am so excited about all of this; I think it’s amazing that in literally a month, I can go from applying to a job to helping to run experiments with kids, learning a new programming language, and doing real research. As added bonuses ((I want to say boni)): one of my friends (who I first met at CPW!) is also working with the Lab, and I can tell that I’m really going to like the other UROP students as well. Plus, I get PAID. I’m going to learn so much and have so much fun this semester! (And squirrel away all the money and feel like Smaug on a hoard of gold, only splurging on the occasional Trader Joe’s chocolate bar…) Life is good :D