UW Undergrads Do Real World Research With WiSCO

By Vanessa Eisch
Engage Staff

Diermyer presenting

Compiling and analyzing raw data, writing scientific papers and presenting findings at conferences doesn't sound like your typical undergraduate experience. It is for 19-year-old UW senior Emily Clare.

Clare worked on her first linguistics research project using an interactive mapping program called the Wisconsin Speech Chain On-Line or WISCO when she was just a sophomore. WiSCO, an Engage Simulations and Games Award project, allows students to use their own speech and that of friends and family from across Wisconsin and beyond, to understand phonetics and compare and contrast data from different regions. That early experience with WiSCO ignited Clare's interest in research.

"The most important thing I learned is how much I love research," she explains.

Last February, Clare took her passion for research to a new level. She joined a group of undergraduate student researchers led by UW German professor Joe Salmons and English professors Tom Purnell and Eric Raimy to analyze changing patterns of speech sounds across Wisconsin. They are currently focusing on "devoicing", such as where the final sound of a word like "buzz" is pronounced like "bus".

"When I first joined the group of students doing the devoicing project, I had no idea it would turn into what it is now," explains Clare.

Clare, along with classmates, Alicia Groh, Mary Simonsen and Luke Annear, researched word final devoicing patterns in six cities across Wisconsin to determine how word patterns spoken today match the immigration patterns of Wisconsin. They hypothesized that speakers from areas with greater Polish and German influence, like Milwaukee, would have increased devoicing, reflecting an influence from those languages. The group presented their findings at the Undergraduate Symposium last April.

"Sometimes the research we have to do as undergrads for classes/papers seems pointless, but to be able to do completely new research where no one had ventured before is awesome. It shows students that research can broaden and open horizons and that one can truly learn something new from it," explains Alicia Groh, now a Fulbright Scholar in Germany.

Groh says working on the devoicing project allowed her to experience real research before committing her life to it. Even from Europe, she continues to work with the UW group on a variety of research projects involving dialects.

Back in Madison, Clare is wrapping up her B.A. in linguistics. She says she continues to use WiSCO, the program that helped launch her research career, to study speech patterns.

"I feel like I'm getting a foot in the door in the linguistics world," says Clare, who plans to attend graduate school next fall.

She has more than a foot in the door; she has a burgeoning career.

Clare and her colleagues just presented their research at two professional conferences, the New Ways of Analyzing Variation Conference in Houston and the Midwest Modern Language Association Conference in Chicago this month. They will present at the national conference of the American Dialect Society in Pittsburgh in January.

"Even when it seems too demanding or I feel unprepared, I step back and look at the amazing things that are coming out of it and realize that despite all of the work, I wouldn't want it any other way," says Clare.