Mike Bowers ne of the recipients of the six teams of investigators that received 2017-18 Scholars Awards from the Virginia Tech Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE). The recipients from across campus are pursuing an array of interdisciplinary pilot projects in preparation for seeking external funding from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and elsewhere to support their research agendas.
Abby Walker, an assistant professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and Mike Bowers, an assistant professor in the School of Neuroscience, will use their ISCE Scholars Award to solidify their collaboration.
“Mike and I are fairly new faculty members, looking at language from different angles and radically different methodologies,” said Walker. “This project is not just exciting for the specific research questions we're tackling, but because of the way it establishes a research connection between his lab in the School of Neuroscience and the Speech Lab in the English department. We're already plotting about other ways we can combine our research skills and agendas, and it really is truly collaborative, where together we are able to answer questions we might not be able to tackle alone.”
Their project will attempt to understand the reasons why some people struggle less with understanding unfamiliar accents.
“The extended logic is that if we can understand these listeners' advantage, we might be able to improve cross-dialectal communication in others,” said Walker.
Walker and Bowers will use brain imaging technology to explore listeners’ reactions to unexpected, regionally-marked pronunciations. The technology will allow the team to get immediate, unfiltered reactions from listeners, and then compare their brain activity in responses to unfamiliar accents to the existing literature on brain responses to different types of linguistic stimuli. This will increase understanding of how comprehension is being affected.
“This technique is super exciting, especially from my perspective as a sociolinguist,” stated Walker. “No one in my field is doing anything like this right now, and it opens up the possibilities of asking and answering new questions that weren't even really conceivable before.”