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Savanah Alberts

What advice do you have for undergraduates who are just starting out in research?

Ask questions! When I started out with the program used in our lab (Praat), I was totally overwhelmed and had to ask multiple questions every day, but now I’m training new labbies on how to use it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions even if you think they sound obvious—the whole point of undergraduate research is to learn and enrich your experience, so learn as much as you can while you have your trusty faculty member there to act as a mentor.

When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I’ve wanted to be a teacher since the time I was little, because for several years I lived with my grandmother, who taught 4th grade.

What are your current plans/career goals beyond the undergraduate?

After undergrad, I’m hoping to spend a year teaching abroad, and afterwards come back to attend graduate school for sociolinguistics.

When did you get involved in undergraduate research?

I first started in research in fall 2014, the start of my junior year.

Why did you get involved in undergraduate research?

Undergraduate research was something that I hadn’t thought would be an option for me as an English major, so when the opportunity arose, I was very excited to be able to take it. I knew it would give me the technical training and experience I couldn’t get elsewhere. Also, sociolinguistics was becoming something I was really interested in, so it only made sense to get involved in the WVDP (WV Dialect Project).

How did you find/connect with your first faculty research adviser?

Kirk teaches ENGL 221: The English Language, a required class for English majors. I took his class in the spring of 2014, and when I found out that he had a lab dedicated to studying language in WV (the West Virginia Dialect Project). I was immediately intrigued. When I went to his office to ask him more about it, he offered me a TA (teaching assistant) position for the next semester, which included training to become a research assistant for the WVDP. I started that fall, became a research assistant the next spring, and took on the role of lab manager this past summer.

What is your current research?

Right now, the WVDP is studying language variation through vowel differences in West Virginia. Vowels are a particular area of research emphasis because of their tendency to shift more quickly than consonants, and because they illustrate social correlations more finely than other language variation patterns. Acoustically, vowels are measured by formants, which are resonances that are produced in the oral cavity during speech, and are quantified with Hertz. Using formant measurements pulled using a program called Praat, a graph of the relative position of the vowels in the mouth can be made, which allows us to quantitatively compare vowel systems between speakers of different ages, sexes, and geographical regions. Their patterns tell us about changes in language across regions and social class differences.

What skills have you learned by doing research that you would not have learned otherwise (i.e., from lecture alone)?

I’ve gained technical skills from experience with programs like Praat and some work with coding in R. I’ve also gotten presentation and public speaking experience from helping Kirk give talks on campus about the WVDP. Being the lab manager taught me how to work with and direct a lab full of research assistants, and it gave me insight as to the behind-the-scenes requirements of a principal investigator and project director. I’ve also helped create conference abstracts and worked on renewing NSF grants, which introduced me to the larger world of funded research outside WVU.