June 07, 2021

Undergraduate Sydney Walton is “learning by doing” in the Phonological Processing Lab

Speaking through sign language in a local community American Sign Language (ASL) class, Sydney Walton got signing with classmate Lydia Castro. They were amazed to discover that they were both Linguistics students at SFU and Lydia explained their MA thesis work on handshape markedness in ASL. Now after a few semesters in his undergraduate studies, Sydney happily says, “It’s been fun to come full circle from that encounter and actually work on their study with them.” 

Sydney started volunteering in the Phonological Processing Lab, or PhonoLab, led by Dr. Ashley Farris-Trimble, last January. As a volunteer, Sydney worked five hours each week, mainly helping with Lydia Castro’s HandShark project. The study investigates what makes visual languages more or less difficult to learn, particularly when the handshapes are rare. As a volunteer, Sydney’s work involved collecting data, sending out participation links, testing the build for bugs, and the like. “I was really enjoying that because of my background in ASL,” Sydney explains.   

In the spring, Sydney was awarded a USRA (Undergraduate Student Research Award) to work on the lab’s Learning Complex Phonology series of studies. The VPR USRAs are granted to undergraduate students working in a research capacity with an academic supervisor for a 16-week period and are jointly funded by the Office of the Vice-President, Research and International, and the department’s research funds. The Learning Complex Phonology studies examine how adults and children learn complex sound patterns: whether and how individual phonological patterns can be combined, and how that combination affects listeners’ ability to access lexical information. 

“I don’t have a lot of research background,” Sydney explains, “so it’s new and exciting to learn a different way of approaching the same material. I’ve studied phonology and language development from a bunch of different perspectives . . . and I’ve read experimental research, but I’ve never performed it. Usually, Methods is the section they tell you to skip when you’re reading it in lecture,” he says with a laugh, “so it’s fun to spend a lot of time in the Methods section and actually be able to see it. It really helps you to understand it.”

Sydney will be working part-time (17.5 hours per week) to help develop the online experiments for the Learning Complex Phonology project and will take the lead on planning and developing an eye-tracking experiment with the aim to have in-person participants in the fall. “I’ve studied [eye-tracking] in courses, but I’ve never really worked with that technology, especially not behind the scenes,” Sydney remarks. “It will be fun to know more about it from the inside. I’m really excited about this one.”

Sydney has about one year left in his undergraduate degree: majoring in Cognitive Science, minoring in Learning and Developmental Disabilities, and pursuing the Speech Science certificate. He hopes to become a Speech-Language Pathologist, focusing on speech and communication development in children with autism.  

Sydney’s advice for students thinking about joining a lab:

"Don’t be afraid if you don’t know a lot. Even if you might know the material, you’re at the very least learning a different way of thinking about that area of linguistics. Even if you have studied research, it’s very different from learning it out of a book. It can feel overwhelming at first, but there’s nothing like doing it yourself to learn.”