Staff BBQ this afternoon. Om nom nom nom.
Favourite Thing: I love doing experiments with people. I love talking about my research with ANYONE WHO WILL LISTEN. But my favourite thing is probably the graph which sums up all my hard work at the end of the scientific process.
Grangefield School, Stockton-on-Tees (2000-2005), Bede College, Billingham (2005-2007), University of York (2007-2010), University of Edinburgh (2010-2011), Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Free University of Brussels) (2012-NOW)
A-Levels: Maths, Eng. Lang., DT, Film Studeis, BA (Hons) English Language and Linguistics, MSc Evolution of Language and Cognition, PhD in Science (in progress)
After I finished my MSc, I worked for a while at Newcastle College in science outreach and communication working with young people, I now work at the VUB in Brussels as a researcher. I have also previously worked as a paper girl, a waitress in Morrison’s cafe and also a receptionist in a hotel.
Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Me and my work
I investigate the evolution of structure in human speech using artificial language learning experiments.
Why is language structured in the way it is? How did language evolve? These are the questions me and my colleagues try to answer.
Some of us use computational models, but I do artificial language learning experiments with humans. This is cool for a number of reasons, it allows us to see how structure in language emerged from our earliest language using ancestors. I’m not happy with the theory that all cave-men could say to each other was “ug”. It allows us to see why modern languages are structured like they are now, and it also allows me to do cool experiments which involve aliens and slide-whistles (more about this below).
My Typical Day
On a day to day basis I do experiments on humans. I realise that sounds a bit creepy, but it’s nothing unsavoury really.
I get humans (mostly unfortunate undergraduate students) to learn mini “alien” languages. What these unsuspecting students don’t know, is that these aren’t real languages, but randomly generated unstructured signals. I know, mean, right? I then see these people use these languages to see to what degree humans impose structure on unstructured, but language-like, signals. This allows us to understand how the brain creates structure from initially random signals. Sometimes these signals use speech sounds, sometimes they use whistles and sometimes they use graphical signals.
One paradigm I’m concentrating at the minute is iterated learning. I teach unstructured signals to one individual who is then tested on this language, their test output is then taught to the next participant whose test output is taught to another participant, and so on. This simulates the cultural evolution of language over a number of generations and allows us to see how structure in language emerges.
You can watch a video where my old supervisor at Edinburgh explains this process here: http://www.nutshell-videos.ed.ac.uk/kenny-smith-language-evolution/
What I'd do with the money
I’d start a science/research themed comedy night (Bright Club) here in Belgium!
In the UK, there are many fun events to get the public interested in science and research. One of the main things I miss about life in the UK is the amount of geeky entertainment, whether that be public lectures, museum open nights or themed comedy nights. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of this in Belgium too, but with 3 official languages, none of which are English, finding an event which I can engage with is quite difficult. Because of this, and since English is the language which nearly the entirety of those working in research share, I would like to start a public engagement initiative for the international community in Belgium (which is huge). I would like to add Belgium to the list of participating countries in FameLab (http://www.famelab.org/international) and would also really enjoy setting up a Bright Club style comedy night (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bright_Club) with a focus on science.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Short, Northern, Feisty
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
What did you want to be after you left school?
A set & prop designer, but A-Level English Language made me want to be a linguist.
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
What was your favourite subject at school?
Maths (shut up, I was cool, ok?)
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
The thing that got me mad on science was probably the Darwin200 celebrations in 2009 which got me thinking about the biological/cognitive foundations for the language I was studying in the bachelors degree. Also, i wanted to be called Dr. Little, because how cool will that be?
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
A comedian, or an MP, or something else that allows me to be the centre of attention.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I hope to progress human knowledge, even in a tiny way, I hope to finish my PhD (of course) and i hope I never lose sight of where I came from.
Tell us a joke.
I didn’t used to believe in synaesthesia, but then I saw scents.
Some of the robots that live in the lab.
Our table tennis table and library.
Someone doing one of my experiments!