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Graduating Doctoral Student Pursues Research in Language, Behavior

May 20, 2013

Graduate student Stephanie Huette knew she would face challenges at UC Merced.

The University of California’s 10th and newest campus was in its earliest stages when she arrived in 2008. No one sugar-coated the reality that there was more work ahead to develop the first new American research university in the 21st century.

“This was the only place that I went to where they said ‘here are all the challenges you would face’,” Huette said. “I knew what I was getting in to.”

She was ready to treat those challenges as opportunities partly because of her interest in working with Michael Spivey, a cognitive science professor at UC Merced.

Huette will defend her dissertation May 31 and graduate from UC Merced with a doctorate in Cognitive and Information Sciences. She’ll start in the fall at the University of Memphis, where she will teach and continue her research in a tenure-track position.

Huette, originally from Fairfield, Iowa, said UC Merced has been a wonderful place to work and study. She feels well-prepared to take on the next chapter of her life.

“The cognitive sciences program is one of the strongest programs on campus, and it’s because they’ve hired some great faculty,” she said. “It’s a really great place for research.”

While at UC Merced, Huette pursued research in language and behavior and earned the University of California President’s Dissertation Year Fellowship. She and a variety of collaborators also published roughly a dozen peer-reviewed papers.

Her research focuses on measuring human behavior as it happens. In part, she uses computer mouse-tracking and eye-tracking to analyze how people absorb and understand language.

For example, when faced with making a choice over a statement that is partly true and partly false, how is that decision made? Watching actions as they occur can give researchers insight into the subtleties of the mind, she said.

Huette also studies negation in language. For example, telling someone that “the clothes do not belong on the floor” doesn’t explain where the clothes belong. Giving people alternatives can help them understand what you want in place of what you are negating, she said.

“We’re measuring behavior as it happens,” Huette said. “The mind just doesn’t work like a clock — the process is more fluid.”

Huette came to UC Merced after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. She decided to pursue a doctorate after finding that she could marry her interests in language and hard sciences.

On the UC Merced campus, Huette said she’s been impressed and sometimes surprised to find so many high-quality undergraduates — especially some of those in cognitive sciences.

“There are a handful of students here that are way smarter than I was when I was 19,” she said.

Huette said the young age of the campus itself provided many opportunities over the years — such as the chance to help build a research lab.

“In a lot of ways, I have had experiences that not a lot of graduate students get at grad school,” she said. “I don’t think I would have had the same opportunities in another place.”