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The sound of the new


Interdisciplinary researchers take heart—your day is coming

Sophie Meekings is an early career researcher whose research profile is, for now, somewhat atypical. But if two major trends that have gained ground over the past decade continue to advance, that may not be the case for much longer.

First, there’s the inter­disciplinarity. Meekings, who has just begun a neuroscience-centred Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship at the University of York, started her academic career as a humanities undergraduate, while her previous grant win was a social science-informed British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Second, there’s her focus on outreach. As someone who is profoundly deaf, she has, she writes on her website, “a personal as well as a professional interest in communication disorders and disability”. Accordingly, our interview took place at this year’s Womad music festival in Wiltshire the morning after she gave a presentation that featured, in her words, “uncontrolled kazooing”.

While she says she is “phenomenally lucky” in having been able to plot a multidisciplinary early career, she believes such luck is being extended to an increasing number of scientists.

Why kazoos?

The kazoo is a model vocal tract in that it doesn’t make sound unless you put sound in. In humans, the source is the vibration coming from your vocal cords, which is filtered and shaped by the vocal tract. You can make a recording of the sound that comes direct from the vocal cords and it sounds really weird, very buzzy—it doesn’t sound like speech at all, it sounds more like a kazoo.

Explain to me your multi­disciplinary career path.

I started my first degree in English language and literature, then transferred into linguistics. Then I became gradually more interested in the science behind it all. I did a master’s in linguistics and neuroscience, and a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. I’ve got one big question I am interested in—how speech and language work—and I don’t mind how I find out about it. I’m starting from the point of view of a question rather than the point of view of ‘I’m a neuroscientist’. I want to get a holistic understanding of things.

How has being deaf influenced that interest?

I do get asked if I went into this area of research because I am deaf, but that would be the worst possible reason. I would be studying something that I literally can’t experience. But because I need to work a bit harder to understand speech, I maybe appreciate a bit more than others what an everyday miracle speech, hearing and understanding are.

How easy has it been to pursue an interdisciplinary path given the funding available?

I have been phenomenally lucky because I’ve never worked on someone else’s project—I’ve always had my own funding; even my PhD was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Having such interdisciplinary interests makes it easier for me in a way because it increases the funders I can target.

But you can only do one kind of research at a time.

Yes, I can find that personally frustrating because I tend to be interested in everything at once, but it probably makes my research better and more focused. Much of the direction that my research has taken has been driven by the funder I’m applying to. I’m delighted it’s taken this trajectory because when I started my British Academy postdoc I wouldn’t have been able to do the research I’m doing now because the technology wasn’t available. That said, when I applied to the academy, I got quite frustrated that I couldn’t stick some brain scan research in there.

What did your British Academy research involve?

I looked at conversational speech, and speech and interaction, which remains my area of focus. When I did my PhD, I realised that the research in that area almost exclusively focused on research subjects talking on their own, sometimes even saying the same syllable 200 times in a row. Not really normal speech, is it? I wanted to research speech in a way that’s truer to everyday experience. The British Academy postdoc looks at how people talk in interactions with people who do or don’t have speech disabilities, which was another research gap.

What about your Royal Society fellowship?

It’s similar but adds in neuroscience—what’s going on in your brain when you’re talking to people in a conversational way? As I say, the neural research on this to date is almost exclusively people talking on their own. I’m using a new technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy, which makes recording two people simultaneously much easier.

Where do you see your research heading?

Well, my Royal Society fellowship could last for eight years, including an extension. Until now, I’ve had to focus on either a humanities-oriented bit or a science-oriented bit, but as I build a lab and get people in with their own funding, I will be able to diversify thanks to that. In any case, I feel that funders are valuing interdisciplinarity more. It’s improving.

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com