Favourite Thing: Playing with sound: at work, and at karaoke bars.
Me and my work
I research what’s going on inside people’s brains when they listen to speech and produce it.
I use an MRI scanner to find out what’s going on inside people’s brains when they listen to speech and when they speak. I’ve even looked inside my own brain (—>).
Human communication is an amazing process. We chat to each other all the time – on the phone, in noisy rooms, with all sorts of different accents and voices. Most of the time we can understand what is being said, and make ourselves understood, pretty easily. My work looks at how this happens, and how the brain controls it. Apart from being fascinating in its own right to find out how the brain works, my research is very relevant for when things go wrong – for example, if someone has a stroke or head injury and it affects their ability to speak.
Speech is a really complex sound – I’ve made a picture (called a spectrogram) of me saying ‘I’m a scientist!’ to show you that the sounds in speech aren’t like words on a page, with helpful spaces to show you where one ends and the next begins. The shading shows where the energy is, in frequency and time. Even a tiny sound in speech, like the ‘s’ at the start of ‘scientist’, can sound very different if it’s spoken by a man or a woman, or if it’s at the start of ‘supermarket’ rather than ‘scientist’, but we as listeners still recognise it as an ‘s’. That’s quite cool.
My experiments look at all sorts of aspects of speech perception (listening) and production (speaking). I’m interested in how people cope when speech is difficult to understand. I’ve got different ways of distorting speech and then seeing which bits of the brain are important in trying to understand what is being said and learning to get better at it. Can you understand this sentence? That’s how things might sound to a person who has received a special type of hearing aid called a cochlear implant. In future research I’ll be looking to see what happens in the brains of people who use these implants, to see how people who aren’t used to hearing sound respond to speech and learn to understand it.
One of the most fun experiments I’ve done is looking at how the brain controls our speech when we try to sound like someone else. We got people to do impressions and accents in the brain scanner. We compared their brain activity for these with when they spoke normally to find out which bits got more active when they had to change their voice – you can see those bits coloured in purple on the picture. It’s important to find out more about how our brain controls how we speak – people who have a brain injury can find speech very difficult and our results are relevant for therapy to help people learn to speak again.
That’s just some of the research I do. I really love my job because I love sounds, and speaking! London is a fantastic place to live and work, and being at UCL and in the capital we even sometimes get to do almost glamorous things like scanning celebrities. I scanned BBC Sport presenter Clare Balding for a radio show – here’s a picture of me with her in the special room we use to record speech for our experiments. We also get to travel for conferences in the US and other parts of Europe, which is fun. Anyway, please write to me and ask me more about speech, sounds, scanners, brains… I’m excited to hear your questions and ideas.
My Typical Day
When I’m running an experiment, I spend all day at the MRI scanner. On most days, I sit in a nice office and do things like analyse data and write research papers.
The MRI scanner is basically a huge magnet. It’s sort of doughnut-shaped and we get people to lie in the doughnut-hole (!) so we can record data from their brains. The magnet is really, really strong (more than 30,000 times the Earth’s magnetic field!) so we can’t let anyone near it with metal on – or in! – their body. But once people are in the scanner it can be quite relaxing. We run our experiments there and then analyse the data later.
My office days are really varied. I do my analyses, write research papers, plan new experiments, meet with students to talk about their work, attend seminars and talks, make pretty pictures for my papers. Although I need to meet with my supervisor regularly to keep her up to date, I can pretty much manage my own time, which is great. I listen to music while I work, drink a lot of coffee and talk nonsense to my officemate. It’s lovely, really.
What I'd do with the money
I’d like to work with human beatboxers to organise a schools event on the brain and sound.
Human beatboxing is an amazing performance art that shows off how the human vocal tract can be used to make all sorts of sounds. I would like to organise a 1-day event in schools where I can talk to students about the science of sounds, in terms of how can use our own voices to make sounds and how our brains respond to them, with the help of demonstrations from real beatboxers. I’d hope to make things more fun by including a beatboxing workshop and concert at the end of the day. The £500 prize money from ‘I’m a scientist…’ would probably help to pay for around a third of the cost of the event, which would be fantastic.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Genuine Eurovision Fan
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Trying to sound interesting: Blonde Redhead, Not Trying: Girls Aloud
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I went travelling round Eastern Europe with a friend after I finished my BA. I’d never really travelled before, it was a glorious summer and we went to loads of places in just a month. It was fab for so many reasons – sights, weather, food, drink, trying phrasebook Hungarian (disaster!) and all the funny stories we picked up along the way.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1. It would be great not to have to worry about being employed – one of the downsides to a career in science is that most research contracts only last a couple of years. 2. I would like to be at least 5 foot 6 inches tall (am actually 5’3” – that’s 160cm for you young folk). I have to climb on the kitchen counter to reach the breakfast cereal. That’s not cool. 3. I’d like it if Girls Aloud represented the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest. My favourite band and my favourite TV show together. Amazing.
What did you want to be after you left school?
When I was at secondary school I wanted to be a forensic pathologist like Sam Ryan on Silent Witness… but I really didn’t want to train as a doctor. When I got to A Levels, I found that I absolutely loved Chemistry, and set my sights upon that for university. Then somewhere along the line at Cambridge I dropped Chemistry and ended up doing Psychology.
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
Honestly, I was really well-behaved at school. I can’t even think of something to make up. Sorry!
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
I don’t really have a favourite aspect to my work. There are lots of things that have been great fun, like travelling for conferences and the little bits of TV and radio work I’ve been involved in. However, I think the best thing is being able to do experiments to find out about the things that interest me the most, and getting paid for it. It is a real pleasure and a privilege, for which I’m extremely grateful.
Tell us a joke.
Two snowmen are standing in a field. One says to the other: “Can you smell carrots?”