From May to July, my summer spent at Penn provided me with the unparalleled experience of working on a research project in a professional team. Under the guidance of Professor Delphine Dahan from the Department of Psychology, the team is devoted to studying coordination in human conversation, specifically humans’ choice of expression.
By the time I joined the group, a relatively mature idea had already been developed and the experiment had been designed and completed. In the experiment, both Penn students and people from the local community were invited to join in groups of two. In each trial of the experiment, participants each sat on one side of a table separated by an opaque barrier. The situation was analogous to a phone call conversation because they could not see each other. The participants were then asked to play a matching game. In the game, two participants each held a set of cards on which images of complex geometric configurations were displayed. One of the as the “instructor” had to describe the figures they saw in a given booklet in order to guide the “matcher” to put the cards into a set sequence. The experiments were video-taped in order for us to observe any general pattern existed in participants’ choice of expression.
As for my job in the project, I was mainly responsible for organizing and then analyzing the sets of data collected from the experiments. While our data were basically qualitative, it could be easier for us to conduct data analysis and display our research findings when the data were in a more quantitative form. We therefore had to find ways to quantify our qualitative experiment data. The solution suggested by Professor Dahan was to develop a decision tree and then have us manually categorize the data according to the decision tree. For example, when we wanted to study the repetition of a definite expression in participants’ conversation (e.g. “The second figure in the row is the fox I mentioned once in the last round”), I would name both mentions as “fox” using the Praat software; so when we run a computer program later we would be able to count the number of repetition to be two.
My experience of working as a research assistant equipped me with the skills of organizing and analyzing both quantitative and qualitative data. Having examined hundreds of audio clips collected from our lab experiment and refined the decision tree with two other student assistants, I developed detail-oriented working habits as well as teamwork skills. Reading academic papers concerning the use of human language assigned by Professor Dahan also allowed me to acquire a more comprehensive understanding of ways to achieve more efficient communication. Most importantly, I got to see the general process of conducting a research project and some important research ethics, which would assist me in making future career path related decisions.