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First-year students take on lab roles in early research program

SoC student fills a beaker

As School of Communication students start the new school year, some of them are walking on to campus for the first time—right into research positions.

A program test-launched last year and continued this fall has placed incoming first-year Human Communication Science majors in the School of Communication directly into lab experiences with faculty mentors. The Early Research Experience Award (EREA) Program allows incoming students in the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders to apply for a funded research assistant position with a School of Communication professor. Award recipients receive $2,000, to be earned during their first year, or the summer immediately following.

The program ensures new students access to early mentorship and research experience and connection to their peers and faculty—and brings vital student assistance to faculty research.

Among the first group of students, Christina Spaeth (C16) worked alongside assistant professor Casey Lew-Williams in his Language Learning Lab. Lew-Williams’s research explores how young children learn language and how bilingual children navigate between multiple languages. As a research assistant, Spaeth contributed by coding videos of children’s eye movements, running studies, and reading research articles on child language development.

Spaeth said that, in addition to the educational experience, she gained more confidence in interacting with faculty. “It was a very rewarding work experience,” she said.

SoC student in lab

Suzie Labelle (C16) was placed by the EREA Program into the Central Auditory Physiology Lab of assistant professor Jason Tait Sanchez (pictured). Sanchez, almost as new to the school as his freshman lab assistant, needed help setting up the first lab in which he was the primary investigator. Labelle was the first employee of Sanchez’s lab, and the EREA experiment has been a success for both parties.

“Suzie took to the research as though she’d been in the lab for years,” Sanchez said. She helped him set up the equipment for his lab, arranging a way to keep track of all the equipment in such a way that the eventual eight-person lab team could all work together, and then learned his research protocol, which examines the development of human hearing through research on the brainstems of chicken embryos. “She basically managed the first three months of my lab,” Sanchez said. “All the time I spent in other people’s labs, I’ve never had the kind of experience she’s getting here.”

Labelle had similar glowing reviews of her time on Sanchez’s team. “As a pre-med major with hopes of attending medical school, working in Dr. Sanchez’s lab has provided me with tangible experience in the academic world of research that I can discuss in depth on my applications and in interviews,” she said. “Beyond developing my resume, working with Dr. Sanchez has provided me with a valuable relationship and resource to rely on as I continue my studies and work toward my future goals.” Labelle worked on a research project over the summer that continued her studies with electrophysiology.

“Our research simply can’t be done without undergraduate research assistants,” said Lew-Williams. “It would be impossible to complete projects without their help.”

“These students are phenomenal,” Sanchez said. “I’m so humbled by how hard they work, and how much good they’ve done for my research.”

SoC student and professor review results

-With reporting by Morgan Richardson (C13)