'One Hell of a Learning Experience': How COVID Nearly Upended a Student’s Dissertation Research

November 9, 2021

Iris Strangmann  in library

By Bonnie Eissner 

Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Iris Strangmann (Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences) was preparing to collect data for her dissertation on how bilingual people switch between languages, or code-switch, when New York’s pandemic-induced shutdown foiled her plans. Like many fellow doctoral students, she had to reimagine how she would conduct an in-person experiment when such activities were banned in New York. With help from her Ph.D. adviser, Professor Valerie Shafer, Strangmann found an alternative and is on track to complete her degree by the spring of 2022. 

She spoke to the Graduate Center about her dilemma, how she solved it, and what she took away from the experience.  

The Graduate Center: For your dissertation, you’re examining code-switching in bilingual Dutch-English speakers. How are you conducting the study and what are you finding about code-switching? 

Strangmann: I'm interested in how bilingual people control their languages. The bilingual language control mechanism in the brain must be very rigorous so that bilinguals can stick to one language for a prolonged time. But, at the same time, the mechanism must be very flexible so that bilinguals can switch languages between sentences or even within a sentence (code-switching). For my dissertation I'm examining how Dutch-English bilingual people comprehend same-language sentences versus code-switched sentences. I study sentence processing using electroencephalogram (EEG), a method where participants’ brain responses are recorded by placing electrodes on the scalp. So far, it appears that comprehending code-switched words comes with an additional processing “cost,” which might be indicative of the effort it takes to switch languages. However, I'm also finding that this additional cost looks similar to the cost elicited by processing a same-language, yet unexpected, word. These similar looking costs might explain why for some bilinguals code-switching is the preferred speaking style since it's nothing the listener's language comprehension system can't handle.  

GC: I hear that you had to return home  to the Netherlands when the pandemic hit in 2020. What was that like and how did you keep your research going? 

Strangmann: The COVID lockdowns started precisely at the time when I wanted to start data collection for my dissertation. An additional complication was that EEG always involves in-person participant research, so this ruled out remote data collection. Fortunately, my dissertation committee was incredibly supportive when looking at alternatives. I considered and started multiple plans but, ultimately, it seemed that moving my dissertation to my home country, the Netherlands, and continuing data collection there was the best option. This plan still closely resembled what I wanted to accomplish originally with my dissertation and aligned with my learning goals during my Ph.D.  

The move to the Netherlands itself was ambitious and slightly terrifying at times though, since I had never set up an EEG study before and now I got do it mostly independently in a different lab featuring different equipment and software. But it was also one hell of a learning experience. Plus, obviously, it helped that I grew up in the Netherlands and I could make use of my network to recruit participants. In the end, I finished data collection in three months, which was the time frame I originally had in mind.  

GC: When did you get back to New York and what has it been like for you to be here? 

Strangmann: I came back to New York in March of this year. It was nice to be back in New York since the lockdown rules in the Netherlands were stricter than here (including a 9 p.m. curfew for most of my stay). Plus, I got vaccinated almost right away here, whereas most people my age in the Netherlands had to wait until summer. It's been great being able to come to the Graduate Center every now and then and see some people in person! 

Since I'm back I'm working on the last part of my dissertation, which entails processing, analyzing, and writing up the data. Some parts have been challenging, but that's also because I'm learning new things. I feel I made the right choice by moving data collection to the Netherlands and I'm looking forward to defending in the spring.  

Iris Strangmann in the Developmental Neurolinguistics Laboratory at the Graduate Center

Iris Strangmann in the Developmental Neurolinguistics Laboratory at the Graduate Center (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

GC: Do you have any advice for fellow students who face obstacles in their research?   

Strangmann: What has helped me a lot is establishing good working relationships with people at the university. This includes my direct colleagues and advisers as well as people from outside of my program and at different campuses. I feel like that that has helped me learn about opportunities, such as courses or funding options, that I'm not sure I would've otherwise found out about. When facing obstacles specifically, I was able to reach out to different people to ask for advice. This support has helped me out countless times and it came from my peers, or administrative offices at the Graduate Center, or assistant program officers who know what to do (They always do.), etc. This works both ways, and contributing generously is equally important. Usually you lose nothing by passing down knowledge and who knows what you might gain.  

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