NSF Grant Funds Speech Research

Photo by Lizzie Nimetz.
Photo by Lizzie Nimetz.
Photo by Lizzie Nimetz.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Navin Viswanathan received a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for his project studying how human listeners understand speech in different conditions.

Viswanathan collaborated with Dr. Laura Dilley of Michigan State University and Dr. Lisa Sanders of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to pitch the project. He said they worked together online to come up with the pitch and now that it has been accepted they have three years to do the research.

“The project is about trying to figure out how listeners are able to hear changes in speaking rate, so when people speak they speak at different rates, sometimes changing the rate of speech within a sentence,” Viswanathan said.  “If you look at typical speech recognition systems like Siri and stuff like that, they have a lot of trouble with these changing rates. We want to see how listeners are able to deal with this.”

Viswanathan said he ultimately wants to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms that are involved in speech perception, which will allow for the creation of better speech recognition systems. He said this study will also be used to improve the treatment of communication disorders regarding to hearing.

According to Viswanathan, the experiment will work by taking speech signals and modifying the specific acoustic properties to see how listeners perceive it. They will also be looking at neuropsychological measures regarding how one hears something concurrently and in different experiments.

Professor Glenn Geher, chair of the psychology department and director of evolutionary studies, said that Viswanathan receiving a grant from the NSF is as big of an honor as someone in his field can receive.

Now, Viswanathan said he will again collaborate with Dilley and Sanders to design the experiment. After the experiment is designed, he said they will separate the tasks to be done at each professor’s school.

“A cool part is that New Paltz students then get to work with students there [at Michigan State and UMass-Amherst] and sometimes graduate and PHD students on these projects,” Viswanathan said.

The biggest advantage of the NSF grant is that it provides students with an opportunity that they otherwise wouldn’t have had, Viswanathan said. The grant will cover their work on the project, as well as their travel expenses around the world on subjects relating to their research.

Geher said being involved with this research will impact students just as positive as any class they take during their time in school.

However, Viswanathan said there are always challenges when conducting an experiment.

“Challenges will pop up as we discover things that we may not think of and we have to respond to whatever happens,” he said.

Going forward, Geher said he hopes Viswanathan continues doing what he has been doing his whole career.

“I hope he continues to be a star in the field. I’m sure he will,” Geher said.  “I hope he gets future grants like this and continues his great record of publications and maybe writes a book on his research.”