Along with other undergraduates, graduate students, and professors, Taylor Udell ’13 is studying how social interaction influences vocal development in infants and birds at the Behavioral Analysis of Beginning Years Lab. Udell, however, only works with the baby side of things. “I have not seen a bird so far ... I’m afraid of birds,” she noted, laughing.
Udell discovered the B.A.B.Y Lab in a developmental psychology class taught by prof. Michael Goldstein, psychology. Interested, she applied and was accepted for an undergraduate research position. The B.A.B.Y. Lab is considered part of the psychology and biology departments at Cornell, though a range of scientific fields are also represented, such as neuroscience and ornithology.
Parents and their babies volunteer to come to the lab and take part in the study by interacting with each other while being filmed.
“This is new science ... I’m pretty sure we are one of the only labs that has this new view of vocal learning,” Udell said.
Udell analyzes the footage by first labeling sections of the film. Next, she codes behaviors such as babies making noises and parents reacting to the vocals, noting where the baby looks and how they respond to the parent.
“The parent starts responding when the baby is making noises, but as the babies’ noises become more speech-like, the parent is going to be more and more selective, so basically they are only responding to the vocals that are actually words,” she explained.
These coded behaviors are then entered into spreadsheets which are run through various programs that analyze them statistically, providing graphs and percentages of various types of data.
Every other week, students at the lab take turns calling parents to ask if they would like to participate in the study. Many of the parents are Cornell grad students.
“I feel like a telemarketer ... but we’re not asking for money, so it’s a little better,” Udell mentioned, “Sometimes it’s fun because the parents will be super excited about the study,” she added.
According to Udell, there are hundreds of videos that need to be coded and analyzed. “You’ll code until your ears hurt,” she remarked, but “when you need a break, there are always logistical things to take care of ... there is always something to do; you’re never ahead.”
Udell is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences intending to double major in psychology and information sciences. She began working in the B.A.B.Y. lab this past summer and plans to continue working at the lab until she graduates, receiving three credits per semester for ten hours of research a week.
Working in the B.A.B.Y. lab has helped Udell realize that her interest in psychology lies more in developmental psychology than in other realms, such as social psychology –– and while Udell’s research may sound like a lot of data entry, she still has a fair amount of time with the babies.
“If there is a baby coming into the lab, you will be helping with filming, helping watch the baby while the parent fills out questionnaires, or actually running the study ... at least three times a week this summer I was interacting with a baby ... they’re really cute,” Udell said.
According to Udell, learning in a lab environment as opposed to a classroom, is a benefit of undergraduate research. “It’s surprising how fast you get involved with experiments that have real outcomes ... I’ve worked here for three months and I’m doing things that are written up in scientific papers,” she commented.
Udell also mentioned the importance with familiarizing oneself with professors, another advantage of undergraduate research at Cornell. “You will actually get to know professors, which is valuable, especially when classes are so big,” she stressed.
“So far [research at the B.A.B.Y. lab] has been a really rewarding experience ... it’s a big group and it’s a really good group of people ... when you work in a lab it is usually something you are interested and passionate about, not just a requirement you have to do,” Udell said.