Students bring many perspectives and skill sets to my lab, which allows me to ask questions that bridge traditional disciplines.

Aaron Mitchel

You're in a noisy restaurant and someone asks you a question. What do you do?

According to Professor Aaron Mitchel, psychology, you search for clues in the speaker's face. "The world is inherently noisy," he explains. "To make sense of it, we rely on visual cues to better understand speech and language."

The ability to resolve ambiguity by combining information from across perceptual domains varies from individual to individual. Much of Mitchel's research examines what causes these differences in ability and what happens when this ability is disrupted, as has been documented in disorders such as autism.

Mitchel and his students study this phenomenon in his state-of-the-art on-site lab. He's been awarded a Bucknell-Geisinger Research Institute grant to collaborate with faculty from the Geisinger Autism & Developmental Medicine Institute, and is hoping to determine whether various genetic syndromes, such as Klinefelter or Turner, result in differences in perception ability.

"Bucknell's partnership with Geisinger gives students and faculty access to research and training opportunities not often available to undergraduate students at smaller campuses in rural settings like ours," says Mitchel. "It's a tremendous advantage."

Mitchel's collaboration with a colleague from the computer science department has greatly expanded his access to population groups for study. Together, they've created and validated a way of measuring integration ability online. This allows Mitchel's lab to test participants across the globe, opening up the possibility of examining rare disorders and specialized subject populations.

Mitchel's research attracts students from a wide range of majors and backgrounds. "Students bring many perspectives and skill sets to my lab, which allows me to ask questions that bridge traditional disciplines," he says. "I've collaborated with film & media studies faculty to use our eye-tracker equipment to compare viewers' eye movements when watching avant-garde French films as opposed to watching Hitchcock."

Mitchel's students not only assist in his research but are also encouraged to develop their own projects, carrying out their studies with full access to Mitchel's lab. Student projects have examined whether observers combine visual and auditory cues to assess attractiveness, how listeners determine a speaker's emotional state when auditory and visual cues are in conflict, and how bilingualism affects integration abilities.

"It's very gratifying to see students take charge of their own projects," says Mitchel. "Particularly when they present their work at conferences or get it published in professional journals."

Posted September 2018