What? I spent the summer at the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. I was working with the Speech & Brain Research Group.
Why did you choose this place? The group, as the name suggests, does behavioural and neuroimaging research on speech within the brain. I am currently doing my undergraduate degree in Psychology & Linguistics, so the group seemed like a perfect introduction to research in neuropsychology and psycholinguistics. On a more personal note, the thought of living in Oxford and experiencing a British summer really appealed to me (never mind that it ended up being the wettest summer in British history).
How did you find the application process? There was no formal application. I took the initiative to email a member of the group to ask if there was space for an undergraduate intern. Through a series of emails, I was accepted, and began preparing for work by reading some literature that the group had produced.
What did you do here? Most of the work I did is still ongoing, so I cannot disclose too much, but I will try to provide a general idea. I did a multitude of assistant work, as my goal was to learn as much as I could about the research process in relation to psychology and linguistics. One of the experimental devices I became familiar with was used for trans-cranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). This is a non-invasive technique which conducts electricity to stimulate the cerebral cortex, and we used it for a word-learning experiment. I also personally experienced trans-magnetic stimulation (TMS) as a participant for a group member’s study on brain function and speech perception. The group members that worked in the fMRI lab also took some time out to show me the machines and explain how they analyse scans. My major endeavour investigated and compared speech perception in fluent speakers and people who stutter. For this experiment, I prepared auditory and visual stimuli, which was presented at the British Stammering Association’s Open Day in London. My mentor also guided me through the process of analysis and interpretation of results. Near the end of my internship, I presented the results at one of the regular lab meetings and wrote a journal article-style report about the experiment.
The good things: There are many different aspects of researching language in the brain, and I am glad I was able to learn about several different focus points. I gained insight into the life of a researcher, felt the excitement and pride of running an experiment program I had written myself, and experienced what Oxford had to offer. The research team was absolutely amazing and very willing to guide my thoughts and answer any questions I had. As a team member, I was able to contribute to the group in various ways. It was gratifying to know that my efforts and contributions were considered and appreciated on an equivalent level to the rest of the group, rather than as a mere student looking for something to fill her time. The group made every effort to include me in their activities, both inside and outside of the lab. Oxford’s campus is also quite majestic and I enjoyed walking through the University Parks every day on the way to work.
The bad things: Changing from a student schedule to a job that kept me busy 9-5 was a big change. I felt tired at the end of the day, and even the pleasant walk back to my accommodation did little to boost my spirits, especially if the day had been mentally taxing. If you think you want to do research, be prepared to be sitting at a desk for several hours. Not every day will be filled with an epiphany, and many hours will be spent rewriting the script for your experiment.
Anything else we should know: Sometimes I feel like the things I am learning in class are not going to be very useful in my career. However, there were several points during the internship when I realised that I was actually using skills that I had been taught, such as using a speech analysis program or understanding the reasoning behind a research question. Doing a research internship like this also helped me develop critical reading skills, which are useful for reading journal articles. Reading scientific literature probably takes up about 75% of a researcher’s job. Before I interned at Oxford, I read articles for class but was not really guided on how to glean the appropriate information from it. Reading papers is a skill that must be practised, and I learned how to use information from previous papers to complete special analyses on my data. Finally, while I was in Oxford, the International Multi-Sensory Research Forum held a conference in the building in which I worked. My mentors encouraged me to attend and listen to various talks on the subject of sensation and perception, which was a huge benefit and offered insight into ideas for future projects. If there is anything you have read from this you would like to know more about, feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org