39: Michelle Cohn



Program and year of study

PhD, 6th year

Previous degrees and colleges

MA Linguistics, UC Davis

BA Linguistics & Italian Studies, UC Santa Barbara

Where did you grow up?

Manhattan Beach, CA

Where do you live now?

Sacramento, CA

What's your favorite spot in Davis?

SPCA Thrift Store

How do you relax?

Hiking in Auburn with my husband, taking our inflatable kayak to nearby lakes and rivers, doing yoga, playing piano

What was the last book you read for pleasure?

The Circle by Dave Eggers 

What TV show are you currently binge-watching?

Chef’s Table (Netflix)

Research interests

A combination of psycholinguistics, acoustic phonetics, and neurolinguistics 

Dissertation title or topic

My current work for my dissertation explores whether nonlinguistic experience – such as musical training – can affect speech perception in a series of psycholinguistic experiments. In particular, these studies test whether musicians (relative to nonmusicians) show improvements in their ability to successfully perceive a target talker presented with 1 or more background talkers on the basis of different acoustic cues (e.g., duration, pitch).

Please share a surprising or noteworthy fact or finding from your research

Musicians show more precise encoding of duration and pitch cues in speech that lead to downstream improvements in speech-in-speech perception. But, interestingly, this “musician’s advantage” is limited by listener age, with no benefit observed for older musicians (relative to nonmusicians). 

Which professor or class inspired you to pursue graduate studies?

As an undergraduate, I attended the Linguistics Society of America (LSA) 2011 Summer Institute in Boulder, CO. The LSA Institute, held every other year (and at UC Davis in 2019!), is a month-long program in which graduate students (and some undergrads) come together to take classes with faculty from linguistics programs around the world. It was at LSA that I took my first course in psycholinguistics with Zenzi Griffin. But it was also the connections I made with graduate students in what we called “summer nerd camp for linguists” that set me on the course for graduate school. 

Which scholarly text do you wish you had written? Why?

While my research has focused on psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic methods in graduate school, I have always been intrigued by the complexity of language from a structural perspective. I spent a year at UCSB studying Sanskrit with Gregory Hillis and can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to describe and document its rich morphological and phonological rules, such as in Pāṇini’s Grammar of Sanskrit (from roughly 350 BCE).

Which other researchers at UC Davis are doing work that particularly interests you?

I find Dr. Georgia Zellou’s (Linguistics) work on statistical learning of words to be particularly fascinating in illuminating some of the acoustic properties listeners use to segment speech. For example, she found in a recent study that listeners can better extract words from a continuous speech stream when the vowels within a novel word (e.g., “piga”) are more similar to each other.

Dr. Tamara Swaab’s (Psychology) work exploring the neural underpinnings of language processing has tested important questions about the role of discourse (e.g., local context of a story) in shaping semantic predictions – and interestingly also explored how schizophrenia affects this type of processing. 

What’s the best thing about being a grad student?

Working creatively on research questions and working directly with students

What's the worst?

The few difficult undergraduates! Especially those who believe that paying tuition entitles them to an “A” in every course...

If you weren't a grad student, what would you be doing?

Teaching and/or supporting students through a role in academic administration

Finally, please ask yourself a question

So, you’re studying language and music. Does that mean you have a musical “soundtrack” for your dissertation? 

Yes, though it’s constantly changing. Right now I’m soaking in anything by Dorothy Ashby, a jazz harpist. 


—February 2018


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