A decade ago, Navin Viswanathan was a thesis shy of a master’s degree in mechanical engineering when he sat in on a developmental psychology course at the University of Connecticut. “I was really intrigued, and I thought, ‘This is what I should be doing,’” said Viswanathan.
Without a single undergraduate psychology course on his transcript, he convinced the graduate program coordinator to admit him directly into the psychology PhD program. What Viswanathan calls “an extraordinary opportunity” proved a natural fit.
An Assistant Professor of Psychology, Viswanathan has distinguished himself as a prolific scholar in the field of speech perception, an excellent teacher, and a devoted mentor to students. This spring, he earned the Provost Award for Outstanding Pre-Tenure Faculty, which honors his ability to use innovative classroom strategies, promote active learning, consider student needs and interests, develop a clear scholarly agenda, and integrate research, scholarship, and creative activity into his teaching practice.
Viswanathan attributes the honor less to his impressive CV than his work with high caliber undergraduate student-researchers. “I’m very honored to have been recognized by my peers. I think it speaks to how much we can get done at New Paltz with the quality of undergraduates that we have,” he said.
Viswanathan believes that student research projects are “the quintessential example of the overlap between teaching and research,” and has mentored 20 undergraduate students in his five years at the university. Most are Psychology students, but others are majors in Communication Disorders, Linguistics, and Spanish who are interested in exploring speech perception through the lens of their particular fields.
“Research problems don’t respect disciplines,” Viswanathan noted. “Sometimes it’s very enriching to work with students from another discipline who have other skills.”
Viswanathan’s research focuses on solving a cognitive science puzzle: How do humans effortlessly understand human speech and easily outperform automatic speech recognition systems (such as iPhone’s Siri) in typical listening conditions? Through his work as the director of the university’s Speech, Language and Cognition Lab, Viswanathan attempts to gain a deeper understanding of everyday behavior most people take for granted, such as one’s ability to carry on a conversation at a noisy cocktail party or ability to comprehend a broad range of accented speech.
Grants from the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health support Viswanathan’s research on how listeners manage speech variability, and they provide an opportunity for students to be directly engaged in cutting-edge research.
Viswanathan has taught at all levels of the Psychology Department – from required courses in Introduction to Psychology and Research Methods, to the graduate Research Practicum. Viswanathan believes a quality psychology education asks several essential questions: “Can you think critically? Can you present your analysis and respond to criticism? Can you learn from feedback?”
The presentation skills students learn as psychology undergrads and graduate students transcend their field of study, Viswanathan noted. “It’s a very important life skill because this is asked of you in various contexts, for many different jobs.”
Viswanathan’s own journey to find his chosen profession has convinced him of the importance of being “broadly prepared” for professional careers: equipped with the oral and written communication skills and critical thinking that are the hallmark of a liberal education.
“I often tell my undergrads that you don’t know where your career will lead,” he said.
– Despina Williams