Aaron Nidiffer, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate in the lab of Edmund Lalor, Ph.D., received his doctoral degree in Hearing and Speech Sciences from Vanderbilt University. His research focuses on how the brain interprets visual speech and simultaneously processes two different types of information conveyed by the lips – timing and shape.
“I feel like the visual system is kind of an underdog in the speech domain. It does not get enough credit for doing some of the brain’s heavy lifting,” said Nidiffer. “In our research we mostly present audiovisual speech to participants. We work with participants who are Deaf, with and without a cochlear implant, as well as hearing participants. We are looking to see how the brain utilizes these visual inputs to help the auditory system make its linguistic representation of speech, and specifically how people with different levels of experience with acoustic speech use those visual inputs.”
His work also aims to understand how the visual system might be making its own linguistic representations. Indicating how some people who are Deaf use lip reading to understand what others are saying. “I believe this is happening through some linguistic processes in the visual system related specifically to the shape of the lips rather than their timing.”
Nidiffer has long been interested in how we make sense of our surroundings, and first remembers becoming particularly curious about the brain while playing music. “I was in my high school’s band and also played guitar in a couple of rock bands throughout college. One of the things that I always thought about was how cool it is that a group of musicians can play their own parts, creating unique vibrations that come together to be perceived as one coherent unit but can still be separated by focusing on a particular instrument.”
Outside of the lab, Nidiffer reads as much primary research as possible. He follows advice once given to him. “It is impossible to do science in a vacuum of your knowledge. You have to know about and use other people’s tools to understand how to design a well-controlled experiment and then how to interpret it.” He also volunteers for journal clubs to practice explaining what he has learned from reading to others. These strategies have also helped him become a better writer. For those thinking about pursuing a Ph.D., Nidiffer has some advice. “Join a lab,” he said. “Doing this as an undergraduate is a great way to understand how science is done, how experiments are designed, how to gain practical use in addition to the theoretical students gain from reading. I believe the earlier someone understands how to do science the better.”