Using sound recordings in psychiatric research

By using linguistics models to analyze game play, fourth-year student Sydney Sun is listening in on the ways environment shapes interaction.

When Sydney Sun decided to transcribe 100 hours of audio recordings, she had no idea what would come of the effort.

The recordings had been made by parents as they played games with their child, part of a research study being conducted by the Emotion, Development, Environment, and Neurogenetics (EDEN) lab run by Rebecca Waller, an assistant professor of psychology and Sun’s supervisor. Sun wanted to know whether the games affected the language the children used, and whether this effect might vary in children with behavioral problems.

Sydney Sun
Fourth-year student Sydney Sun. (Image: Courtesy of OMNIA)

There was little prior research to suggest that Sun’s analysis would yield significant results. But she pressed on, spending months painstakingly typing out each word. And her work paid off: By counting and classifying the words, Sun discovered that a family’s environmental context can shape the ways in which parents and children interact—results she’s since presented at an international conference and published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“I would never have been able to predict what would happen when she walked in my door,” says Waller.

When Sun began college in 2020—as a virtual student in the midst of a global pandemic—she worried that research in her desired area of child development would be impossible to conduct. But as a participant in the University Scholars program, which enables an undergraduate to do independent research, she discovered Waller and her EDEN lab.

Waller and her team normally bring young children and their families into their lab to participate in studies, but when the pandemic struck, they had to get creative in finding ways to continue working with their families, many of whom have children with behavioral difficulties. They decided to mail board games to participants’ homes and measure whether playing the games together improved the children’s behaviors.

Through the board game experiment, Waller wanted to measure how children changed before and after playing. Sun spotted another opportunity: to measure how the games served as distinct moments that could alter how parents and children communicate. They reminded her of how different situations influenced the ways her parents interacted with her siblings.

“It was fascinating to see these games as ways that we can manipulate the context in which parents and children were interacting,” Sun says.

This story is by Laura Dattaro. Read more at OMNIA.