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Beckman connections help Griffin start career

Zenzi Griffin credits the human and technological resources at the Beckman Institute for helping to launch her career as a psychology professor and researcher.

Published on February 27, 2007

Zenzi Griffin spent many late nights at the Beckman Institute, poring over eye movement and speech data in Kay Bock's laboratory as part of a pioneering language production study. The experience proved more than academic.

“The Beckman at night has a very interesting atmosphere,” said Griffin, now a Professor of Psychology at Georgia Tech. “On the one hand, it is darker and emptier than during the day, but unlike most other academic buildings, you get the sense that there are many people hidden away working all the time. I discovered that the delivery people at Papa John’s Pizza knew the Beckman Institute very well.”

Griffin left the University of Illinois and the Beckman Institute in 1998 with a Ph.D. in Psychology, an impressive research resume to kick-start her professional academic career and, perhaps most importantly, meaningful connections that continue to this day.

Griffin’s research accomplishments include the first experiment to suggest a strong relationship between when people look at objects in a scene and when they prepare words for them. She was among the first researchers to use eye-tracking technology to explore issues surrounding planned speech production. All of the research was carried out at Beckman and contributed to a doctoral dissertation and a paper with Bock for Psychological Science in 2000.

After earning her undergraduate degree from Michigan State, Griffin was accepted for graduate school at MIT but instead chose Illinois, thanks to some lobbying from Bock and the opportunities offered at Beckman.

“I should probably mention that the Beckman Institute also played a role in Kay’s recruiting me to Illinois for grad school,” Griffin said. “I have to admit that Illinois was my first choice anyway, even after being accepted to MIT, but as I was leaving recruitment weekend, I told Kay that I would come to Illinois if I could do research in the Beckman Institute.”

Griffin made good use of the laboratory resources at Beckman, from the eye-tracking equipment in Art Kramer’s lab, to software developed by Neal Cohen’s lab to process the eye movement data from memory experiments with amnesics, to the monitoring expertise of eye-tracking pioneer George McConkie. Griffin also came away with some lasting professional and personal relationships, especially those with Cognitive Science group members Bock and Gary Dell.

“One of the most important things I learned from them is how to do collaborative research—that is, how to allow multiple people to contribute to a project and make sure everyone feels that their contribution is valued and properly acknowledged,” Griffin said. “Of course, they are both my role models for mentoring students and promoting their careers.”

The personal connections and professional collaborations Griffin formed at Beckman are ones she still maintains.

“I find myself consulting Gary Dell now and then,” Griffin said. “Most recently I was working on a review chapter and asked him to read a draft to make sure it was relatively comprehensive, accurate, and fair. Gary provides great feedback on writing, and with amazing speed. He is so generous with his time that I have to make an effort not to ask him for feedback too often. One of my goals is to be as supportive and responsive to my students (and former students) as Gary is.”

Her lab’s Web page at Georgia Tech describes the fun aspects of Griffin’s research. In addition to being a mentor, Griffin said that Bock makes research an enjoyable experience.

“She is a lot of fun to work with,” Griffin said. “She has a secret, or maybe not-so-secret, goofy side. However, I can’t think of a good printable anecdote to back that up.”

Bock and Griffin are currently collaborating on a decade-long project that is nearing completion. Griffin said the results suggest that even when people know words very well, they continue to get better at generating them each time they use them.

“Earlier studies showed that people are faster to name an object, e.g., call a hook “hook”, if they previously said the object name as a sentence completion, e.g., “The fisherman attached the worm to the _____”, compared to cases where they completed sentences unrelated to the objects,” Griffin said. “Our project showed that for uncommon words like “hook”, this decrease in the amount of time it takes to label an object can last up to 16 weeks!”

Her work with Bock that led to the paper in Psychological Science (Griffin, Z. M., & Bock, K. (2000) What the eyes say about speaking. Psychological Science, 11, 274-279) focused on the subject of when people look at objects in a scene and when they then prepare words for the objects. It showed that when people describe a scene without any time pressure, they look at each object that they mention for about one second before saying each object’s name. Griffin said the eye-tracking technology was invaluable in expanding the boundaries of the research in this area.

“Insofar as we can infer aspects of language planning from eye movements, monitoring eye movements provides an incredibly rich source of information about when people plan parts of an utterance,” she said. “Importantly, eye movement monitoring allows us to make inferences about what is being planned after speech begins and even when it is perfectly fluent and without introducing weird manipulations to see if or when they disrupt speech.”

The research was the first studying eye movements and speaking to go past the first spoken word in an utterance.

After leaving Illinois, Griffin joined the faculty at Stanford for three years. She came to Georgia Tech as an Assistant Professor in 2001 and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2005. She runs the Cognition and Communication Laboratory at Georgia Tech, where her current work focuses on the timing of speech production.

Research results from the lab show that people usually make last-second decisions about what words to use, and that fluency is often a matter of luck, not a matter of advanced planning on the part of the speaker.

Eye-tracking studies and computational modeling of speech production are part of her research there, just as they were for her at Beckman. While the methodology, technology, and research followed Griffin to Georgia Tech, one aspect of Beckman research hasn’t been transplanted so far: the interdisciplinary approach.

“Not as much as I would like it to be— yet,” Griffin said.