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Dissertation defense for Emily Kubicek

To: Students, Faculty and Staff
From: Gaurav Mathur, Ph.D., Dean of the Graduate School
Re: Dissertation Defense for Emily Kubicek

It is my pleasure to announce that Emily Kubicek, a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Educational Neuroscience (PEN), will defend her dissertation on “The relationship between sign language experience and mental rotation: An EEG study” on Monday, February 10 at 11:15 am in the College Hall Lyceum (Room 318). The first forty minutes of the dissertation defense is open to the Gallaudet community.

Past work investigating spatial cognition suggests better mental rotation abilities for those who are fluent in a signed language. The purpose of Ms. Kubicek’s study was to determine whether fluency is needed to achieve this performance benefit and what it may look like on the neurobiological level. To address these questions, deaf fluent signers, hearing fluent signers, hearing non-fluent signers, and hearing non-signers completed a classic mental rotation task under EEG recording and were assessed for accuracy. Two hypotheses were tested: that mental rotation abilities are enhanced only when sign language fluency is attained, most notably for deaf fluent signers, and that this behavioral enhancement would be seen through differential responses of sensorimotor system activity. In line with the behavioral prediction, deaf fluent signers and hearing fluent signers scored significantly better than hearing non-fluent signers and hearing non-signers (p = .02, d = 0.60), suggesting a high level of sign language comprehension is needed for significant performance enhancements in mental rotation abilities. A correlation analysis revealed that as sign language skills increase, mental rotation improves, regardless of hearing status (p = .001, r = .44). Time-frequency activity in alpha and beta ranges were computed for each condition at frontal and central sites overlying the sensorimotor cortex. Contrary to the neurobiological prediction, results show similar activity across groups in response to stimuli, suggesting similar strategies are being used regardless of sign language knowledge or mental rotation abilities. This study further investigated participants’ experiences with spatial activities to see if this had a relationship with mental rotation abilities. Findings revealed that fluent signers had similar spatial experiences as the non-fluent and non-signers, suggesting that when spatial experiences are held constant, signers will still perform better on measures of mental rotation due to their practice with a visuospatial language. Taken together, these results suggest that cognitive processing of mental rotation for signers is likely taking place outside of canonical motor areas used for mental rotation (i.e. sensorimotor cortex). In addition, the robust impact that sign language appears to have on mental rotation abilities strongly suggests that “sign language use” should be added to future measures of spatial experiences.

The members of Ms. Kubicek’s dissertation committee are Dr. Lorna C. Quandt, Ph.D. Program in Educational Neuroscience, chair of the dissertation committee; Dr. Ilaria A. Berteletti, PhD Program in Educational Neuroscience; Dr. Deanna L. Gagne, Department of Linguistics; and Dr. Nora S. Newcombe, Department of Psychology, Temple University. 

Ms. Kubicek entered the Ph.D. in Educational Neuroscience program in 2016 and has been a graduate research assistant in Dr. Lorna Quandt’s Action and Brain Lab (ABL). Ms. Kubicek’s research focuses on the differences in cognition between signers and non-signers, both deaf and hearing. With experience in functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and expertise in electroencephalography, Ms. Kubicek has authored two papers to-date and has presented original research at both industry and scientific conferences. Ms. Kubicek has also been actively involved in science communication (Early Career Policy Ambassador, Society for Neuroscience) and diversity in STEM (Washington D.C. Chapter Co-founder/Board member, Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) initiatives in the Capitol Hill region. Ms. Kubicek received support for her research and training from a National Science Foundation grant to the Visual Language and Visual Learning: Science of Learning Center and from Gallaudet University’s Research Support and International Affairs office.

Please join me in extending best wishes to Ms. Kubicek for her dissertation defense. 

Posted by Elizabeth Gibbons | Posted January 24, 2020 at 10:56 AM

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