The Spectator, Hamilton College, 2010
The Spectator is Hamilton College’s journalistic marvel of a newspaper that has been in circulation longer than the New York Times. After reading the interview, you might find yourself wondering if I got fired from Hamilton and that is the reason that I am now at UCL?
How did you get to where you are today? (i.e. what path did you take, what else did you do, why did you go down this path, where did you go to school, etc.?)
I was born in Columbus, Georgia (probably best know for its strip clubs that cater to Fort Benning). As a youth in Columbus I was expelled from the first grade for urinating on a tree and my mother was asked to remove me from church for taking my pants off while on stage during a Christmas recital. To be fair, my father taught me to do all of those things. We moved to Athol, NY in the Adirondacks when I was in second grade because said father, a country western musician, got a summer gig at a dude ranch there. My high-school achievements in the Adirondacks included being kicked out of physics 23 times in one year (my mother was a high-school physics teacher) and bringing a pillow to class to protest having to take pre-calculus again.
The point is that my academic career was less than stellar until my second year of college, after coming off of a two year drinking spree, I was taken under the wings of a few professors (“You know Jeremy, you sure are a diamond in the rough”), and I learned about language, philosophical skepticism, and the mind and in some fog made the connection between the mind and the brain.
I then cashed in all of the bonds my grandmother had been giving me since birth and embarked on a 1.5 year long car ride in which I parked the car in various corn fields at night and slept in the trunk. After visiting 49 states (who knew you couldn’t drive to Hawaii?), I realized that I needed to go to grad school. The only graduate school that would take me (against protocol, I wrote a short fictional story for my application essay) was The University of Chicago in, wait for it,… Chicago.
I started studying language, mind, and brain with a strong loud giant magnet (fMRI) and LOVED it. Watching someone’s brain activity is like watching them go to the bathroom. Only better. Fortunately, The University of Chicago, is a place for non-traditional types to do non-traditional thinking and my advisors where no different. In particular, Susan Goldin-Meadow, Howard Nusbaum, and Steve Small in their non-traditional thinking about speech perception (Howard), language (Susan), and language in the brain (Steve) allowed me to prosper and come up with a new model about how language in the brain works. A post-doc that I completed before arriving here from Cornell Medical College is helping me to solidify that model.
What is your speciality in your field?
I am in the process of revolutionizing how we think about the organization of language and the brain. This means thinking about language as the words and sentences that we hear but also the visual information we see. There is tons of so called “non-verbal” information (like gestures) and other contextual information (e.g., ethnicity, emotional state, etc)that listeners can use to help them figure out what other people are trying to say to them. My work shows that the brain doesn’t just process language in one little areas (ever heard of “Wernicke’s Area”?) but, rather, the whole brain is involved in language processing.
What are you most looking forward to about working at Hamilton/why did you choose Hamilton?
I am not just kissing the collective Hamilton behind when I say that I chose Hamilton College because I fell in love with Hamilton. Not to mention that B.F. Skinner, the most famous psychologist ever, was here too (okay, maybe Freud was the most famous psychologist). And “Skipper” is “Skinner” with just two letter replacements. Even better, Ezra Pound was a student here and he pretty much wrote “The Waste Land” (besides sporting an excellent mustache).
Seriously, Hamilton shocked me in its physical beauty and I was astounded by how smart and precocious the students were during my interview. (I don’t say the latter to be patronizing: I mean relative to own my experience of being a horrific and asinine student during my undergraduate tenure.)
And I LOVE the liberal arts environment generally and Hamilton is VERY special in being a liberal arts college that values research in addition to teaching (because we seem to realize here that the act of doing research is teaching science in a way that you could never learn from a book).
If you see me walking around campus smiling it is because I feel like I won a big lottery by taking this job. Or I might be smiling because I had too much coffee. Granted, I haven’t been here in the winter but I plan to get one of those Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) lights.
What will be different about your teaching style or methods? Why should students take classes with yourself?
See for yourself. My teaching style will be different because I am different. Be forewarned, my classes will be challenging. The professors that changed my life were the professors that I thought were hard but human. I will be hard, human, and fun.
What are your passions outside of science?
REDACTED. I love literature, Borges is a favorite.
Why are you interested in these questions?
As I said, I am in the process of revolutionizing how we think about the organization of language and the brain. This has some serious implications for the world around us. For example, stroke is the third leading cause of death and is the leading cause of serious, long-term disability in the United States. And that’s just in the US. Those disabilities almost always include language impairment.
Said impairment is horrific for the person with stroke because it leaves him or her socially isolated from his or her family and friends. Not to mention it makes it hard to get things done. How do you get a new drivers license from the DMV when you can’t ask for one? Almost every medical textbook in the world teaches medical students that language comprehension occurs in one small area in the left hemisphere of the brain.
In contrast, my research shows that the whole brain is involved in processing language out in the real-world. In particular, there are different networks that process different types of information that each lead to the same outcome (i.e., speech understanding).
If this is true, than my research has therapeutic implications for stroke recovery. Namely, if one network goes down due to stroke, we are now in a position to possibly route processing around the damaged network to one of the other networks that contributes to understanding.
What methods are you using to answer these questions?
I have mostly used fMRI, EEG, and behavioral methods (e.g., eye- and mouse-tracking). I will continue to use those methods at new ones (e.g., fNIRS) at Hamilton.
Bedford Bugle, UCL, 2016
From Rags to Research: An Interview with Dr. Jeremy Skipper
What made you interested in psychology and why did you become a neuroscientist in the end?
Well, when I was a younger, I was a very bad child. I got into a lot of trouble all the time. From a young age, I was interested in how other people work and I was very interested in my own behavior: why I was getting into trouble, why I was always getting suspended from school. One of my proudest accomplishments was when I was kicked out of Physics class 23 times, 24 being the limit. Once you hit 24, you were kicked out of school.
(After school) My goal was to find a college that would accept me and that was on a beach. So I only applied to schools on beaches. I got rejected from pretty much all of them. Finally a couple accepted me: (a college in) Hawaii and University of North Carolina in Wilmington. I couldn’t go to Hawaii because I couldn’t take my car, so I went to Wilmington.
When I was in college, I was more interested in doing drugs and drinking than actually becoming a serious academic. But then I met somebody who was very smart, and I really wanted to impress her. She worked in a library, so I started going to the library and we started talking. I started to realise how cool psychology and philosophy really was.
During that time period, I became interested in neuroscience after I read these case studies where people with neurological damages did really strange things. I decided to go to graduate school for psychology and neuroscience. But the problem was that I screwed up so badly earlier in life that when I applied to graduate school nobody would take me. So instead of pursing a career in academics, I decided to go and be homeless. And I lived in a car for several years.
In that time period, I took all these books on psychology and neuroscience with me, which I read the entire time. I felt that I really wanted to go to graduate school so I applied again. I wrote a short story (for my application), a science fiction story. Nobody accepted me except for one school, the University of Chicago.
We heard that you have a new grant regarding the development of a new hearing aid. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
When I was in graduate school, the first paper that I ever wrote was in response to a paper that I read and thought was really amazing. That paper challenged the traditional view that everything must come through the eyes in order for vision to occur. In that paper they described a device where people sit on a chair and on the back of the chair there is a device that would poke you in the back. People would wear glasses, and on the glasses there were cameras that would translate the visual world into pokes on your back. With some training, people turned out to be able to see by sitting on this chair.
Since I wrote that paper, back in 1999, I’d been always thinking that maybe you could do something similar for audition. So I want to see whether you can make a device that allows you to hear but not through your ears. I wrote this grant, the idea was to build a very high density electrode array attached to the roof of the mouth. And the idea is to simulate what the cochlea does. I hoped that with a little bit a training, people would be able to hear information through this device that they’d wear on the roof of their mouths.
We think it’s an important step for the following reason. A lot of people who have hearing loss only have the options of using hearing aids or cochlear implants. The problem with hearing aids is that they amplify noise as well as the stuff that you are trying to hear. We thought we’d do something risky and see whether we can help people to hear through other ways.
What do you enjoy most about being a psychologist?
I love that I get paid to do what I essentially feel to be the adult-equivalent of playing in a sand box. I just love doing research. I love trying to figure out how the brain allows us to communicate with one another. And I love doing that in multiple forms, whether building devices or putting people in brain scanners, and observing how the brain processes complex everyday language.
To be honest, speech production and language comprehension are probably the most complex things we do as humans and we do them so effortlessly. We never think about the mechanisms underlying how we do them.
I really enjoy working with students and my favourite part (of working with students) is when they have, like, a moment of discovery. When you think you’ve figured out a piece of the puzzle, everybody’s face lights up. It’s really pleasurable.
How do you think about the current higher educational system? Do you think there is anything that should be improved?
This is going to be published (laughs).
I think we are in a problematic state right now in higher education. I think UCL is admirable in its belief that we should be doing more research embedded teaching. The way to become a scientist is to do science and I think all of our education should be structured so students are learning by actually reading primary source material and by actively engaging in said material. This includes discussion with faculty members and by doing studies. I think it will be a slow process to move the university into that direction, given that for universities to have true research embedded teaching, smaller classes are required. Right now we have very large classes.
Another challenge that I am afraid to say out loud is that I think it’s a mistake to keep charging higher and higher tuition fees. One of the reasons that I came to London from the US is that I admire that education here is cheaper than in the US. I came from an institution that charged 50,000 dollars or more a year. I think that’s problematic. Everyone should be given access to free or affordable education.
You mentioned that you traveled and lived in a car for some years before you went to graduate school. What did you learn from that experience?
During that time, I had the complete freedom to move around the world and learn from it. I went to small towns and talked to people in drug stores and restaurants. I learnt from people who had quite different perspectives of the world. I thought about these differences and what they meant. I also thought about the world that we are actually in, which is a beautiful place that is being destroyed by our actions. I also had a lot of freedom to read. Instead of being told that I need to go to college, to get a degree, I had the freedom to discover for myself what was fascinating and interesting about the world at my own pace. It really opens my mind to material in a self-directive way which I think is really important. Learning for yourself, instead of being told that this is the path that you should take, makes life a lot more enjoyable.
When I got ready to go to graduate school, I was no longer a bad student who was more interested in showing off. I was a person who brought myself to the academic table. I knew I wanted to study because I discovered that for myself. That was a really important discovery.
What’s the inspiration behind your wardrobe?
These are not my pajamas, I should clear this up first, sometimes people confuse these for pajamas but they are actually pants! I’ve not worn shoes for twenty years. My mother told me that my feet smelled from birth. I always like to wear open shoes to share that with the world. But I actually enjoyed not wearing shoes for the past twenty years because I like that people engage you. They always ask me why I don’t have shoes on, it gives me this unique opportunity to share myself with other people. Because for some reason, people aren’t scared to stop you and say something about your attire but they are scared to talk to you otherwise. I always enjoy when people interact with me. Every single time people ask me that question, I’ll make up a different story.
Any advice for students here?
I highly recommend taking some time, maybe not two years in a car, to figure out for oneself what direction one wants to have. I also high recommend engaging in the world. Right now, we’re in dire times and we all need to work together to save our environment above else.