Q&A faculty spotlight: Laura Wagner
Laura Wagner is a professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Language Sciences Research Lab at the Center of Science and Industry (COSI). Professor Wagner received her BA in language studies and cognitive science at Wellesley College and her MA in psychology and PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania.
Describe your current research or area of interest
I study how children learn their native language. I'm especially interested in how children learn how their language talks about abstract concepts, such as words about time (for example, the past tense and adverbs like "before" and "after"). But my lab is also inside of the COSI science museum, and that has led me to do a lot of public engagement with the museum visitors. I create interactive activities about all different parts of language to use at the museum, and I even study how well those activities work at getting people interested in language.
What/who influenced you to select your area(s) of study and how has that impacted your career?
I have always wanted to study language — I even went down to my local university to take a course in linguistics when I was a high school student! When I was in graduate school, I ended up studying how children learn language partly by accident. I had expected to study adults, but the person who agreed to work with me primarily worked with children, so I tried that. It turns out I'm good at wrangling four-year-olds through a task and I came to really love the questions in the area.
In general, I enjoy collaborating, and one thing that has always influenced my research is who I get to work with. Ohio State has a wonderful community of people working on language and I've made many good friends collaborating with my colleagues on questions that combine our interests.
My current work at COSI has also been a huge influence. Working in a museum has led me to spend a lot of time engaging with the general public. And since I'm a scientist, I naturally want to do studies to see if what I'm doing is actually working.
What undergraduate classes do you teach?
Every spring, I teach a PSYCH 5700 (which is also cross listed as LING and EDUTL 5700). This class trains students how to do educational engagement activities with the families at the COSI museum, and students get a lot of chances to actually practice on the floor.
Other classes that I teach are Applied Psychology (PSYCH 2200) and Language Development (PSYCH 4554).
Why would you encourage students to take these classes, and how might they be of interest to students majoring in other disciplines?
I recommend the museum training course for anyone who wants to improve their public speaking skills and wants to learn how to engage with a broad audience. I've worked with students from lots of different departments (from linguistics majors to students in the agriculture school) and they all get a lot out of the experience.
What aspects of your teaching give you the most satisfaction?
I like seeing students get better. At the beginning of a semester, students usually don't know much about what's going to be covered in a class. But by the end, they know lots of things and it's great to see them putting that information together and figuring out how everything is connected.
Are there opportunities for undergraduates to connect with you for research or creative activity?
I work with lots of students in my lab. Most of them work as RA's on research projects, but some of them work with me doing public engagement activities. The best thing to do is to take the PSYCH 5700 class, because it serves as a general introduction to working in the museum. But I also have students who come and work in the lab through the STEP program. Students are welcome to email me so we can figure out the best way to get involved.
What book/movie would you recommend, or what music do you enjoy?
Ooh — tough question! At the moment, I'm kind of into Rainbow Rowell's novels. I loved "Fangirl" (and the related Carry On series). For movies, I really loved the recent Michelle Yeoh movie, "Everything Everywhere All at Once." And for music, I'm definitely in a Taylor Swift phase.
What is the most interesting place you have visited?
Like most academics, I love to travel. One of the most amazing places I've been is India. And the absolutely most beautiful building I've ever seen is the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. I'd seen pictures of it before I went (and I took tons of pictures while I was there) but I was totally unprepared for how it made me feel when I saw it in person. It was a truly magical place to go.
What is the best advice you’ve received?
The best advice I've ever gotten was this: Just do the work. There are so many things in this world that you can't control — what people think of you, what things will turn out well, what is going to happen tomorrow. But you can control what you do. So I try to spend less time worrying about all the other things and more time just doing my work.
What advice would you give to undergraduate students?
Just try stuff. Part of the goal of college is to figure out who you are and what you're actually good at. It's worth trying out all kinds of things to find out what the real options are. Take a class outside your major requirements. Join a club doing something off-beat. Eat weird food. Attend art performances. Travel someplace new. You never know what's going to turn into a lifelong hobby or even a new career passion.