Rachel Ostrand


Staff Research Scientist,
IBM Research

Contact: Rachel.Ostrand@ibm.com

I'm a cognitive scientist studying psycholingistics and language production. Broadly, I'm interested in linguistic adaptation and statistical learning of language, and how a person's speech changes as a function of their current context. "Context" can mean a lot of things, including the identity of the person you're talking to or their characteristics (like age or native-ness), your level of distraction, or your degree of cognitive impairment.

In particular, I work on understanding what external and internal factors influence the way that people talk and what they expect to hear from their conversational partners, and how speakers and listeners adapt their language processing to their particular partner. I've researched this question from many angles - looking at whether people build partner-specific expectations of an individual person's speech, or if they generalize across linguistic experience from multiple partners; when and how drivers and passengers modify their speech during periods of driving distraction; and understanding changes in speech production over time in people with dementia. I've also done some research on the time course of audio-visual integration using the McGurk Effect, as well as cognitive control and inhibitory processes in speech production. In some recent work, I've even looked at how living through the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the way that we comprehend speech.

Specifically, my research addresses two main topics. First, understanding the specificity of linguistic distributions that people learn when talking with multiple conversational partners. I'm interested in the ways that people (both speakers and listeners) learn from their experience interacting with their conversational partners, and use that experience to modify their future linguistic interactions. What linguistic properties or preferences do people learn about their partners' speech? Under what circumstances is this learning generalized from the individual you originally experienced to other speakers who share some relevant characteristics?

I also investigate the use of language production to diagnose cognitive diseases and disorders and whether speech can be used as a signal of the speaker's underlying cognitive state. What features of speech are affected in Alzheimer's disease and cognitive decline? How does speech production change over time with the progression of disease? Using the answers from these two questions, can we reverse the causal arrow and measure changes in speech production as an early-warning signal for cognitive decline?

Academic/Research Bio

I'm currently a Staff Research Scientist at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, NY. I started as a postdoc in July 2016, and became a Research Scientist in August 2018. From 2010 through 2016, I did my PhD in the Department of Cognitive Science at UC San Diego, where I was co-advised by Vic Ferreira and Ben Bergen. From summer 2009 through summer 2010, I worked as a research assistant in the Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive at Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France, where I worked with Xavier Alario and Jonathan Grainger. In 2009, I received my BS from the Department of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences at Brown University, where I did my senior honors thesis with Sheila Blumstein and Jim Morgan, and also worked in the labs of Laurie Heller and Steve Sloman.

Last updated: March 7, 2023