Matrimony and Academia

Trinity researchers Dr. Ann Devitt and Dr. Gareth Bennett both received Fulbright awards this summer. They also happen to be married.

FEATURES“We didn’t expect to get it. It’s unusual the Fulbright is awarded to a couple.” Dr. Gareth Bennett is quite right. At a ceremony in Iveagh House, Dr. Ann Devitt, and her husband Bennett, recently became the first married couple at the same institution to receive a Fulbright Award.

The couple originally considered taking a sabbatical away from campus, perhaps in France or Italy, which would give their children an opportunity to learn a new language. (Devitt, who is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education and studied French and Italian as an undergraduate in College, now specialises in second language acquisition.)

“However, when we received the Fulbright, it was too good an opportunity to turn down,” Bennett explains. He and Devitt were two of 31 Irish nationals awarded funding for up to one year to complete research in a US institution. As part of the application process, candidates must show that for whatever reason their proposed research could not be undertaken in an Irish university.

Bennett works in Trinity’s Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, and gives his reasons as expertise and facilities: “Really, I am the only one in Ireland specialising in my area.” That area is noise reduction in the aeronautical industry. He will travel to the University of Notre Dame, Indiana where he explains the greater access to laboratory equipment and collaboration with fellow researchers, including those at NASA’s Glenn Research Centre in Cleveland, will only accelerate the progress of his own research.

Although Devitt and Bennett first met as undergraduates in College, their relationship began when they returned to complete their PhDs after a few years working in their respective industries. And fittingly, the marriage took place on campus, with the reception held in the Pav. “It’s a bit corny, really,” Devitt admits.

Devitt was first awarded the Fulbright as a TechImpact scholar to attend the University of California Berkeley. However, she was able to negotiate a change of location in order that she, her husband and her children would be based closer together. “We have three small children, aged 7, 5 and 3,” Devitt explains, “who are coming with us on this adventure so that is a hugely important part of the trip for us.”

Now she will attend the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, two hours away from Notre Dame in South Bend. The family will be based in Ann Arbor, and although they admit the setup may be quite complicated, Devitt believes it is manageable: “We have always supported each other when we need to and we’ll work it out together. That’s all part of the adventure.”

After her undergraduate degree, Devitt specialised in Linguistics and then took her PhD in Computer Science. It is no surprise then that her research will be interdisciplinary. She will be based in The Language Lab in Michigan’s School of Psychology, and her work will focus on computational methods of analysing data.

“The project I will be working on is a language technology project to look at the language of young English language learners using a computer programme that I will design to see if there is a pattern in the words they learn at different stages of their learning and if that can help us understand how children learn languages and how best to support their learning.”

Like her husband, Devitt similarly argues that the expertise available in Michigan, in this case with Professor Nick Ellis who runs its Language Lab, is fundamental to the research she will undertake: “I feel honoured to be hosted in this group and to work at the forefront of knowledge in this domain. He [Ellis] and his team are doing really cutting edge work using computational techniques for analysing child language data so this fits perfectly. Their technical resources as well as their expertise and innovative outlook will be invaluable in developing the project.”

Devitt is nonetheless complimentary about and grateful for the intellectual environment Trinity has been able to provide. She notes its “very strong profile” in Linguistics, Applied Linguistics and language learning, referencing David Little, Sean Devitt and David Singleton as those who contribute to the strength of the department: “I am delighted to be building on this work and also bring novel methods to bear on it. The Fulbright offers space, time and exciting interactions all of which are vital for generating new ideas and developing research. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to work with leaders in the field in Michigan but equally I am proud of the work done in Trinity over the years.”

That said, she stresses that generally a career in academia is as challenging as it ever has been: “I think the recession and the constraints on hiring and promotions made things very difficult for people working as lecturers.” And Devitt believes the current situation as a post-doctoral researcher may be even more difficult. “In Ireland, there are no real long-term research positions as far as I know. This may be changing somewhat more recently but for a number of people working as contract researchers, there is little possibility for stable career progression.” In their own careers, after working for a short time as post-doctoral researchers, both Devitt and Bennett were successful in gaining positions as lecturers. “We worked hard for these jobs,” says Devitt, “but we were also very fortunate that we had the right skill set at the right time for our respective schools.”

Both insist that living with another academic has not directly influenced their disparate research disciplines. Indeed, Devitt says that now there is usually little opportunity: “conversations at home are not remotely academic – with three small children home life is a bit of a mad house.” Nevertheless, Bennett does believe that their relationship has fostered other interests. One is education. In 2009, Bennett received a Provost’s Teaching Award for introducing project-based design modules into the undergraduate curriculum. He has also introduced the “Design Thinking” module into the School of Engineering in collaboration with Stanford University. “Obviously Ann works in the School of Education, and that has been a huge influence on me,” says Bennett.

Another area where they find their interests overlap is travel. Both believe in its value for the purposes of research, but also in a more holistic sense its capacity to foster cross-cultural interest and understanding. “This is why,” Bennett argues, “the Fulbright is such a good thing. It allows an exchange of ideas; we learn from them and they learn from us. A lot of the world’s problems come from a lack of understanding of foreign cultures. When you go there –and you do need to go there – and see people face to face, you realise how similar we all are.”

Devitt is just as enthusiastic about the societal importance of the exchange. In her research proposal to the Fulbright Commission, she wrote: “After thousands of years of philosophical, theoretical and empirical deliberation, the key question in the field of language acquisition remains: how do we humans in learning our first and subsequent languages converge on a linguistic system which allows us to share meanings with each other? It is a truly remarkable feat and one upon which peaceful civilisation is largely dependent, for through communication comes empathy and understanding- as evidenced by the Fulbright program.”

Photo by Conor McCabe Photography