Brackenridge Introduction: Sophia Norvilas

Hello! My name is Sophia Norvilas, and I am entering my fourth year at Pitt as a Bachelor of Philosophy candidate with a Psychology major and French minor. I am originally from Dunmore, PA. In my free time, I love taking walks in Schenley Park and discovering new coffee shops in the Pittsburgh area.

My project is entitled “Does the Thematic Hierarchy hold in people with aphasia and across the lifespan? Evidence from the Event Task.” Aphasia is a neurological disorder that can disrupt language production and comprehension, impairing both written and spoken language. Research indicates that people with aphasia sometimes rely on event knowledge to compensate for their language impairment (Caramazza & Zurif, 1976). However, we know little about event knowledge and event processing in people with aphasia (PWA). Linguists have proposed a Thematic Hierarchy, which is the idea that certain event roles are more prominent than others (Ünal et al., 2021). Event roles are the people and things that make up an event, such as the tool used in an event or the location of an event. My research explores the theory that people should be faster and more accurate to detect incongruities involving more prominent roles than less prominent roles. This research will add to the scientific literature by extending Thematic Hierarchy research to PWA and older adults, as event role salience has not yet been researched in aphasic populations and people across the lifespan.

I will test the predictions of the Thematic Hierarchy using evidence from the Event Task, a preliminary picture-based assessment of semantic memory which was developed in the Language and Brain Lab at the University of Pittsburgh. Additionally, I intend to conduct MRI-based lesion-deficit analyses examining which brain regions are crucial for event knowledge, specifically regarding event roles. The images of the participants’ brains will allow me to view the damage caused by stroke, otherwise known as a lesion. I intend to examine the MRIs to locate the brain damage and compare lesion location to event knowledge deficits. The Brackenridge Summer Research Fellowship program has given me the opportunity to advance this project and acquire an unprecedented view of the brain regions that are activated by event knowledge and specific event roles.

Throughout most of my academic career, I was certain that I wanted to pursue clinical psychology. However, after becoming immersed in research during my time at Pitt, I am leaning towards entering a Communication Science and Disorders graduate program. A CSD program would grant me the opportunity to learn about speech and hearing sciences while continuing my research regarding aphasia and semantic memory deficits. My Psychology major has given me invaluable experiences and insights which will certainly guide me throughout my graduate education, but Communication Science and Disorders seems to align better with my current interests and professional goals.

I am grateful to conduct this research under the guidance of Dr. Michael Walsh Dickey and Dr. Tessa Warren, my amazing faculty mentors. Additionally, I am enthused to work alongside all other Brackenridge Fellows over the course of this summer. Being a Brackenridge Fellow will give me an invaluable opportunity to grow as a researcher and become a more well-rounded individual. I am so grateful for this incredible experience, and I am excited to share research updates via the Pitt Honors Blog over the course of this summer!

Works Cited:

Caramazza, A., & Zurif, E. B. (1976). Dissociation of algorithmic and heuristic processes in language comprehension: Evidence from aphasia. Brain and Language, 3(4), 572–582.

Ünal, E., Richards, C., Trueswell, J. C., & Papafragou, A. (2021). Representing agents, patients, goals and instruments in causative events: A cross-linguistic investigation of early language and cognition. Developmental Science, 24(6), e13116.

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