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FRONTIERS Profile: Justine Cassell 4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Image of Justine Cassell with ToysOctober 22 , 2002
n "Friendly Characters," Alan watches a little girl interact with Sam, a virtual playmate who "shares" a special dollhouse with his human companions. An example of "underdetermined design," technology that encourages children to construct their own imaginary worlds, Sam is the brainchild of Dr. Justine Cassell. Cassell, director of the Gesture and Narrative Language Research Group at MIT's Media Lab, uses technology to understand how children acquire language, as well as what impact language has on their psychology. FRONTIERS asked Cassell what she herself was like as a child.
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FRONTIERS: What were your interests as a child?

I was very interested in biology and natural sciences but I was really bad at math. I wanted to be a doctor. It was making sense to me that I'd make a good doctor, but it was making less sense that I would make a good medical student.

There was no way to find out what this love of words was. Then, in my sophomore year, I realized what I loved was the science of language.

I was born pretty much a word person. I was asking questions about words even as I was learning how to talk. By the time I was seven or eight, I kept a wordbook in which I would write good words. My parents would say, "Now, why is that a good word?" and I would say, "It just is." One of them was "sphygmomanometer," what they take your blood pressure with. Another was "floccilation." That means the anxious picking at dust on the bedclothes done by an ill person. I just loved words, and as I grew older I loved writing and I stayed up all night and read novels trying to finish them in one night.

My parents recognized that I was not a mainstream learner. They sent me to an experimental school: St. Ann's in Brooklyn Heights, NY. Instead of grades, you got long reports every quarter. Mine would say things like, "If Justine paid attention she might understand what was going on." Which is much more damning than a B! I'm still in touch with the teachers and I still feel like that's the place that allowed me to know that you can pursue knowledge for its own sake. That you don't need to live inside disciplinary boundaries.

How did you become a linguist? What did you study to become one?

When I went to Dartmouth College, I kept taking biology, chemistry, and math and I kept doing badly in them. I also kept taking English and Comparative Literature and did well in those. We didn't have a Linguistics Department at Dartmouth, so there was no way to find out what this love of words was. I just thought it was a love of language that went along with the love of literature. Then, in my sophomore year, I took a class on the history of the English language and I realized what I loved was the science of language. I loved especially how children learn language.

Photo of Justine Cassell at Her Lab at MIT

Justine Cassell with the animated actor REA, the real estate agent.

After this wonderful class, I went to [the University of Besancon in France for two years]. They had a very highly thought-of Linguistics Department. At the end of my first semester, my professor said, "Whatever you choose to do in your life, you were born to do linguistics." I had found my calling.

Then, I went to do a Masters in Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. When I arrived and told them that I wanted to look at the linguistics of literary texts on the one hand, and of children's language on the other, they very quickly said, "That's not linguistics." For my thesis, I looked at how children acquired the art of storytelling. It wasn't mainstream, certainly. And they certainly let me know that.

So I went off to the University of Chicago to do a Ph.D. in psychology. As soon as I arrived, I told them I wanted to continue my work in looking at how children learn how to become storytellers, and they very quickly told me that that was not psychology. I decided that what I needed to do was get a Ph.D. in both linguistics and psychology. That way, no one could tell me that I wasn't one of them.

I studied linguistic devices in children's storytelling. I began to work with David McNeil who studied gesture. So I began to look at children's gestures while they told stories, which turned out to be a wonderful way to learn about what is going on in their minds, in a way that a language alone couldn't tell you.
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Photo: MIT Media Lab

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