Alumni of Distinction: Viorica Marian

September 2, 2015
Viorica Marian, 2015 Alumni of Achievement recipient (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage).

Viorica Marian, 2015 Alumni of Achievement recipient. (Photo courtesy of Viorica Marian / Northwestern University)

Viorica Marian, B.A. Psychology ’94, will receive the 2015 Alumni of Achievement award at Green & Gold Gala on Sept. 26.

Do yourself a favor and learn a second language.

Research from Viorica Marian—this year’s Alumni of Achievement awardee—has proven the power of bilingualism. It turns out knowing a second language provides a constant brain workout, can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and even changes the way we see the world (yes, literally—your eyes move differently when you speak another language). She’s presented at psychology conferences across the continents, published over 100 scientific papers and been featured everywhere from Time Magazine to BBC to The Washington Post. And her academic achievements launched right here at UAA.

It’s an impressive journey considering, as a resident of the former Soviet Union, an American education seemed out of reach. Now, Viorica—who speaks Romanian, Russian and English—is a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern University in Chicago and she sits at the forefront of cognitive research on bilinguals, an increasingly valuable field in an increasingly diverse world.

“A perfect match”

Viorica first visited the United States when she was 15. It was the tail end of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and United States forging a new diplomatic relationship. Each of the 15 Soviet republics sent a delegation of high-achieving students on a three-week exchange to a partner state. Moldova just happened to match with Alaska. Aside from the glaciers and mountains, she remembers seeing the bigger picture too—democracy in action, a different lifestyle, a Western education system. While here, she made sure to pick up an application to University of Alaska.

It was just a dream at the time, as citizens of the Soviet Union couldn’t attend American universities during the Cold War. Lucky for her, those rules crumbled along with the Soviet borders right when she was completing high school. “As soon as it became possible to come to the United States as a student, I filled out the application for UAA,” she said.

UAA was completing its own tumultuous transition (albeit one with less global consequences), shifting from two merged community campuses into its current era as a major university. The foreign student population was small, meaning Viorica enjoyed some truly rare levels of Northern hospitality. She still remembers landing in Anchorage and having Cecile Mitchell—the international student advisor—pick her up at the airport. Later, when she had a doctor’s visit scheduled, the director of international students drove her to the appointment. “I don’t imagine that happens at all anymore,” she laughed. “Since then, having been at many other universities, I appreciate that direct contact even more.”

Academically, she excelled. Back in Moldova, her family tree was filled with doctors, but she was more interested in studying philosophy (much to her parents’ consternation). She credits professor Robert Madigan for introducing her to the wondrous world of cognitive psychology. “I immediately realized it was the right fit for me,” she said. “It combined my family background with my personal interest in the mind. It really was a perfect match.”

Viorica completed one of the first honors theses in the psychology department (researching, of course, bilingualism) and participated in Dr. Madigan’s experimental research. “It’s really a handful of courses at UAA that influenced my path,” she admitted. In her career, she’s presented her research at hundreds of conferences in dozens of countries, but it all started in Anchorage. “My first conference presentation ever was at the Behavioral Sciences Conference of the North,” she added. “It’s where I first got a taste of research and fell in love with it.”

Seeing the world differently… literally

That love of research led her to graduate school and her current role at Northwestern. After UAA, she left for greener (as in Ivy League) pastures, earning a Ph.D. form Cornell University, along with master’s degrees form Emory and Cornell as well. At Northwestern, she now oversees a busy lab of bilingual researchers. “It’s always booming with activity,” she said.

Professionally, she is most well known for her landmark psycholinguistics research on the cognitive effects of bilingualism—that is, how multiple languages change our thoughts, behaviors and perceptions.

In short, it affects things dramatically.

Viorica’s research has both applied and theoretical implications. For one, the majority of the world’s population knows at least two languages. “If you look outside the United States, more than half the population speaks more than one language,” she noted. Even here in the States, with changing demographics, birth rates and continued immigration—that’s changing too. In fact, families here in the Anchorage School District speak 93 languages at home, from Albanian to Zuni. With such prevalence in the population, research on the mind must include bilinguals. To ignore the effects of knowing two languages would, in Viorica’s mind, be akin to “missing a big piece of the puzzle.”

Prior to Viorica’s early research, linguists thought bilingual individuals simply switched off their other languages during a conversation. She found that, in fact, you can never turn off that second language.

Knowing two languages provides cultural, but also cognitive, benefits. In any situation, the human brain needs to focus on certain tasks and ignore other stimuli (technically speaking, it’s called inhibitory control). For bilinguals, controlling inhibitions and focusing on the key details is a ceaseless occurrence as they juggle their two languages. Bilingualism provides a constant cranial workout, which carries major real-world outcomes—for one, diagnoses of dementia and Alzheimer’s come later in life for bilinguals.

At Northwestern, Viorica oversees a busy psycholinguistics lab providing research opporuntites to undergrads, graduate students and post-docs (Photo courtesy of Viorica Marian / Northwestern University).

At Northwestern, Viorica oversees a busy psycholinguistics lab providing research opportunities to undergrads, graduate students and post-docs. (Photo courtesy of Viorica Marian / Northwestern University)

In addition, it affects the way we remember. Say an event occurred when you were five years old. “You’ll be better at remembering that event if you switch to the language in which that event happened,” Viorica stated. Not only that, but you’ll access it quicker and with more detail. This has huge implications everywhere from the counselor’s couch to the courtroom witness stand.

More incredibly, bilingualism changes the way people see the world. “I don’t mean it metaphorically, I mean it quite literally,” Viorica stated. Based on research with a head-mounted eye tracker, Viorica and her students have concluded that our eyes move differently whether we’re monolingual or bilingual.

Here’s how: our brain combines inputs from our ears and eyes. Place a smattering of objects on a table and ask a monolingual subject to find a marker, and their eyes may flit (immediately, impulsively, imperceptibly) to a marble first. If you speak Russian—where the word for stamp is marka—your eyes may dart to the stamp before locating the marker. This research could prove valuable for any profession that places a premium on the ability to scan an environment like, say, elite military teams. “It’s very interesting because it suggests that people who speak different languages may be seeing the world a little bit differently,” Viorica noted. “Not in a poetic way, but in a direct way.”

Back to campus

For her world-recognized research on psycholinguistics, Viorica has earned this year’s Alumni of Achievement award. She’ll be flying from Chicago to Anchorage to accept the honor at this year’s Green & Gold Gala on Sept. 26.

Although she speaks at universities around the world, she’s looking forward to returning to her alma mater. “It’s where my American story started,” she said of UAA. With the impending return, she admits to a flood of happy (English-language, mostly) memories.

“So many things happen in the college years,” she reflected on her rising nostalgia. “It’s the youth, it’s college, it’s the adventurous spirit of Alaska. For me, UAA is a special place.”

Professor Robert Madigan set her off on a successful career in psycholinguistics, and she’s since served as a mentor for dozens of other students (tenured professors at University of Wisconsin and San Diego State University are among her former linguistics charges). While in Anchorage, she plans to meet with current psychology students and reconnect with former professors to thank them for their guidance.

“I have wonderful memories of UAA,” Viorica concluded. “I’ve been very lucky to be doing what I love.”


Gear up for #GalaUAA by following the Office of Alumni Relations on Facebook.

Attend Green & Gold Gala on Sept. 26, 2015 and help raise money for the UAA Alumni Scholarship Endowment. Tables and individual tickets are avaiable online.

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement

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