Born in Taiwan, sixth-year Linguistics PhD student Chia-Wen Lo describes her home as “a small island where different languages, including Mandarin, Taiwanese Southern Min, Hakka, and Austronesian languages, intersect.” 

Her interest in Linguistics began when she worked as a full-time research assistant in the Department of Speech and Hearing Disorders and Sciences at the National Taipei University of Nursing and Health Sciences in Taiwan. Her job was to organize the lab and collect experimental data at several hospitals. The hands-on practice built on theories that Chia-Wen first heard about in an Introduction to Linguistics course, which inspired her to pursue higher education in Linguistics.

After earning her BA and MA degrees from National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan, Chia-Wen chose U-M because of the professors with whom she interviewed and her wish to conduct research in Neurolinguistics. In fact, says Chia-Wen, she still remembers her first Skype interview with U-M faculty members Jon Brennan, Marlyse Baptista, and the late Sam Epstein: “It was the most impressive interview I’ve ever had!” recalls Chia-Wen. 

Interpreting Questions in Different Languages

Chia-Wen, who is also pursuing a graduate certificate in Cognitive Science, began her U-M research by investigating cross-linguistic memory effects. For her doctoral qualifying research paper, she examined how language users understand the relationship between words that appear far apart from each other in sentences, in so-called long-distance dependencies such as wh-questions. By evaluating how language users process these dependencies across languages, her research offers insights into the interaction between linguistic representations and working memory systems. 

Specifically, Chia-Wen tested the cognitive memory demand required for subjects to interpret questions in different languages. In English, for example, wh-questions are formed by placing the question word at the front of a sentence (e.g., What do you like?), whereas in Mandarin Chinese question words appear in the sentence location where they are interpreted (e.g., You like what?). Results of Chia-Wen’s research suggest that different working-memory demands are required for processing wh-questions in different languages. This work has been published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (

Dissertation Research: Neural Oscillations and Composition

Chia-Wen’s current research aims to probe how composition of meaning is represented by the brain’s neural circuits. Specifically, her dissertation investigates the role of neural oscillations in carrying out composition. Neural oscillations have been linked to many cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and language. 

“My research aims to advance our knowledge of how the processes of understanding words and sentences are implemented in the brain,” explains Chia-Wen. “I am especially interested in the processes of composition, which require us to follow syntactic rules stored in memory and building well-formed structures incrementally.” 

Working under the guidance of professor Jon Brennan, Chia-Wen designed three EEG experiments and used computational models to predict neural responses for composition. The work has been presented at the Society for the Neurobiology of Language (SNL) 2019, CUNY 2020, AMLaP2020, and SNL 2020.

Chia-Wen has received much recognition for her research. In 2020, she received the SNL Graduate Student Abstract Merit Award - Honorable Mention; a 2020 Barbour Scholarship from Rackham Graduate School; and a Chia-Lun Lo Fellowship in 2016-2017, also from Rackham Graduate School.

In July, after completing her PhD in Linguistics at the University of Michigan, Chia-Wen will join the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, as a postdoctoral fellow in the research group “Language Cycles”. She hopes to return to Taiwan one day in order to educate students in multidisciplinary cognitive science research, and to expand the linguistic bases of experimental linguistics in connection with the rich language diversity of Taiwan.