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LUCDH Welcomes New PhD Candidates

Since April 2017 the LUCDH team has received reinforcement in the shape of two brand-new Phd candidates. They will be working on existing projects set up by Victoria Nyst and Sjef Barbiers. I have the pleasure of introducing them here.

Manolis Fragkiadakis originally hails from Athens, Greece. He received his BA degree from Piraeus university in Digital Systems, which he informs me is similar to computer science, but includes an pedagogical element. Armed with the skills and talent required to explain ‘tough’ subjects like mathematics and informatics, he worked as a tutor for a while before starting a job as a computer developer after his graduation.

Currently, he is living in Leiden where, two and a half years ago, he started his MA degree in Media Technology, a program set up by Leiden University’s computer science institute (LIACS) and the Academy for Creative and Performing Arts.  The MSc program foregrounds the role of creativity in scientific research and teaches students how to explore questions using out-of-the-ordinary techniques like installation-art and computational methods. For example, Fragkiadakis’ MA thesis centered on the question whether surround sound influences audience’s optical focus when watching films.  He is very pleased to be able to continue living in Leiden, which feels very much like a small village after his upbringing in Athens. However, its relatively small size, central location, and dedicated academic body provides a very stimulating environment.

When asked about the importance of the humanities to the sciences and vice versa he paraphrases Edward Wilson’s important call for a common ground between the two disciplines, a common ground in which to communicate and work together. His PhD project also centers on communication; he will work alongside Victoria Nyst and aid her effort to explore new methods in comparing sign language corpora. This means he has to learn sign language. Asked if he was daunted by the prospect of having to learn a new language in order to do his research, Fragkiadakis said that, on the contrary, he was excited about starting a new challenge, identifying as a fast learner and an autodidact.

Martin Kroon is a born and raised Groninger. He has such affinity for his home town in the far North that he stayed there to do both his BA and MA degrees. The first was in general linguistics which he settled on after he did a short internship at the linguistics department when he was still a high school student. Kroon matriculated with a keen interest in languages after exhausting his school’s decadent array of language subjects: Dutch, English, French, German, ancient Greek, Latin, Russian and Italian. Because the appreciation between him and the linguistics department at Groningen was mutual, Kroon quickly found himself apprenticed by Prof. Dr Jan-Wouter Zwart, whom he considers a kind of mentor.

His MA degree was in language and communication technology, where he was first introduced to the subject of computational linguistics. Asked if he could explain what that means he lists a number of technologies that are very familiar indeed, all developed using computational linguistics: the voice recognition soft-ware Siri uses, spell checking systems, or the way search engines auto-complete your sentences.

With nobody to auto-complete his Phd-thesis, however, it is up to Kroon to do the work. He will write a programme that detects syntactic differences automatically. He will then run it on Germanic languages to analyze verb placement and check his results against existing theories. The benefit of letting the computer do the sifting and searching is that you can process up to thousands of times more data than if you were to do it manually. Additionally, you can erase some of the human bias that might otherwise distort one’s research. Kroon’s programme will ultimately be integrated in CLARIAH (Common Lab Research Infrastructure for the Humanities). This means others will be able to use it to do similar research on other languages.

Oddly enough, Kroon had never really heard of the digital humanities before he applied for the Phd in Leiden, although he acknowledges computational linguistics definitely falls under that umbrella. He continues to argue for the importance of the digital humanities, especially for the effort to digitalize old books and manuscripts so as to preserve them for posterity. Imagine the wealth of knowledge that was lost when the ancient library at Alexandria burned to the ground! If only they had had a DH department…

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