Katie Von Holzen graduated from UW-Green Bay in 2009 with a major in Psychology and minors in Human Development and German. Katie now lives in Germany and works as a scientist in the German Linguistics department at the University of Dortmund.
What do you do now? I’m a scientist working at the Technical University of Dortmund (Technische Universität Dortmund) in the German Linguistics department. I just started at the beginning of October, so everything is quite new. But, I’m teaching a couple classes (in German) and getting to know my way around the laboratory and the university. One of the purposes of this position is to complete a Habilitation, which is kind of like a second dissertation in Germany. So, in addition to teaching, I’m going to continue conducting research. Right now, my research focus is on second language acquisition during childhood. We all know that early exposure to a second language is important for later proficiency in that language, but I’m interested in the learning process right at the beginning. An adult or adolescent can choose to learn French in school, but a young child attending a bilingual preschool doesn’t really know what language is. My question is, how they start to learn a new language, from day one? My job will be to answer this and similar questions by designing and implementing scientific experiments to study how children process and learn from a language they’ve never heard before.
Why did you decide to major in Psychology? I took an Introduction to Psychology class in high school. I’m not really sure of the motivation for that anymore, it could have been because the teacher was a good one (Mr. Dan Snyder of Winneconne High School), but I’m sure glad I did. I loved it and decided that I wanted to study Psychology in college. At the same time, I had also taken a few German classes in high school, because my great-grandparents came from Switzerland. I continued at UWGB and loved it so much that I turned it into the minor. Considering where I am today, I’m sure glad I did!
What academic experience or accomplishment are you most proud of? Finishing a PhD is a big enough accomplishment to last for the rest of my life. It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever worked on and it took years to complete. That being said, I’m most proud of the first paper I ever published. It became part of my dissertation and its been cited a few times, which hopefully means that it was useful! We found that bilingual preschoolers are automatically activating both of their languages, such that when they hear a word like “leg” they’re also automatically translating it to their other language and activating the translation equivalent, such as “Bein”. Until this paper, this particular kind of finding hadn’t been found in children younger than school age. Our paper extended it to 2- to 3-year-olds. We also used a special statistical technique to analyze children’s eye-movements over time. Since then, many other researchers have adopted the technique. Its rather strange to go back and read the paper now, 7 years later, I’ve matured a lot in how I write and approach research, but I’m still proud of the impact that paper has had on my field.
What is an important goal or accomplishment you are currently working on? In the short term, I’m trying to teach my classes in German. Its rather hard to explain complicated, scientific concepts in a second language, but with a little bit of humor I’ve been getting by. On the first day of class I had my Linguistics freshman analyze my German, which served to introduce them to some of the different ways that we can describe language. In the long run, my goal is to complete my Habilitation. This includes not only teaching but also implementing the research program that I described above. Once I have my Habilitation, I will have qualified myself for a tenured position as a professor at a University. That’s the ultimate goal!
What do you do for fun? At the moment, fun for me is sitting down to watch Netflix for the evening while working on my latest knitting project. I’m currently really into Icelandic sweaters and slippers and I’m hoping to finish a few in time for winter. I also sew quilts and my own clothing. As a scientist, I often work on a project for a very, very long time with little tangible results. When I took up knitting, crochet, and sewing, it really helped me to see the results as I worked. It’s incredibly satisfying! My partner and I do a lot of traveling, that comes with the territory of being an international couple (he’s German). We live near the Harz mountains now and have been there a few times for hiking.
What else do you want people to know about you? My path was never obvious to me. When I graduated from UWGB I would have never guessed that I’d be where I am now. I’m a first-generation college graduate. Before I started my PhD in Göttingen, Germany, neither of my parents had ever left the country. I’ve put in a lot of hard work, but I’ve been incredibly lucky in the opportunities I’ve been given and I’ve been supported throughout my career by my parents, family, teachers, and colleagues.