“…Collaboration that promotes transparent, sharable, and reproducible research will help us look at variability [in language learning] in a more precise way.”


An Interview with Zhenghan Qi, MD, PhD

Assistant Professor; Dept. of Communication Sciences & Disorders; Dept. of Psychology; Northeastern University

By: Michelle Johnson (2/11/22)



Have you always been interested in research and the mind?


I always had a strong interest in understanding human brain because I have family members, whom I love dearly, who suffer from mental disorders, and I wanted to understand why. In medical school I learned about all the organs and systems in human body, and the most fascinating system was definitely the one above the neck. I was first trained in neurobiology labs studying the cellular and molecular bases of neuroplasticity, which led me to a neuroscience PhD in the U.S.


My particular interest in language came later in graduate school. I was inspired by my mentors Drs. Susan Garnsey and Cindy Fisher, who took me in as a very enthusiastic neuroscience PhD student who was still wandering in the vast neuroscience field, and they drew me into language processing and development, a fascinating field that’s very special to human nature. There was a joke in my department back then: you study what you are not good at. As an international graduate student constantly struggling with two languages in my mind, I followed that route and has enjoyed every step since.


After going through this journey, what questions are really exciting to you right now?


I have always been interested in how the human brain acquires such a complex function as language, and the more I get into the data, the more variabilities I see across individuals. I know in clinical and educational practice every case is an individual case. Practitioners and teachers strive to meet the different developmental trajectories of each child, especially to treat language and speech disorders.


[However], our understanding of individual differences in language development is still so limited. We know approximately where Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are located in the brain, but they might differ in whether and how they are functionally engaged during each language learning episode. We also know how cognitive processes like attention, executive functioning, and memory play a role in learning at a group level, but we don’t know how each individual takes advantage of these cognitive resources during learning tasks. I am interested in looking at individual behavior and trying to understand how our research could help boost performance or customize therapy in the future.


What future directions do you see language development research?


I think the advancement in [our] analytical methods [will advantage the study of] individual differences of language learning, and people are more interested in open science and collaboration. Studying developmental trajectories requires longitudinal studies, and those are expensive to run. Given the sample biases we all have in every lab, collaboration that promotes transparent, sharable, and reproducible research will help us look at the variability in a more precise way. Despite that the recent move towards online research has brought many challenges for the developmental field, the online research methods could also be the first step towards exciting large-scale cross-country and cross-cultural collaborations.


In your day-to-day work, what brings you joy and keeps you motivated?


My joy comes from two places: the first is the nature of learning itself – I learn all the time, and in this fast-moving field you have to keep up with trends. You have to be very humble about the limitation of your knowledge, and The second place is seeing how my students grow. I know they are excellent by themselves, but if I feel like I play a slightly positive influence in their career, [I find that] really rewarding. They are also the reason and motivation for my own learning journey.


Click here to learn more about Dr. Qi’s work.

Click here to go back to the “Interviews with Scientists” page.