How to utilize a passion for linguistics in industry - an interview with Dr Anita Bowles

edited by Ayaka Ando

Anita Bowles is currently Head of Academic Research & Learner Studies at Rosetta Stone, in San Jose, California. In the past, she conducted research on linguistics and cognitive psychology and was a research faculty member, while now, she is a manager in a company that produces software to help people learn languages. In this interview, we will find out the story behind Anita’s career path and the reasons for the choices she has made.

Anita, can you tell us how your research career path looked like?

I studied Psychology as an undergraduate at Duke University. I knew already at that point, that I was interested in psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience, but I did not have a clear idea of how to combine these three together. Then, I spent a year as a VISTA volunteer. This is an American program where volunteers receive a small living stipend and work in institutions in the public domain: social justice, environment etc. Within the program, I was teaching English to recent immigrants. Through this experience, I became  interested in how adults can learn new languages, and how research can help them learn faster and better. So,I enrolled in a master’s program in linguistics at the University of Georgia. After that, to enhance my research skills and get interdisciplinary training, I completed a PhD in Cognitive Psychology & Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. My doctoral training was multidisciplinary; I was learning about research in psychology, linguistics, education and computer science. In addition, during my PhD program, I completed several internships at the National Institutes of Health involving cognitive neuroscience of language with fMRI and then completed a postdoc, again looking at language learning, but this time with MEG.

Finally, I asked myself, do I actually want to be a professor? I had already had these thoughts during my PhD. It was a matter of personality fit, but also, I was very specifically interested in applied research rather than more theoretical topics.

While thinking about my future, I started considering other jobs such as science writing and communications. I applied for a Mass Media Fellowship before my postdoc, which allowed me to spend a summer working on a media outlet. This allowed me to try out the move from doing science to translating scientific findings for the public.I really enjoyed science writing, but at the same time, I wasn’t quite ready to completely leave the lab. In addition, at that time, the internet was slowly taking over media and there were not as many jobs in science journalism anymore. I decided to continue my career as a postdoc and then became a research faculty member at the University of Maryland. This job allowed me to continue my research into adult language learning and I was employed as a full time faculty member, but I was not on the tenure track. I liked this job as it did not include teaching or grant writing, the research was applied rather than primarily theoretical, and I was able to work on multiple projects at a time and collaborate with team members from various disciplines. I stayed in this job for 8 years.

As mentioned before, this was not a tenure track position. For this reason, one day it came to an end. I then took consultancy jobs, but eventually, ended up in the software industry. That’s how I found myself working for a language learning software company.

That’s been a long way to go! What do you particularly appreciate in your current job?

Well, it is very fulfilling that I can use my knowledge to inform product development and evaluation for a company that produces software used by millions of people. Of course, as this is a commercial company, I always have to keep the endpoint product in mind, but using my research skills to contribute to products to help people learn languages and achieve their goals brings me a lot of satisfaction.

What is the scope of your activities within Rosetta Stone?

At the moment, I hold a managerial position in the company, within the Product department. Our Research team evaluates how effective our learning solutions are, that is how well people are learning languages using the available web software, mobile apps, and tutoring sessions. We analyze data internally for product improvement, often using large datasets (e.g. N > 10,000). and also partner with client organizations to conduct formal collaborative research. For example, we recently completed a randomized-controlled-trial with a school district to measure improvements in English language learning through use of Rosetta Stone. Our team also works with corporate clients and universities to conduct research with adults who need to use English professionally for career purposes. We present our research at conferences and also develop collaborative agreements with universities to enable research on foreign language learning. Finally, we conduct literature reviews and provide company leadership with information on current thinking in the science of learning and second language acquisition.

As a member of OHBM community, I would like to ask you this: are you applying any neuroimaging techniques to your research within Rosetta Stone?

Not yet; whenever we need input from neuroimaging, we collaborate with universities. We also partner in grant writing as an industry representative. I would be happy to perform neuroimaging studies again in the future though if the possibility arises.

Can you tell us more about Rosetta Stone?

The company was launched in 1992 and has led many innovations in the language learning industry. We have over 1,000 employees and offices globally in Austin, Boulder, Washington DC, Seattle, London and Hamburg. We create software for kids and adults, and also offer live online tutoring sessions with native speakers. We also have a division called Lexia, which provides literacy software for helping kids learn to read in English.

How did you find this job?

I found out about Rosetta Stone through networking: I knew someone else who was employed by the company and who also had moved from academia to industry. I am glad that it turned out this way for me, as what I am doing now has a lot of overlap with my past research, and I am passionate about this topic.

What message would you like to give to young researchers within the OHBM community?

One thing is: people often feel like a failure if they are thinking about leaving academia. I talk to a lot of graduate students in this situation I understand their concerns, because I felt the same way. I would like to tell these students that this is not the case at all once you are on the other side of the decision. You can do valuable and satisfying things outside academia, including research that can be applied to help people. And if you feel like trying, just go for it.

Natalia Bielczyk