Alumni rising: Research sparks international career for Von Holzen

top-story-vonholzenIn a tradition that dates as far back as the 18th century, a decorated cow-drawn wagon carted newly honored Katie Von Holzen to the center of the Göttingen, Germany and dropped her off in front of City Hall. From there she climbed up next to the Gänseliesel statue, added a bouquet of flowers, and gave the “goose girl” a kiss on the cheek.

in-story-vonholzen-2This tradition is reserved only for a newly appointed “Dr.”

Van Holzen, a 2009 UW-Green Bay psychology graduate, had defended her Ph.D only a few hours earlier at Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen, where she studied bilingual and monolingual lexical and phonological development.

Von Holzen is now working in Paris, France as a post-doctoral researcher at the Laboratoire Psychologie de la Perception at the Université Paris Descartes. Her research focuses on the importance of consonants and vowels for infants during lexical acquisition and processing.

So how does a small-town Wisconsin girl end up with a career in Paris, France? The answer is a lot of hard work and a lot of help along the way.

Von Holzen said she is indebted to several professors at UWGB, especially her mentor Prof. Jennifer Lanter. She spent three semesters in Lanter’s Language Learning Lab, which included research projects investigating toddler plural acquisition and how parents adapt their language to the environment and needs of children.

“My interest took off very, very quickly once I started in the Language Lab,” Von Holzen said. “I also took my first college level German class that semester. It was fascinating studying how toddlers understand and use language, while I, at the same time was struggling to learn a second language. It was unfair and amazing at the same time.”

Prior to that, Von Holzen spent two months at Dartmouth College as a summer research intern working in a social neuro-cognition lab with the help of UWGB Professors Regan Gurung and Kate Burns. She used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to look at the areas of the brain that light up when women rate pictures of men separately on their aesthetic and sexual attractiveness.

“The experience fueled my fascination with the brain and the things it can tell us if we ask the right questions,” Von Holzen said.

Von Holzen told her adviser, Prof. Burns, that she was interested in cognition, memory and language and asked if there was a project she could get involved in on campus. Burns, in turn, introduced her to Lanter and the Language Learning Lab.

“Working in her Language Learning Lab led me to discover my passion for the study of language acquisition and gain extensive experience in the field. I will always be grateful for her confidence in me, as well as her support while I was applying to graduate school,” Von Holzen said.

“The environment at UWGB really helped me figure out what I wanted to do in life that would make me happy. I can think of no greater preparation than that,” Von Holzen said.

“Although travelling is a definite perk, I would say that working on questions that I’m passionate about is definitely my favorite part of my job,” Von Holzen said. “When I’ve thought about doing anything else, I can’t imagine losing access to a lab where I can satisfy my curiosity on a daily basis.”

She was introduced to the Green Bay area during cherished time spent time at her aunt and uncle’s — Diane (Von Holzen) Mike Phillips — home in Green Bay. Both are 1977 UWGB graduates.