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Doctoral Student Researches Language and Technology to Help Others

By Elle Ciaciuch O’Neill and Cynthia Hollenbeck

Jose Riera, Ph.D. candidate in Washington State University’s College of Education, focuses his research on developing computer applications to help foreign language learners, immigrants, and individuals with communicative disabilities to improve their pronunciation skills. According to Jose, there are 1 billion foreign language learners, 275 million immigrants, and 550 million individuals with communicative disabilities worldwide. With these numbers, Jose hopes this research will make a notable impact on the language-learning world.

One of the main challenges for second language learners is understanding and articulating unfamiliar new sounds in their target language. Jose believes that by providing these learners with significant auditory and visual cues, we can help support and enhance their pronunciation.

In 2019, Riera started in the WSU College of Education’s Language, Literacy, and Technology doctorate program. He decided to come to WSU for two reasons: the first was because WSU’s College of Education enabled him to integrate his interest in technology and languages in teaching. The second was that by attending WSU, he could be closer to his daughters, Natalia and Marilyn. Not only that, he’s building a Coug legacy, because his daughter Natalia is a junior in the WSU Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. Go Cougs!

In Jose’s first semester at WSU, he presented his research proposal, which focused on using facial recognition technology to teach phonetics. This research was developed in collaboration with Howard Davis, Mark Vandam, Don McMahon, and Professor Takeshi Saitoh of the Kyushu Institute of Technology.  Jose’s proposal was selected as the overall winner of the WSU’s Research Week Travel Grant Competition.

Jose said he was inspired by his immigrant students when he worked as an ESL instructor at the Pleasanton Public Library, as well as his colleagues with disabilities at the Center for Independent Living in Oakland, California.  In his research, he relies on the language learning theoretical frameworks proposed by linguistic scholars, such as Stephen Krashen, Tracy Derwing, and Olusola Adesope.  Jose’s research has already earned him significant recognition, including nine research and academic awards from notable organizations, including Facebook, The Seattle Times, and the Brain Injury Association of Washington.

Author and human rights advocate Timothy Pina once said, “When you work to inspire others […] Your reward is in helping better themselves, lifting your life in the process.” This quote has become one that Jose lives by. He said that the quote motivates him to
continue giving back to WSU, a school that has supported him actively during the past years.

Jose is a co-founder of a virtual support group called “e-Togetherness” that was created at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis. The group’s goal is to connect masters, doctorate, and professional students virtually during these isolated times. In addition, Jose is a member of WSU’s Disabled Students and Allies Club. “I know firsthand,” Jose said, “how motivated we are to belong in our society, and I saw how my research could facilitate that process.”

In Fall 2020, Jose co-authored a meta-analysis of computer-assisted pronunciation technology (CAPT) applications in second language instruction with Dr. Olusola Adesope and Oluwafemi Johnson. One of their key findings showed that CAPT was very effective when used to practice the pronunciation of targeted sounds that exist in the second language but may not exist in the learner’s native tongue. Their conclusions will help language teachers and software developers understand how to use CAPT applications more effectively.

After earning his doctoral degree, Jose will pursue faculty positions in higher education at universities that share his passion for promoting the social advancement of underserved diverse communities.

Horticulturist Explores Genetics of Resistance to Fire Blight in Apples

By Cynthia Hollenbeck and Elle Ciaciuch O’Neill

Sarah Kostick, Ph.D., is making great strides in the world of apple breeding at Washington State University. By investigating resistance/susceptibility to fire blight in apples to enable more efficient development of apple varieties with resistance to fire blight, she has found that specific genomic regions (also called genetic loci) are associated with resistance, and much more.

Fire blight is a devastating bacterial disease that affects a range of apple cultivars (varieties). This disease has the potential to cause tree death and, depending on the year, can destroy entire orchards. Fire blight, caused by the bacterium Erwinia amylovora, can infect the flowers, shoots, and rootstock of the tree, potentially causing tree death. If environmental conditions are conducive to disease development, fire blight infections can result in severe economic losses for apple growers in Washington state.

Sarah works in horticulture with an emphasis in plant breeding, conducting research with WSU Professor of Horticulture, Kate Evans. Most recently, Sarah shared three major highlights that directly correlate to her findings.

Sarah’s data revealed the complexity of inheritance of resistance to fire blight. Her research identified and validated multiple elite sources of resistance. These “elite” sources, i.e., cultivars that have superior fruit quality and resistance to fire blight, may be used as parents in the breeding program.

Sarah said, “I determined the susceptibility levels of 94 apple cultivars. Although most of the apple cultivars I examined were moderately to highly susceptible, I confirmed that several cultivars, including Enterprise and Frostbite, were highly resistant. These highly resistant apple cultivars could be used as parents in breeding programs.”

In the past year, Sarah has published two separate journal articles in collaboration with Professor Evans. In a journal article from 2019, their findings explored the susceptibility levels of 94 cultivars. Most recently, in an article published this year, Sarah, John Norelli, Soon Li Teh, and Kate Evans conducted research and wrote about quantitative variation and heritability estimates of fire blight resistance in a pedigree-connected apple germplasm set.

Sarah wanted to see what the variation in resistance/susceptibility to fire blight levels among progeny looked like when different parents were used. These parents are often important in apple breeding programs. Like human siblings, apple siblings can share certain characteristics.

What the group found is that in most full-sibling families (progeny that share two parents in common) there was variation for resistance/susceptibility to fire blight, including families where both parents were classified as highly susceptible. In other words, when two highly susceptible parents were crossed, most progeny were susceptible, but there were progeny that had low susceptibility levels (lower than either parent). This indicates that a parent’s susceptibility classification is not necessarily indicative of how the progeny will perform.

In a separate section of her research, Sarah used statistical analyses to determine the regions of the apple genome associated with variation. Her findings highlighted three different genomic regions associated with resistance to fire blight.

  1. Increased understanding of resistance/susceptibility to fire blight in breeding relevant germplasm.
  2. More informed section of breeding parents. Breeders can use information gained from research studies to select parents in their breeding programs.
  3. Loci detected can be targeted for DNA test development so that breeders can more efficiently breed for resistance to fire blight.

Sarah successfully defended her dissertation, entitled “Phenotypic Characterization and Genetic Dissection of Resistance to Fire Blight in a Pedigree-Connected Apple Breeding Germplasm Set,” in November 2020. She hopes to continue to hone her skills as a plant breeder as she takes the next step in her career.