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Arts grad blends love of linguistics and computer science

Sara Williamson graduates with double major, pursues research drawing on computing and languages

Sara Williamson, pictured on convocation day with her father, Carey Williamson, department head of computer science at the University of Calgary. Photo courtesy of Sara Williamson

By Erin Guiltenane

At first glance, computer science and linguistics make an unlikely pairing. For Sara Williamson, however, the two fields made the perfect combination for her undergraduate studies at the University of Calgary. 

Crossing the stage for convocation this week was an occasion filled with pride for both Sara and her father, Carey Williamson, who is also head of the Department of Computer Science. 

Sara graduated with a Bachelor of Arts with a double major in computer science and linguistics. She was the recipient of this year’s Faculty of Arts Gold Medal, Department of Computer Science Silver Medallion, and was a Chancellor’s Scholarship holder for her first four years of study.

Father influenced her early love of computers 

She also spent two summers working with professor Michael Locasto under a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Undergraduate Student Research Award in computer science. She cites her dad’s influence as a major reason for her interest in computing.

“I remember when I was really young, he would be making PowerPoint presentations and I thought that was really cool,” she says with a laugh. “It was my first exposure to computers and I wanted to do that, so I got to help put together his presentations.”

Carey is equally in admiration of his daughter’s impressive accomplishments. "What a great kid — a superb student, and a role model for others, just like any parent dreams,” he says.

Fostering her early love of computers and their capabilities would eventually shape Sara’s academic career where she discovered that she most enjoyed the human-computer interaction courses.

“I think that is something that is really applicable in a cross-disciplinary way because you can present information about anything, really,” she says.

Building an automated speech tagger for Old English

Throughout her undergraduate years, Sara excelled in her studies and took a range of linguistics courses. In particular, she took the history of the English language course, and two courses with professor Robert Murray, the first on the early Germanic languages (a family of languages that includes Old English) and the other studying the Indo-European language family. She also participated in the Linguistics and Scribe and Muse clubs on campus and says, “this really was a deep immersion into an area that interested me!”

Bringing together her passion for computer science with her love of language, her undergraduate studies culminated in a project where she built an automated part-of-speech tagger for Old English. Spoken between 500 and 1066 AD, Old English is the mysterious language of Beowulf, and sounds nothing like the English spoken today.

“This is actually something that had never been done,” says Sara. “There are part-of-speech taggers for modern English that identify nouns and adjectives, but there isn’t such a thing for Old English. This could be something that’s really helpful for linguists, and for my own research, to be able to understand what’s going on in an Old English text.

“I discovered that this resource doesn’t really exist, so I thought maybe I could try my hand at it," she says.

Researching historical linguistics  

Sara worked with digitized texts, and created the database for her program based on a dictionary she found online. The software grabbed entries from the dictionary and as it was running on a text, it compared a word against the dictionary to match it to the appropriate part of speech and resolve ambiguities.

“It was always interesting when there was overlap, or just things in computer science that I could apply to linguistics,” she says. 

Carey adds, “Sara's passion has always been the language arts. With her excellent computing background, she is poised to become one of the next-generation researchers in the digital humanities."

Sara will continue her research in historical linguistics at Simon Fraser University this fall with scholarship support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).