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Arnold School of Public Health

New COMD assistant professor William Matchin brings love of language to his life’s work: understanding how we communicate

October 3, 2018 | Erin Bluvas, 

William Matchin’s passion for language is contagious. He’s developing skills in languages beyond his native English (e.g., French, Persian, American Sign Language), but that’s not what he means when he talks animatedly about language. He’s referring to the unique ability of humans—and humans alone—to communicate through words.

“Humans have this remarkable capacity for creative expression that we informally call language,” Matchin says. “No other animal has a communication system that can be expressed equally in different modalities; just imagine songbirds dancing their serenades instead of singing. That makes the creativity of human language as intriguing as it is powerful.”

Matchin, who joined the communication sciences and disorders (COMD) department this fall as an assistant professor, aims to help define this creative capacity among humans in greater scientific detail. Much of his research uses neuroimaging to examine how language is organized in the brain.

This includes studying language in non-traditional modalities such as sign languages, which share the same creative powers and underlying neural systems as spoken languages. Matchin’s interdisciplinary approach means that he works with linguists, psychologists and clinicians to figure out exactly what breaks down in language disorders, such as aphasia—a communication disorder resulting from stroke or injury to the brain that impacts patients’ ability to speak, listen, read, and/or write but does not affect intelligence.

Matchin first became interested in the human mind during a psychology class as an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine. The professor illustrated the deep complexity of the mind and brain by explaining how human eyes, which have flat/two-dimensional retinas, can be used to see three-dimensional objects with motion and color. 

“Language is even more exciting because it pervades all that makes us human—culture, music, love, war,” Matchin explains. “I started doing research in college on language, neuroscience and aphasia and never looked back.”

By minoring in linguistics, he was exposed to yet another perspective on the nature of language. “I absolutely loved it, and from then on my goal was to try and integrate the most valuable insights across these fields,” he says.

After his 2009 graduation, Matchin remained at his alma mater to earn a Ph.D., this time in cognitive sciences. He then completed two postdoctoral appointments in linguistics: the first as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland and the second as a postdoctoral associate at the University of California, San Diego.

He became interested in the Arnold School due to the COMD department’s high quality research on aphasia and neuroscience. Matchin sees this research as very relevant to his own work and recognizes the department’s unique ability to fuse basic and applied research.

“I decided to join the COMD department because of the great research opportunities—the cutting edge neuroimaging infrastructure, new facilities, and collaborative and productive research group that meshed well with my interests,” he says. “The environment here at USC and in the Arnold School is positive and supportive, and I feel I can do high-quality work here as well as have a high quality of life.”

COMD faculty and leadership members are happy to welcome him and the knowledge and experience Matchin brings to the department. “We are quite excited to have Dr. Matchin join our group,” says COMD chair Kenn Apel. “His unique research focus compliments the outstanding research already being conducted in COMD, and we look forward to partnering with him to advance our programs and the field.”

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