Dibella Wdzenczny – but you can just call her Di (pronounced "dee") – is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Linguistics Department who studies the indigenous languages of Siberia. Di is fascinated by the extreme diversity of human language as well as its core similarities, and she is dedicated to looking at language from every possible direction. Her area of expertise is in historical linguistics, which is the study of language change over time, and she is especially interested in how cycles and patterns of language change interact with each other in the grammar of a language.
Di shared her passion for language documentation as a finalist in the 2014 Grad Slam, where she spoke about the possible extinction of indigenous languages in Siberia due to language assimilation. She talked about the ways in which linguists are working with community members to document and preserve heritage, culture, and linguistic diversity.
Di has a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics and Medieval Studies from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a Master's degree in Linguistics from Eastern Michigan University. While at Eastern Michigan, she also worked at the LINGUIST List, a professional communication and networking site for the worldwide community of linguists. Read on to learn more about her research and grad school experiences.
Tell us a little about your research and how you came to choose the topic.
From the very introduction of it, I was fascinated by historical linguistics and the realization that you can make educated guesses about the history of a language or language family. It was during my Master's degree program, when I was trying desperately to find a language area that I could dive into, that I started to focus on the indigenous languages of Siberia. When I had applied to Ph.D. programs, I was still in the mindset of "I'm interested in all of it – point me in a direction!" Then, in one of my morphology classes, we did an in-class exercise on a language I'd never heard of before: a Kamchatkan language called Itelmen, which is spoken in Siberia. It just grabbed me and I had to know more … and I suppose the rest is history.
What was it like to participate in the Grad Slam?
It was fabulous. There was definitely adrenaline and electricity in the room at all rounds, and it was admirable how many grad students wanted to give it a shot. Grad students tend to have a reputation as shut-ins and occasionally socially stunted, but it was clear that lots (if not most) of us are active, happy people who truly love our work and really want to tell the world about it.
And, of course, one of the best parts was getting to the finals alongside my fellow colleague and friend in the Linguistics Department, Don Daniels. Back when I was applying to different graduate programs, a big part of my decision to come to UCSB was because of the work Don was able to do here and how happy he was with the program. For both of us to be in the Grad Slam finals felt like a huge success.
What has been a source of motivation or drive for you in your graduate studies?
I'm pretty self-motivated, so aiming for that "next big thing" is always good. I'm just generally the type where I'm never quite satisfied with anything I do, so I'm always out to do it better or take it to the next step.
I also feel motivated out of gratitude for the women linguists who have come before me. They were the ones who, back in the day, were fighting the good fight for equality (and some of their stories are stomach-turning), and I'm very lucky to be able to have an immensely easier time following in their footsteps. Several female linguists – such as Sally Thomason, Claire Bowern, Marianne Mithun, and Carol Genetti – have been brilliant mentors to me and I owe it to them to excel the best I can.
What do you like most about grad school and what do you like least?
I enjoy the encouragement to explore the best. I find myself constantly curious, and it’s not only encouraged but supported by our faculty. Seeing some little thought you had that started as "Huh, that’s funny" turn into a published paper is immensely satisfying.
As for my least favorite thing … well, it's nothing that doesn't come with the station. The UC-wide standard fellowship and TA pay is rough living in the Santa Barbara-Goleta area, and the stress can really be a killer. A little bit of stress can be a great motivator, but there’s a fine line between that and when it's unbearable and you want to do nothing but eat ice cream and watch Netflix. Santa Barbara may be expensive, but at least we have McConnell's.
Tell us a little about your upbringing and childhood interests.
I'm a second-generation American from Detroit. My family have mostly been autoworkers, and I was the second person in my entire family to get a college degree, and once I get my Ph.D., I'll have the highest degree in my family. That being said, I absolutely love (what used to be) American car culture, and I had jobs restoring cars before I went to college.
As a kid, I was super artistic; I have a natural talent for drawing and I was also musically inclined, but my family definitely had a particular academic destiny set for me, so I was only allowed to take those artistic interests so far. Now that I'm on my own, however, I've grown back into them.
Is there any particular event or events that had a big impact or influence on you and helped shape who you are today?
Well, not to get grim, but probably one of the biggest-impact events in my life was the car accident that completely crushed the left side of my body when I was 16. Having to deal with the aftermath of that accident certainly gave me a better sense of humor about life and made me contemplate things I'd previously taken for granted.
I was told for a long time that my bones would never heal entirely after the accident, but I got a second opinion and "Humpty Dumpty" was put back together post-haste. Although I still have a fair share of permanent injuries, I realized my recovery was entirely in my hands at that point, and that was when I took up dance. I started with hip hop and jitting (a native Detroit style of footwork dance), and moved on to ballet, ballroom, and everything else. I'd uncovered something I realized I couldn’t live without, and it taught me a lot about drive and overcoming obstacles and that all of this was up to me. The experience also taught me that you never really do anything without someone else's help.
What are some of your current hobbies and favorite things to do?
I generally love to be outside and to just walk around, and Santa Barbara is a pretty nice place to do both those things. Dancing is also a wonderful retreat from working hard at a computer for most of the day. I'm not sure what's scarier – performing on stage or giving a presentation at a big conference. On stage, you don't get PowerPoints, but you also don't have people watching who might hold your career in your hands either.
Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and why.
I don’t know if "proud" is the correct word, but it was one that certainly meant a lot to me personally. The first time I performed en pointe (in ballet pointe shoes) was huge to me, because it gave me the sense that I'd truly recovered physically and mentally from my car accident, and it represented a lot of hard work and determination.
Do you have any advice for current grad students?
Outside of the obvious things (go to conferences, network, get published, etc.) there’s three things: socialize, get some exercise, and find a hobby outside of your research (a combination of this one plus either of the other two is super bonus points). The people in your lab/cohort are your peers, and they're in the same spot as you are most of the time. They can be a fabulous support network if you let them. And other grad students too! Meet people at Grad Slam, or the Happy Hours, etc. We're social creatures – I know not everyone is an extrovert, but we all benefit from some type of socializing. Plus, it stops you from stress overload. (If you do have stress overload, go to CAPS. It's a free counseling resource for UCSB students and they're fabulous.) Having an interest outside your research reminds you (and others, frankly) that you're a whole human being. Whether it's growing vegetables or MMA cage fighting, something that's not your work is a mind massage and always makes you more productive. I'm sure I don't have to explain "get some exercise" – everyone knows those benefits. Even an evening stroll across campus or on the beach can be a breath of fresh air (literally and metaphorically). Because endorphins and all that. And if you’re in a position to be able to, I suppose, get a pet. Caring for another creature is such a satisfying experience, and they're proven stress-reducers. Plus, they can help you get exercise and socialize! Hooray!