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The language of change

Earth

The language of change

Ryan Conti came to MIT hoping to find a way to do good things in the world. Now a junior, his path is pointing toward a career in climate science, and he is preparing by majoring in both math and computer science and by minoring in philosophy.
Language for catalyzing change
Philosophy matters to Conti not only because he is interested in ethics — questions of right and wrong — but because he believes the philosophy of language can illuminate how humans communicate, including factors that contribute to miscommunication. “I care a lot about climate change, so I want to do scientific work on it, but I also want to help work on policy — which means conveying arguments well and convincing people so that change can occur,” he says.
Conti says a key reason he came to MIT was because the Institute has such a strong School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (MIT SHASS). “One of the big factors in my choosing MIT is that the humanities departments here are really, really good,” says Conti, who was named a 2021 Burchard Scholar in honor of his excellence in the Institute’s humanistic fields. “I was considering literature, writing, philosophy, linguistics, all of that.”
Revitalizing endangered indigenous languages
Within MIT SHASS, Conti has focused academically on the philosophy of language, and he is also personally pursuing another linguistic passion — the preservation and revitalization of endangered indigenous languages. Raised in Plano, Texas, Conti is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, which today has fewer than 50 first-language speakers left.
“I’ve been studying the language on my own. It’s something I really care about a lot, the entire endeavor of language revitalization,” says Conti, who credits his maternal grandmother with instilling his appreciation for his heritage. “She would always tell me that I should be proud of it,” he says. “As I got older and understood the history of things, the precarious nature of our language, I got more invested.” Conti says working to revitalize the Chickasaw language “could be one of the most important things I do with my life.”
Already, MIT has given him an opportunity — through the MIT Solve initiative — to participate in a website project for speakers of Makah, an endangered indigenous language of the Pacific Northwest. “The thrust at a high level is trying to use AI [artificial intelligence] to develop speech-to-text software for languages in the Wakashan language family,” he says. The project taught him a lot about natural language processing and automatic speech recognition, he adds, although his website design was not chosen for implementation.
Glacier dynamics, algorithms — and Quizbowl!
MIT has also given Conti some experience on the front lines of climate change. Through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, he has been working in MIT’s Glacier Dynamics and Remote Sensing Group, developing machine learning algorithms to improve iceberg detection using satellite imagery. After graduation, Conti plans to pursue a PhD in climate science, perhaps continuing to work in glaciology.
He also hopes to participate in a Chickasaw program that pairs students with native speakers to become fluent. He says he sees some natural overlap between his two passions. “Issues of indigenous sovereignty and language preservation are inherently linked with climate change, because the effects of climate change fall unequally on poor communities, which are oftentimes indigenous communities,” he says.
For the moment, however, those plans still lie at least two years in the future. In the meantime, Conti is having fun serving as vice president of the MIT Quizbowl Team, an academic quiz team that competes across the region and often participate in national tournaments. What are Conti’s competition specialties? Literature and philosophy.

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editor, Designer: Emily Hiestand, Communications Director
Senior Writer: Kathryn O\’Neill, Associate News Manager

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