Scholar Spotlight - Cath Brislane

Laidlaw Scholar Cath Brislane on investigating rare language sounds, transparency in leadership and the glamorisation of overworking.
Scholar Spotlight - Cath Brislane
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Cath Brislane, a University of York Laidlaw Scholar and Arts & Humanities Subject Lead, on investigating rare language sounds, transparency in leadership and the glamorisation of overworking. 

My research is about why some consonant sounds are more common in everyday language than others. In other words, when there are so many noises a human can make that could be used for communication, why do we use the ones that we use? 

I created a survey where I broke down my sounds into 3 categories: common, rare, and unattested. While common and rare sounds are used in some languages' everyday speech, unattested sounds are not observed in any language that we know of. I then made a discrimination test based on what two consonants people thought sounded most similar to a third sound.

Once that was finished, I analysed the results using a phonological features database to see if any particular features signify why some phonemes are used less often than others. I hope that this will have an application to the making of constructed languages and language acquisition in the future!

Where did your passion for this research originate?

An electromagnetic articulographer 

I originally developed a love for linguistics during my English Language A-level when I was 16. Being surrounded by fantastic teachers, I fell in love with learning how language works! When I came to university, the Phonetics and Phonology module caught my eye - it was about looking at how the mouth creates noise and how we determine what sounds are used in our languages, which obviously makes it a subject area with a lot of research potential. 

My original research was going to use something called an electromagnetic articulographer. You stick sensors at certain points in the mouth to get an extremely accurate picture of how a sound is voiced. However, when labs closed before the start of my research period due to COVID-19, I went back to the drawing board and re-imagined my study from the ground up. I chose to look at the perception of rare and unattested consonants because of my morbid curiosity: why are these sounds not commonly used in language, if at all? Since phonetics is a relatively young area of study, I can ask questions like this to create original research. It is very liberating to work on something which is both unique and relevant to your field!

What is the most memorable moment from your Laidlaw scholarship experience? 

Definitely running my first panel as the Arts & Humanities Subject Lead! It was the first project where I felt like I led the process and saw it through ideation to completion. We had a great time discussing what Laidlaw Alumni in the Arts and Humanities had been up to since finishing the scholarship programme, with some really perceptive comments from the audience too. It was great to see so many people engaged. One of my personal highlights was talking about how applicable the leadership skills from the scholarship are, not only in the arts but in every other area of life too! Moderating a panel is definitely something I would recommend to anyone.

👉You can watch the ‘Where Are They Now?’ panel here.

A screenshot from the ‘Where Are They Now?’ panel

What is the biggest challenge you came across in your research and leadership journeys, and what did you learn from it? 

I realised the importance of transparency in leadership when I had to take a break. There is a massive stigma around leaders being unbreakable spirits who can keep going forever, which results in the glamorisation of overworking, where burnout seems like a reward. This made it really hard to tell people that I needed to take a mental break in December. Nevertheless, I decided to be completely transparent with my struggles. It was a massive shock when everyone I told was extremely supportive of me taking some time off, with some even offering to help with my workload! Through this transparency, I lifted the huge burden to complete excess work, which allowed me to take the time I needed to recover.

Which particular leaders inspire you the most and why?

My grandad! He founded Burton Amateur Boxing Club 45 years ago, where he acted as a coach and mentor to many young people. When he passed away in February 2021, we had so many people come forward about how he had put them on the right path through his work. I had only known him as a family man, but hearing about what he did with the club reinforced my motivation to improve lives and communities through my work.

My Grandad and I, circa the early 2000s 

Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.

I want people to be able to follow their passions while positively impacting their community. When someone does what they enjoy, there is a boundless positive energy that others can feel. This could be through creating access to water, food, and proper sanitation in places that need it, or even just by doing something small to make someone smile. In an ideal world, there would be no limits to what people could do to enact positive change, so long as they are doing what they want to do and living their best life while lifting others. 

Quick-fire Questions

📺 Currently binging: WandaVision. If you have Disney+, this is a must-see.

🎵 My quarantine anthem: Get Your Wish by Porter Robinson

📚 My top book recommendation: Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. It is a fantastic book set around a cafe, mortality, and seeing someone you love one last time.

🎧 Podcast obsession: The Ground Up Show by Matt D’Avella. It’s all about effective lifestyle habits and self-improvement, which are two of my favourite things.

🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: I just knitted my first scarf! It’s really warm :)


Cath is the Arts & Humanities Subject Lead. Join the community for regular networking sessions, engaging discussions, and all-around support. 

🔦 Discover more Scholar Spotlights: 

  • Brandon Yu (University of Toronto) on his research "The effects of N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc) on B-cell activation" and launching his startup, iAscend.
  • Jieran Sun (The University of Hong Kong) on recovering rare books and medieval manuscripts, and clearing your emotional rent.
  • Emma Franck-Gwinnell (Durham University) on making businesses take action against modern slavery, and co-leading the Laidlaw Alumni Society.
  • Lorenzo Molinari (UCL) on advancing learning tools and practices for autistic adolescents, breaking stigmas, and calling for change.
  • Gráinne Sexton (Trinity College Dublin) on her research "'Tear down this wall’: Borders and Boundaries in the Native American Literature of Leslie Marmon Silko" and the importance of leadership that is grounded in humility and integrity. 

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