Ryan Conti came to MIT hoping to find a way to do good in the world. As a junior, his path leads to a career in climate science and he prepares with a major in math and computer science and a minor in philosophy.
Language to catalyze change
Philosophy is important to Conti not only because he is interested in ethics – questions of right and wrong – but because he believes that philosophy of language can enlighten human communication, including the factors that contribute to misunderstandings. “Climate change is very important to me, so I want to work on it scientifically, but also participate in politics – that means conveying arguments well and convincing people so that changes can take place,” he says.
Conti says a main 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 choice of MIT is that the humanities faculties are really, really good here,” says Conti, who was named Burchard Scholar 2021 in honor of his excellence in the humanities areas of the institute. “I thought of literature, writing, philosophy, linguistics and all that.”
Revitalization of endangered indigenous languages
Within MIT SHASS, Conti has academically focused on the philosophy of language and personally pursues another linguistic passion – the preservation and revival of endangered indigenous languages. Raised in Plano, Texas, Conti is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, which today has fewer than 50 native speakers.
“I learned the language on my own. It is very important to me, the entire effort to revive the language, ”says Conti, who ascribes his appreciation for his legacy to his maternal grandmother. “She always told me to 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 that working on reviving the Chickasaw language “could be one of the most important things I do with my life make”.
MIT has already given him the opportunity through the MIT initiative Solve to participate in a website project for speakers of Makah, an endangered indigenous language of the Pacific Northwest. “The push at a high level tries to use AI [artificial intelligence] 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 a quiz bowl!
MIT has also given Conti some experience at the forefront of climate change. As part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, he worked in the Glacier Dynamics and Remote Sensing Group at MIT, developing machine learning algorithms to improve iceberg detection using satellite imagery. Upon graduation, Conti plans to do a PhD in climate science and possibly continue to work in glaciology.
He also hopes to take part in a Chickasaw program that brings students together with native speakers to speak fluently. He says he sees a natural overlap between his two passions. “Issues of indigenous sovereignty and language preservation are inherently linked to climate change, as the effects of climate change hit unevenly on poor communities, who are often indigenous,” he says.
At the moment, however, these plans are at least two years in the future. In the meantime, Conti has enjoyed working as Vice President of the MIT Quizbowl Team, an academic quiz team that competes across the region and often takes part in national tournaments. What are Conti’s competition specialties? Literature and philosophy.
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
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