Lucy Gubbins and the Language of Retail

Lucy Gubbins, BA '12 (linguistics), helped kick-start the Oregon Undergraduate Research Journal. Now she helps RevZilla understand its customers. Photo by Roy Kim

How did someone who studied linguistics, Japanese, and anthropology at the University of Oregon end up working for a company that sells motorcycle gear?

The short answer: an abiding love of research, and the skills that come with it.

Lucy Gubbins was involved in undergraduate research throughout her time at the UO. Now the 2012 alumna uses those skills every day as a “user experience researcher” for RevZilla, a Philadelphia-based e-commerce site that sells motorcycle apparel, parts, and accessories.

“I can do my job because I had that academic research experience as an undergraduate,” says Gubbins, who graduated with honors in linguistics while minoring in anthropology and Japanese. “Having experience doing deep quantitative analysis and understanding scientific inquiry and scientific research protocols is incredibly valuable.”

“I regularly give presentations to senior-level executives, and I would not feel comfortable and confident doing that unless I had that experience arguing my research. Being pushed to break things down and explain things and communicate findings—that confidence, you can’t buy that. That comes purely from practice and experience.”

At RevZilla, Gubbins—who rides a ’93 Suzuki dual sport—uses qualitative and quantitative analysis to learn more about RevZilla customers and what they want.

She works with customers and RevZilla departments—marketing, visual design, customer service—to make the shopping experience easier and more intuitive. If developers add a new feature to the website, Gubbins surveys customers on the changes and works with the web team on tweaks.

As a junior, Gubbins cofounded the Oregon Undergraduate Research Journal, a UO publication edited and produced by an undergraduate editorial board that showcases the best student research across all disciplines.

But her history with research at the UO dates back to her freshman year, when she was taking an introductory linguistics course on Japanese. One day her professor asked her to stay after class.

Gubbins was the only freshman, and “I thought she was going to ask me to leave the class,” she says.

Instead, the professor, Kaori Idemaru, encouraged Gubbins to apply for a research assistant position in her speech perception lab.

Idemaru, an associate professor of East Asian languages and literatures who collaborates with members of the linguistics faculty, was immediately struck by Gubbins’ excitement for learning.

“She was kind of like a very smart Energizer Bunny,” Idemaru says. “Her enthusiasm was contagious and I knew she would be a great, positive addition to my lab.”

Gubbins worked for Idemaru for more than three years. Last spring, the two collaborated on a project with Peipei Wei, a former doctoral student under Idemaru with three UO degrees—MA ’11 (East Asian languages and literatures), MS ’16 (computer and information science), PhD ’16 (East Asian languages and literatures); the trio authored a paper published in the journal Language and Speech. Titled “Acoustic Sources of Accent in Second-Language Japanese Speech,” the study analyzed the acoustic characteristics of second-language speech that give rise to the perception of a foreign accent.

Her experience as an undergraduate researcher, which included presenting at academic conferences, was life-changing, Gubbins says.

Her advice to students?

“Take time to really seek out opportunities that might be off the beaten academic trail,” Gubbins says. “Don’t ever be afraid to show enthusiasm or interest in something someone is researching. You can create your own path. It takes a little more time and energy, but it’s very, very worth it.”

—By Tim Christie, University Communications