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Psychology professor elected to prestigious world science body

STUDYING THE HUMAN BRAIN: Psychology professor Laura-Ann Petitto is known for her research on the biological bases of language, especially involving early language acquisition. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

Fellows selected by peers

by Mary Ann Gratton (with files from Jenny Hall)

Psychology professor Laura-Ann Petitto of U of T Scarborough is one of five U of T researchers who have been elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world's largest general science society and publisher of the prestigious journal Science.

“I honestly felt very honoured and grateful to the anonymous selection committee of AAAS,” said Petitto. “Then, of course, I worried that I’d better get back to work.”

Five U of T researchers have been named Fellows of the AAAS this week. The honour is bestowed on them by peer members, who elect individuals in recognition of their meritorious efforts to advance science or its applications. The other four are: Professor Grant Allen of chemical engineering and applied chemistry; Professor Brendan Frey of electrical and computer engineering; Professor Emeritus Mary Jane Phillips of chemical engineering and applied chemistry, Professor Christopher Yip of biochemistry and the Institute for Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering. For details on their research expertise, click here.

"I'm delighted that five of our faculty members were elected this year," said Professor Paul Young, vice-president (research) at the University of Toronto. "Fellowship in the AAAS is one of the most prestigious a scientist can be awarded. My congratulations to all of the new fellows."

In the AAAS citation, Petitto was praised for contributions to the understanding of human language, including bilingualism and sign language, using behavioral and neuroscience techniques. The human brain is a fascinating subject, she said, and she has had a passion to understand it since she was a child.

“Now, with new neuro-imaging technologies, we have the capacity to look inside of a living human brain and to study many clusters of genes in relation to the brain and its higher cognitive functions, such as language and executive functions such as attention and memory. In my lab, we use a new, revolutionary neuro-imaging technology called functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy, or fNIRS. When I get these moments to look inside our brain and examine its cognitive functions and consider them in light of genetic polymorphism analyses, the happiness is measurable – profound, really.”

Petitto said she was drawn to her area of research by a question that she simply had to investigate. “Do our brains alone contain the biological material to produce and receive human language, or do we share this capacity with other animals, such as chimpanzees? I was very lucky to be part of the group of people in scientific history who got to ask and answer this question." When she was still an undergraduate student, she was named project coordinator, lead teacher, and surrogate “mother” of an infant chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky (a play on Noam Chomsky), in the psychology department at Columbia University in New York.

“I lived with Nim for several years, attempted to raise him like a human child, and to teach him language, specifically American Sign Language, a real and natural language, that uses the hands, because chimps do not have the capacity to produce speech like humans,” said Petitto. “This research, in addition to teaching me about the nature of the Ape mind, laid bare the secrets of the human mind and the human brain, and, in turn, raised new questions. To be sure, those questions have propelled my research path and discoveries throughout my own personal scientific journey.”

Petitto said she loves being at U of T Scarborough. “The students are fascinating, hard-working and intelligent! I recently moved here from Dartmouth College in the United States, and before that I was at McGill University. I am so lucky to have come here.”

The AAAS was founded in 1848 and has been admitting fellows since 1874. Fellowship is a prestigious honour, granted for meritorious efforts to advance science and fellows are elected by their peers.

The 2008 Fellows will be honoured at the AAAS Fellows Forum on Feb. 14, 2009, during the organization’s annual meeting, to be held in Chicago.


© University of Toronto Scarborough