Johns Hopkins University
Fall/Winter 2007
Vol. 5, No. 1


Pinpointing “Pockets of Hope”

Cosmology’s Force to Be Reckoned With

Student Research From the Field


Total War: The Big Picture

> Plumbing the Mysteries of the Mind

Embrace Your Inner Cynic

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Plumbing the Mysteries of the Mind

As you read these words, what processes are going on in your brain?

In many ways it's a mystery, compounded in part, say many scientists, by the fact that our brains have not been prepared for reading and writing by evolution. How is it then that we have become so proficient in those skills?

Brenda Rapp, a professor in the Department of Cognitive Science, and a team of doctoral students are tackling this  question-and others-with the support of a five-year, $3.2 million Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) from the National Science Foundation.

Called "Unifying the Science of Language," the program aims to train a new generation of interdisciplinary language investigators by bringing together research conducted from the perspectives of engineering, psychology, computer science, and various types of linguistics.

"The goal of the program is to overcome barriers that have long separated the way different disciplines have approached language research," explains Paul Smolensky, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Cognitive Science and principal investigator for the IGERT.

Under the terms of the program, investigators in cognitive science are delving into some of the most basic mysteries of the human mind: Which of the brain's biological and computational structures make language possible? What can recent advances in computer processing of human language tell us about the way children learn to speak and read? The answers could lead to targeted therapies to help stroke patients regain their speech, improved teaching strategies for children with learning difficulties, and other gains.

"It has been extremely rare for individuals to have this kind of sophisticated linguistic, psychological, computational, and neuroscience training," says Rapp. "With this grant, we have a real opportunity to make progress on answering some of these questions because of the breadth and depth of the training our students receive."

Rapp is just one of 10 cognitive science faculty members working with students under the terms of the IGERT. In addition, there are 10 researchers from other departments on the Homewood campus and the School of Medicine and approximately 20 students-half on IGERT fellowships and half funded from other sources.

Johns Hopkins is one of 125 IGERT award sites nationwide. The National Science Foundation started the program in 1997 to change the culture of graduate education by encouraging collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.