News from the National Academy of Sciences

Jan. 23, 2015


Academy Honors Four for Major Contributions in Neuroscience, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences

WASHINGTON — The National Academy of Sciences will honor four individuals with awards in recognition of their extraordinary scientific achievements in neuroscience and psychological and cognitive sciences.

Catherine G. Dulac, investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Higgins Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University is the recipient of the 2015 Pradel Research Award.

Dulac is being honored for her work on pheromone signaling in mammals. Dulac has studied the mouse vomeronasal organ (VNO)—a tiny structure at the base of the nasal cavity that senses pheromones—to explore how brains process pheromone signals and gain insight into brain function leading to specific social behaviors. She developed a method to identify the genes that were turned on in individual neurons and isolated a family of genes for VNO receptors associated with pheromones. She then investigated the role that pheromones play in social interactions between the sexes. Her work overturned the belief that the neuronal pathways that lead to mating begin in the VNO—they actually start in the olfactory system. Instead, Dulac discovered, the VNO helps males distinguish between males and females, and represses male behaviors in female mice and female behaviors in male mice. Dulac's group has also used their molecular toolbox to uncover the neurons responsible in mice for guiding male and female parental behavior.

The Pradel Research Award is presented annually to recognize mid-career neuroscientists whose work is making major contributions to our understanding of the nervous system. The recipient is presented with a $50,000 research award to support neuroscience research.

Lisa Feigenson, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University and Yael Niv, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University will receive the 2015 Troland Research Awards.

Feigenson has shed light on many fundamental processes of human cognition and memory by teasing out the limits on what infants and children are able to understand about numbers and the processes that underlie that understanding. She demonstrated, for instance, that infants between 12 to 14 months of age can differentiate between one, two and three objects — but not four. Further experiments showed that the limit of three could be overcome by grouping objects in small sets, allowing infants to remember groups of up to eight objects. This is similar to what adults do to boost their memory, such as breaking up a phone number into three sets of digits. With such work, Feigenson and colleagues have illuminated some of the fundamental cognitive abilities that are in place early in life, which are subject to change as children learn through further experience.

Niv's work has focused on how the brain sorts information, effectively parsing complex environments into relevant, bite-sized chunks that can be acted upon efficiently. With insights from the fields of statistics and machine learning, Niv is developing and testing computational models for how the brain learns what information is relevant to a task and what is a mere distractor, allowing the brain to create simplified representations of tasks that afford rapid solutions. With her colleagues, she has applied these theories to a range of phenomena from human decision making to animal conditioning. For instance, Niv has shown that understanding how the brain parses and represents tasks can help in designing interventions to permanently overwrite and remove unwanted conditioned responses—such as a fear response to a tone that was once paired with a shock—with implications for the treatment of phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Two Troland Research Awards of $75,000 are given annually to recognize unusual achievement by young investigators and to further empirical research within the broad spectrum of experimental psychology.

The J.C. Hunsaker Award, established by Professor and Mrs. Jerome C. Hunsaker, honors excellence in the field of aeronautical engineering. The award includes a $50,000 prize.

Scott D. Sagan, Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, is the recipient of the 2015 William and Katherine Estes Award.

Sagan's work has become an integral part of the nuclear debate in the United States and overseas. He has shown, for example, that a government's decision to pursue nuclear weapons can be prompted not only by national security concerns but also because of domestic political interests, parochial bureaucratic infighting, or concerns about international prestige. Sagan has developed theories about why different types of political regimes behave differently once they acquire "the bomb." Sagan and colleagues have also investigated U.S. public attitudes about nuclear weapons and found that few Americans actually believe that there is a taboo against their use in conflicts. The possession of nuclear weapons also raises the risk of nuclear weapons accidents, and Sagan has shown that even though there has never been an accidental nuclear war, there have been many more close-calls and near-accidents than was previously known.

The William and Katherine Estes Award recognizes basic research in any field of cognitive or behavioral science that uses rigorous formal and empirical methods to advance our understanding of issues relating to the risk of nuclear war. This award was established by a gift of William and Katherine Estes and includes a $20,000 prize.The winners will be honored in a ceremony on Sunday, April 26, during the National Academy of Sciences' 152nd annual meeting.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that was established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and — with the National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council — provides science, engineering, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

Molly Galvin, Senior Media Relations Officer
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail
Twitter: @theNASciences

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