A researcher’s journey begins with the smallest steps

Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology Ellen Bialystok, of York’s Faculty of Health, is one of five scholars to be awarded this year’s Killam Prize in recognition of her work, which has focused on language acquisition and how bilingualism affects brain development, reported The Globe and Mail April 14.

Bialystok talked to The Globe and Mail about the dynamics of research, how some ideas have to find their time, and her future projects.

Q: How significant is it as a researcher to receive a $100,000 prize? That seems like a lot of money.

A: As a research prize it is enormous. It really is unprecedented in academia to give such a large prize for a body of work. It doesn’t have any restrictions on it. I can use it as I decide to. I haven’t given that much thought. I have a very active lab. We are in the middle of between 15 and 20 different projects.

Q: How do you decide as a researcher what area you will examine next? How much of it is intuition?

A: Research moves forward in teeny-weeny steps and then sometimes at the end of a very long journey that could last 10, 20, 30 years, these steps produce something that seems to be incredible. You look at that last step and say, “Wow, that’s amazing.” You forget about all the steps that led up to it. This is the real art of research, knowing how to stay on the path and follow the evolution of an idea through all of its twists and turns. When we look at a research finding as a breakthrough, for the person who found it, it is anything but a breakthrough. It is years of tedious small steps.

Q: Is there a finding that you have made that you would put in that category?

A: In some sense all of them.

Q: What about the link you found between bilingualism and warding off the effects of Alzheimer’s?

The research on dementia was a real flyer. We had done work on bilingual children and adults. We thought the chances of it working were small, but we got very powerful results.

I’d been doing research for a long time and it wasn’t particularly noticed. At some point we began to change our ideas about the mind – that the mind really does reflect new learning into adulthood. So it became more interesting to think that an experience like bilingualism could have an effect. I had been saying these things for a long time, and quite honestly nobody believed it. Now we understand that the mind is much more flexible than we thought.

Q: What are the next questions you are thinking about?

We have to start seriously tackling “how come?” We know very little about the why. The other thing we are looking at is the process.

We have always looked at bilingual people versus monolingual people. Now we are looking at people in the process of becoming bilingual. How bilingual do you need to be to see benefits?

Bialystok’s breakthroughs

Unlike some other major scholarly awards, the Killam Prize recognizes the career contributions of scholars, rather than a single discovery or piece of research, wrote The Globe and Mail in a sidebar April 14. Ellen Bialystok, one of this year’s five winners, is a psychologist best known for her work in language, bilingualism and cognitive development. Here are three areas of her work that gained widespread attention:

Video gaming and the brain: In one study that gained wide media attention, Bialystok examined how a group of undergraduates performed on tricky mental tasks. The gamers in the group were faster and better – and those who were also bilingual were unbeatable.

Bilingualism and dementia: Bialystok was the principal investigator in a study that discovered fluency in two or more languages may stave off cognitive decline because of the mental agility needed to juggle them. The link was far stronger than suspected, and the finding has since been replicated by other researchers.

Bilingualism as a brain boost: Her most widely cited work is a breakthrough study conducted in 2004 that showed bilingual adults had a cognitive advantage over subjects who were fluent in only one language. The study found that edge lasted well into adulthood.

  • Five university professors were named yesterday as recipients of this year’s Killam Prize, one of the country’s highest honours in the humanities, engineering and sciences field, wrote Canwest News Service April 14. The $100,000-prize was awarded to Ellen Bialystok of York University. The awards were handed out by the Canada Council for the Arts.
  • The winners included Ellen Bialystok, a psychology professor at York University, who is an internationally known researcher in the field of language, bilingualism and cognitive development, wrote The Canadian Press April 13.
  • Killam Prizes reward Canadian researchers who advanced understanding in fields ranging from bilingualism, digital imaging for human disease research, and nuclear physics, wrote CBC News online April 13.

Social sciences: Ellen Bialystok, psychology professor at York University. Bialystok is an internationally known researcher in the field of language, bilingualism and cognitive development, who has developed new methods to study how we learn a second language.

Rapist sentenced to eight years in jail

Daniel Katsnelson (BA ’06), who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting women at York University, was sentenced to eight years in jail on Wednesday morning, wrote CP24.com April 14.

Katsnelson, 27, raped two first-year students in a York dormitory in 2007 during Frosh Week. He pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual assault for the attacks, when he and another man broke into several rooms at the dormitory.

The Crown had been seeking a 10-year minimum sentence. The defence asked for a term of three to five years.

  • A young woman raped by two men who broke into her residence room is suing York University for $3.5 million in damages, alleging it failed its duty to protect students in residences on campus, wrote the National Post April 14.

"At all material times, York University and Vanier College had a contractual duty of care to ensure that the Vanier College residence was reasonably safe," alleges the statement of claim filed in Ontario Superior Court.

The two former students convicted of sexually assaulting the woman, Daniel Katsnelson, 27, and Justin Connort, 27, are also named as defendants in the court documents obtained by the National Post.

Keith Marnoch, a York spokesperson, declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit. In terms of the safety of its students in residences, “we are continually upgrading,” he stressed.

‘Negative atheist’ who taught at York dies at 87

Professor Antony Flew, the rationalist philosopher who died on April 8 aged 87, spent much of his life denying the existence of God until, in 2004, he dramatically changed his mind, wrote England’s Daily Telegraph April 14.

Flew always described himself as a “negative atheist”, asserting that “theological propositions can neither be verified nor falsified by experience”, a position he expounded in his classic paper “Theology and Falsification” (1950), reputedly the most frequently quoted philosophical publication of the second half of the 20th century.

From Oxford, Flew went on to lecture in moral philosophy at the University of Aberdeen before being appointed professor of philosophy at Keele University in 1954. In 1973 he transferred to The University of Reading, where he remained until taking early retirement in 1982. Afterwards, he worked on a half-time basis for three years as professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto.

New research finds infidelity among birds

A new book by a York University professor shines new light on the social and mating habits of birds, dispelling the myth that avian species pair up for life, wrote the online redOrbit Knowledge Network April 13.

“In terms of top 10 myths about birds, the permanent pair bonds that we think about, that does occur for some birds, but for most of the little songbirds that we studied, no,” Bridget Stutchbury, Distinguished Research Professor of Biology in York University’s Faculty of Science & Engineering and the author of the forthcoming book The Bird Detective, told Claire Sibonney of Reuters on Monday.

According to an April 12 York University media release, Stutchbury found genetic evidence of female Acadian flycatchers being fertilized by males other than their mate. During her research, the professor witnessed male birds making visits to the females in the nest.

Furthermore, she discovered that many birds change mates after only a few months, with “divorce” rates nearing 99 per cent for some species, including the greater flamingo.

Top court to deliver landmark ruling on openness

A stone’s throw from Parliament, nine Supreme Court of Canada judges are locked in protracted debate over a case that could blow the veil of secrecy off the Afghan detainee affair, ex-MP Rahim Jaffer’s curious plea bargain and any number of like controversies, wrote The Globe and Mail April 14.

At stake is a right to obtain information from government, and 16 months after the judges retired to consider creating legal history, they are still thrashing out the implications of the case, in which a criminal lawyers’ group seeking a report on a police investigation is arguing that citizens have a right to information held by governments. The case has already gone through the longest gestation period for a judgment since a landmark aboriginal rights case in 1990, a fact that has caused Supreme Court watchers to believe that a dramatic ruling is in the offing.

“The length of time it is taking the Supreme Court to decide the case shows that the judges are well aware that it raises issues of paramount importance and critical timeliness,” said Jamie Cameron, a law professor in York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School. “There are issues that have deep implications for core democratic values – the openness, transparency and accountability of government in all its functions, especially and including those that are most sensitive, like law enforcement and national security.”

Still waiting for a change

Three weeks and 17 pounds later, Dante Ryel (BA Hons. ’08) feels a sense of peace but is disappointed that his hunger strike didn’t do more to draw attention to climate change, wrote the Waterloo Chronicle April 13.

Ryel started fasting near the beginning of March to support Bill C-311, and vowed not to eat until Canada’s climate change accountability act hit the floor in the House of Commons.

The final debate and vote is expected today. The bill sets long-term targets to reduce carbon emissions by 2050. It also requires the government to introduce accountability measures and interim targets.

A York University grad, Ryel quit a teaching job in England and came to live in Waterloo with his brother while he started his grassroots campaign to bring attention to the bill.

On air

  • Karen Burke, professor in the Department of Music in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, spoke about the new television show "Glee", on 680News Radio April 13.