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Former IBL PhD-student Michelle Spierings wins prize for best dissertation

Michelle Spierings has been awarded the ‘Glushko Dissertation Prize’ for her thesis work on: ‘The Music of Language: Exploring grammar, prosody and rhythm perception in zebra finches and budgerigars’. The award recognises and honours young researchers conducting ground-breaking research in cognitive science. Spierings gets a 10.000 dollar prize and three years free membership to the Cognitive Science society. The official award ceremony will take place during the CogSci2018 conference in Wisconsin in July.

Michelle Spierings defended her thesis at the Institute of Biology Leiden in November 2016 and was supervised by Professor Carel ten Cate. Her thesis addressed shared aspects between humans and other animals with respect to language. Although humans are the only known species with such an elaborate communication system as human language, this does not mean that other animals are not able to learn particular aspects of language. For example, she found that zebra finches can perceive human intonation patterns and budgerigars can learn simple grammar rules. Finding these shared language-related abilities sheds light on the possible origin and evolution of language.

Michelle Spierings

The jury finds Spierings’s investigations into how birds learn combinations of sounds to be fascinating and compelling. While there were many impressive submissions, her thesis exemplified the cutting edge of cognitive science. Michelle Spierings is very happy to have been awarded the ‘Glushko Dissertation Prize’. As her research is a bit different from the work that has won in the previous years (more human-oriented), she didn’t think her chances were high.

‘It is always a bit of a guess whether people are interested in how birds are perceiving language. So I was really honoured that they decided to award my work. Obviously, my supervisor Carel ten Cate also deserves credits: he guided me through my PhD-project with patience and enthusiasm. He was also the one that suggested me to apply for the Glushko prize. So clearly one of the first things I’ll do with the money is fly to the Netherlands and treat him to a fancy dinner’. - says Spierings

At the moment Spierings is working as a Postdoc in the lab of Tecumseh Fitch at the University of Vienna. She is still working on avian cognition and shared language abilities between different species. In the future, she would like to continue along these same lines of research, and potentially back in the Netherlands, and solve more parts of the fascinating puzzle of the evolution of language.

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