Did you know that there are over 7000 different languages spoken around the world? And yet everyone’s brain is the same. How does our brain process language in such a way that it is usually a completely natural and ‘everyday’ task? And yet, if language is a natural task for our brain, why is it so difficult to learn a new language as an adult?
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Professor Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of SA, who is answering those exact questions!
The Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory is a large space within Building H on the Magill Campus.It has a sleep room and several other testing rooms where subjects can be hooked up to what look like swimming caps decorated with jewels (that also just happen to have wires attached to them). The ‘swimming caps’ are able to record electrical brain activity while subjects are watching movies, sleeping or recalling the shapes or colours that just flashed up on the computer screen.
Ina was born in Germany and grew up from the age of 7 in the beautiful isle of Tasmania. Being able to speak fluent German and English, Ina was fascinated by language from a very early age.This passion and curiosity led her to her first field of study - Computational Linguistics.This area of research specialises in designing computers that can use spoken language.
Think about Siri directing you to the café or office when you are running late to a meeting because you can’t find its exact location or the voice in your car telling you to “turn left at the next exit” – that is what computational linguistics does.
Designing computers to talk is one thing but how do our brains interpret and gain meaning and understanding from language? What are the basic mechanisms the brain uses to process information?
Sure, Siri can answer your question about the weather forecast for today or transcribe a text message for you but she doesn’t truly understand its meaning.Siri doesn’t process language in the same way our brain does.
It was this combined interest in language and how the human brain processes language that led Ina to study her PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany.After completing her PhD, Ina was appointed head the Max Planck Research Group “Neurotypology”. At the age of just 29 she became a Professor in Neurolinguistics at the University of Marburg Germany and then, most recently, in 2014 Ina moved to Adelaide with her husband to take-up her current position at the University of SA.
Being a young research team leader and Professor has not always been easy, and there are times when a few more years’ life experience would have helped enormously, but Ina has never doubted her passion, curiosity or the science she was researching. She has always persisted and been determined to overcome any barriers that may have held her back.
Next month Ina will travel to Vienna to be a panellist in a debate on Language and Big Data.She will travel overseas again in June/July as she has been invited to the Netherlands to join a panel tasked with ‘asking the new big questions about language’. From there, she travels back to her homeland, Germany, to deliver a public lecture at the opening of a new research “Centre of Excellence”.
It is this connectedness with international colleagues and professionals that Ina recommends to other women striving to achieve amazing things and progress their careers.She suggests that you “build a network on a global scale”. This allows you to leverage a vast pool of experiences and different perspectives when facing a difficult or challenging decision or issue that you are managing.
This connectedness is also important for mentorship. One of Ina’s first mentors was her PhD supervisor who was a very powerful woman in science. It was her success and guidance that showed Ina it is possible to rise to the top of your field
Outside of work Ina enjoys spending time on her property in the hills with her husband.Whilst they don’t have any domestic pets, Ina is happy to welcome the resident koala’s and native bird life to the property. She also enjoys bushwalking and is hoping to do the the 5-day hike on Kangaroo Island in the not too distant future.
Congratulations Ina on all your amazing career achievements already - you are an inspiration. Women In Innovation are looking forward to seeing where your research takes us in the future.
Interviewed and written by Paula Turbill – Women In Innovation Executive Board Member