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Nancy Webber
Office of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculties

Cyndi Connelley-Eskine
Office of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculties

Last modified: Monday, November 10, 2008

Scientist, educator and scholar of distinction, Meredith West to present Sonneborn Award lecture

Nov. 10, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind.-- Meredith West, recipient of this year's Tracy M. Sonneborn Award, will lecture on "Observing Birds Observing Birds" on Friday, Nov. 14 at 4 p.m. in Indiana University's Alumni Hall, with a reception immediately following in the Federal Room, both in the Indiana Memorial Union. The lecture is free and open to the public.

"Add to the beauty of a bird's song the grace of flight, and you have, in an evolutionary stroke, achievements humans have envied for centuries. But scientists have even more reasons to look at birds as their communicative behavior serves as an animal model for human language development," explains West, Chancellor's Professor of Psychology and Biology.

West further explains how her lecture will address "How, when, what and why birds sing has captured the attention of a diverse group of investigators and uncovered remarkable example of learned behavior. A major mechanism for learning song is imitation, a process that plays a role for humans as well. Here I discuss a second mechanism, social shaping of behavior as a primary engine for the ontogeny of vocal signals, especially at the babbling stage of development. I will discuss two species with quite different life histories, the brown-headed cowbird and the European starling. Using very different developmental techniques we investigated how the social environment affects the plasticity of the production and perception of communicative signals.

"The results indicate the primary importance of embedding studies of learning in social ecologies, ecologies that vary greatly in social complexity," West continued. "The results show fine-tuned sensitivities of the two species to their social environment and highlight the importance of multifaceted social interactions in building communicative repertoires."

West was selected as the Sonneborn recipient due to distinguishing herself as a researcher, scholar, educator and administrator within the profession for decades. Linda B. Smith, chair and Chancellor's Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, succinctly explains how "Meredith is truly an outstanding scientist who has made unique and significant contributions to biology and psychology. Her research program is innovative and highly original and has a broad impact. The research is also fun, engaging, relevant and compelling to students, reporters and the man in the street. Her research, teaching, mentorship and engagement as a public scholar represent the best of the academy, and its value to society at large."

Her students know West as a professor who inspires and cares about the development of their professional growth and who goes to great efforts to further them. Professor Jeffrey Alberts of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences believes "the same remarkable qualities found in Meredith West's impressive research are evident in her teaching: personalized and fully-committed, extraordinary attention to detail, meticulous and gentle, as well as a style of continuing attention and tracking, akin to her longitudinal approach."

West has received recognition from her peers in her appointments as Fellow of the American Psychological Association, Fellow of the American Psychological Society, and Fellow and President of the Animal Behavior Society. She has spoken at many schools and conferences in psychology, biology, ecology, linguistics, speech and hearing and has addressed more general audiences at the Chicago Humanities Festival, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Woods Hole Laboratories and the Smithsonian.

About the Sonneborn award

The Sonneborn award was established in 1985 by the Dean of the Faculties office to honor an IU professor who has achieved distinction as a teacher and as a scholar or artist. The award is named for the late Tracy M. Sonneborn, an IU biologist who distinguished himself in both teaching and research. Sonneborn came to Indiana University in 1939 and became internationally-known for his biological studies specializing in genetics, as one of three leading geneticists in the country. Sonneborn was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, and was one of the first three IU faculty members to be granted the title Distinguished Professor.

Learn more about West at For more information about the lecture, contact Cyndi Connelley-Eskine, IU Office of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculties, at or call 812-855-9973.