“Science in the Classroom” brings linguistics closer to genetics and neurology in London

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Last 6th June, Prof Paloma García-Bellido, Professor in Spanish Linguistics of the University of Oxford, visited students from the Instituto Español Vicente Cañada Blanch in London in the seventh and last session of the programme “Science in the Classroom” for this academic year. 

Paloma García-Bellido summed up a whole professional life devoted initially to a philosophical approach to language aiming at formulating structure and patterns for their application in models of computer intelligence. She next explained how she switched her approach towards the description of the genetic and neurologic bases of language disorders. 

A meeting point between philology, genetics and neurology

Paloma aimed to stress how much her career had been inspired by other scientists, who were pioneers in their fields: Rosalind Franklin and Santiago Ramón y Cajal. According to Paloma, “the aim of talking about Franklin, in a coeducational school, was to emphasise the importance of the use of high-resolution techniques (such as X-rays) without which a hypothesis could not be supported, evidenced and confirmed (such as the double helix of the DNA). By mentioning Ramón y Cajal, I wanted to highlight that Golgi’s staining technique would not be enough if there wasn’t because of an intellect, such as that of Ramon y Cajal, who used these techniques to establish an unquestionable doctrine: a neuron responds to its environment, for instance another neuron, through its membrane by the trafficking of molecules. Thanks to this dogma, the model of the neuronal circuit was established. But undoubtedly, what I tried to achieve by bringing these scientists to the classroom was to pay tribute to the exemplary and generous efforts of all scientists, regardless of sex, who lived before us, in order to trigger a similar behaviour in these students, whose scientific generosity shall also be recognised for generations to come”. 

Both the inspiration from these scientists, who were fundamental pioneers in the fields of genetics and neurology, and the discovery of the first mutations in a gene (FOXP2) linked to language disorders, led Paloma to switch her research approach. She sought to screening patients for the identification of additional genetic alterations and for the better description of the neuronal circuits of the language process. 

This Professor of Spanish Linguistics awoke students’ interest using material from her academic studies, audio recordings and linguistics structures that illustrated some patients’ disorders. According to Paloma, “I was utterly pleased with some concerns raised by the students during my talk. For instance, the fact that a linguistics behaviour may be functional for a while and then suddenly switch to being dysfunctional—such as the Tourettes recording—made a student to ask about why the function of a pool of cells, “the self”, is not constant but changing. There were students concerned about how to prevent any genetic alteration from being passed on to any offspring. Another student approached the issue of solving language disorders from a social perspective, as he reasoned that the responsibility to tackle this issue belonged to the very society, which must prevent any inequality in the distribution of opportunities from happening.” 

Dr Lorenzo Melchor, the FECYT International Scientific Coordinator in London and Coordinator of “Science in the Classroom”, said: “It has been a real pleasure to have someone such as Paloma Garcia-Bellido with her long and diverse scientific career in this programme. Her talk made students think about whether science and humanities are really that incompatible or whether this academic distinction is, to some extent, artificial.” 

Another attendee to this “Science in the Classroom” session was Dr Eduardo Oliver, Research Associate at Imperial College London and Chairman of the Society of Spanish Researchers in the United Kingdom (SRUK/CERU), one of the partner entities of the programme. Eduardo valued his experience as follows: “It was really gratifying to see how students became interested in the issue. Paloma inspired not only these young students but also those who were not that young. She is such a good example of how the interdisciplinary nature of research can be greatly beneficial for society, so she made us understand we can be mistaken in separating Humanities from STEMM disciplines. ‘Science in the Classroom’ is, without a doubt, a great approach to open new generations’ minds as they will be the ones to tackle the societal challenges of the future.” 

Paloma said about her experience in “Science in the Classroom”: “It has been such a very pleasant experience both to listen to the concerns of 16-18 year-old students, and to realise that they are able to understand the challenges that scientists face and the social implications linked to their resolution. I am convinced that the more state-of-the-art scientific information is given to these young students, the more likely will it be for this generation to expand and apply that knowledge for the good of humankind. Given that any effort in this endeavour is yet insufficient, it is really praiseworthy that institutions such as the Spanish Embassy in London, FECYT, SRUK and the Instituto Vicente Cañada Blanch, are taking this responsibility and delivering this programme. I hope ‘Science in the Classroom’ will be an example to follow in other schools in Spain and the United Kingdom.” 

About “Science in the Classroom”

“Science in the Classroom” is a programme organised by the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT) and the Office for Cultural and Scientific Affairs of the Embassy of Spain in London, by which a scientist or an engineer per month visits 14-18 year-old students in the Spanish School Vicente Cañada Blanch in London until the end of the term. This programme is also supported by the Spanish Education Office in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, the Spanish School Vicente Cañada Blanch, and the Society of Spanish Researchers in the United Kingdom (SRUK/CERU). “Science in the Classroom” is embedded in the FECYT line of action related to the promotion of scientific culture and dissemination, and support for internationalization of Spanish science. 

About Paloma García-Bellido

Paloma García-Bellido is Professor in Spanish Linguistics in the Faculties of Medieval and Modern Languages, and Linguistics of the University of Oxford and Fellow of St Cross College. Paloma was born in Madrid, where she obtained a Degree in Philosophy and Humanities in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Next, she carried out her Master’s Dissertation in Hispanic Linguistics in the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC). She obtained a Fulbright Fellowship in 1975 to study at the University of Austin (Texas, US) and Amherst (Massachusetts, US), where she did her Master’s Degree in Linguistics and her PhD. She was appointed in 1980, Lecturer in Linguistics in the University of Milwaukee (Wisconsin, US). In 1981, Paloma gained a Lecturer position at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.  In 1990, she moved to the University of Oxford where she has led different research projects to solve language disorders and engaging for it in a multidisciplinary approach.



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