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Dyslexia is believed to affect as many as 43.5 million Americans. Sargent College linguist and neuroscientist Tyler Perrachione applies a novel integrated approach in his studies of language impairment, and his research findings suggesting that core brain differences underlie the condition have attracted widespread attention.
Perrachione, a newly appointed assistant professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences and director of SAR’s Communication Neuroscience Research Laboratory, got an unexpected career boost in late August when he was named one of three recipients of a Peter Paul Career Development Professorship. As a researcher in a comparatively young, vitally important field, Perrachione says his appointment will allow him “to try novel, cutting-edge ideas” to explore the connections among dyslexia, autism, and the way the brain processes sound in learning to read.
Perrachione “is an incredibly well-trained scientist, who is innovative, creative, and extremely hard-working,” says Gloria Waters, former SAR dean and now BU vice president and associate provost for research, noting that he already has 11 publications to his credit, including a paper in Science for which he was first author.
Two other young faculty were chosen for the professorships: John Marston, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of archaeology and anthropology, and Erin Reid, a School of Management assistant professor of organizational behavior. Selected by the Office of the Provost, the Peter Paul Professorships are awarded each year to a small number of talented young educators who are emerging as leaders in their fields. Made possible by a gift from BU Trustee Peter Paul (SMG’71), the positions include a three-year nonrenewable stipend to support scholarly or creative work and a portion of recipients’ salaries. Nominated by the deans of their respective colleges, the recipients must have been at BU for no more than two years and have held no previous professorships.
“These talented new faculty members are helping to define the future for their fields of study, making substantial scholarly contributions and bringing passion, energy, and a spirit of exploration to their classrooms that inspire students to excel,” says University Provost Jean Morrison.
In a climate of severe federal budget cuts and soaring competition for foundation grants, research funding often comes with explicit constraints. But the Peter Paul Professorships offer young faculty a chance to work, unrestricted, on the kinds of new projects—like Perrachione’s fresh take on dyslexia—that might otherwise be passed up for significant awards.
“There’s a big disconnect between what the general population understands about dyslexia, and the science,” says Perrachione, who earned a master’s in linguistics from Northwestern University and a doctorate in neuroscience from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His interdisciplinary work will combine brain magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalography with behavioral studies. “Most people assume it’s a problem with vision, but it’s also a problem of how the brain treats the sounds of language,” he says. Dyslexics not only have difficulty decoding and spelling words, they are often unable to distinguish fine distinctions among sounds.
While working toward his doctorate, Perrachione developed a theory that phonological impairments widely thought to be characteristic of dyslexia may reflect a more fundamental deficit, a decreased brain plasticity—the ability to adapt to new stimuli—in the regions supporting the learning of reading. To test the theory, he had a group of dyslexic young adults and a control group of nondyslexic subjects learn to recognize a series of strangers’ voices in English and Mandarin, a language Perrachione happens to be fluent in. While the adults without dyslexia predictably fared better naming the English speakers than the Mandarin speakers, the dyslexic adults were no better at recognizing the English speakers than at identifying the Mandarin. These findings, described in a New York Times article, are the foundation for Perrachione’s work at BU, which will probe the neurological differences in how dyslexics learn, with the hope that science can eventually yield “some kind of measure of the dyslexic brain” and a way of diagnosing the problem earlier than school age, when it is usually identified over a period of two to three years.
In just one year at CAS, Marston, “Mac” to friends and colleagues, “has proved to be an excellent teacher and is already serving as a mentor to half a dozen PhD students and several undergraduates who are working in his Environmental Archaeology Laboratory,” says Mary C. Beaudry, a CAS professor and chair of archaeology. Marston’s Peter Paul Professorship will enable him to complete a book as well as to expand his work on climate adaptation and environmental change in the ancient Mediterranean and the Near East. In his first year at BU the assistant professor was one of 33 participants in a National Science Foundation–National Space and Aeronautics Administration symposium on climate change.
“My general research area is agricultural sustainability,” Marston says. He is analyzing plant and animal remains from several sites in Turkey dating from the Iron Age (1200 to 550 BC) to the Middle Ages (AD 500 to 1500). “I look at these remains and figure out what people were growing, whether they were sedentary or moving around, and try to apply those findings on a much broader scale.”
Marston’s Peter Paul Professorship will support two climate change–related research projects. One is a chemical analysis of recovered bones to study the movement of herd animals. Sifting through ancient debris of seeds and other plant matter, “we can look at what they were growing—native wheat and barley, which grow quite well, or crops like cotton and rice, which required irrigation” in these arid and semiarid regions, says Marston, who earned master’s and doctoral degrees in archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Studying these changes on the larger political and economic scale—for example with the spread of the Roman Empire—we can determine whether they were using tried-and-true strategies or growing riskier crops for the Empire’s armies or cities.” He plans to extend his research to several regions in Israel. The data will allow him to reconstruct how ancient peoples adapted to climate changes.
His second study will probe ways in which agricultural systems can be adapted to climate changes. These findings will “translate to the present in terms of climate change and globalization,” Marston says, noting that Turkey today produces stable crops like wheat for its own consumption and high-risk ones such as onions, which require irrigation, for export to European markets.
For Erin Reid, entering her second year as an assistant professor at the School of Management, the Peter Paul Professorship is the latest in a string of academic awards and accolades. Focusing on gender equality and identity dynamics in the workplace, Reid has five publications, two in A-level journals, with one forthcoming in the European Business Review. “Her future trajectory positions her for an outstanding contribution to her discipline,” says Kenneth Freeman, Allen Questrom Professor and Dean of SMG. Reid, who earned master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology and organizational behavior at Harvard University, says the professorship will “be really helpful in terms of freeing up time to write.”
In her research, she has been investigating how men and women cope with “time-intensive” work—jobs requiring commitments far exceeding the normal 40-hour workweek. Her study of men employed by a particularly demanding consulting firm seems to belie the cultural assumption that men and women handle high work demand differently. “My research shows men are not really that different from women,” who have been studied more extensively, says Reid. “They struggle with having to work 80 to 100 hours a week, but unlike women, to whom the firm offered formal arrangements such as leaves of absence and opportunities to cut back to part-time, men used informal arrangements, like working at home more.” Employers policed men’s time a lot less than they did women’s, she says, citing as an example a male employee who would do business from his ski chalet in between runs. “The main message,” she says, “is that while women are offered formal coping mechanisms and men are not, through informal arrangements, men get to the same place.”
“We envision great things” for Perrachione, Marston, and Reid, Morrison says. “We are excited to support their development as outstanding professors.”