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Nifty Fifty – Bring a Top Scientist to your Middle or High School

Dr. Morton AnnGernsbacher

Years Participated: Nifty Fifty 2014/2015

Nominated by:
Morton Ann Gernsbacher 2014 Nifty fifty speaker university-of-wisconsin-madison logo
Diverse Brains with Morton Ann Gernsbacher


How do our brains differ? How are they the same? These are just two of the challenging questions that Morton Ann Gernsbacher is exploring in her groundbreaking research in cognitive neuroscience. Gernsbacher is especially known for her investigation of the cognitive processes that underlie human communication and the communication challenges that often accompany autism -- work which has taken on increased meaning to her since her son was diagnosed with autism in 1998.

A leading scientist in her field, Morton is the Vilas Research Professor and Sir Frederic Bartlett Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and is most notably recognized for her careful empirical work that often goes against prevailing theories.

She has written and edited professional and lay books, and over 130 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. Currently, she serves as an associate editor for Cognitive Psychology, and has previously held editorial positions for Memory & Cognition, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, and Language and Cognitive Processes, as well as having served as president of the Association for Psychological Science.

Although she was intensely curious about science and the world around as a child, she did not begin to apply her inquisitive nature to the scientific study of human communication until after she began her first career as a high school teacher, she says. "Literally the day after I received my undergraduate degree, I began teaching high school in Dallas, Texas and its surrounding suburbs. I enjoyed a rich, satisfying career teaching English and Spanish, first in an inner city school, then in a rural school, and later in an upper-middle class college preparatory school."

During this time, she decided to take a night course in Human Development at nearby University of Texas, with the goal of learning more about adolescent development -- "a transitional period that had always mystified me."

Taught by a professor by the name of James C. Bartlett, "this was a class that truly changed my life," Morton recalls. "The course was an introductory cognitive psychology class, and I became enamored with the creativity of the course's cognitive experiments, especially how one could carefully manipulate the stimuli and then observe microscopic mental events."

Soon after embarking on her new career in cognitive neuroscience, Morton wasted little time in establishing herself. She began to challenge prevailing views in science that language processing depends upon language-specific mechanisms. She proposed instead that such mechanisms draw upon general cognitive processes in the brain, such as working memory and pattern recognition.

During recent years, she has also focused on the cognitive and neurological processes of people with autism. As a result of investigating the language development of children with autism, Morton theorized, and later established, that some of the speech difficulties associated with young children with autism stem from motor planning challenges, not from intellectual limitations or social impairment. This work has made her a central figure in the field of psycholinguistics and cognitive psychology.

Her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, from the National Science Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control, and private foundations.

She received her Bachelor's of Arts degree from the University of North Texas, her Master's of Science degree from the University of Texas at Dallas, and her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in Human Experimental Psychology. She was a professor at the University of Oregon from 1983-1992 before joining the faculty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she has remained ever since.

Morton's professional affiliations are numerous and include being President of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS), a member of the Advisory Committee to the National Science Foundation, and a member of the Scientific Programming Committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In addition, she is an award winning teacher, who in 1998 received the Hilldale Award for Distinguished Professional Accomplishment, the highest award bestowed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty.

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