Back in June I had the pleasure of introducing the Hebb Award winner, Sara Shettleworth. The Hebb award is given by the Canadian Cociety for Brain, Behaviour and Cognitive Science for distinguished contributions to experimental psychology. It is basically a lifetime acheivement award. Well, this years' winner was Sara. I did my PhD (and MA) with Sara at U of T. So, I was asked to introduce her. I rarely write such things in advance, but hell, I did not want to screw this up. Sara will be publishing a paper based on her talk, but my intro won't be part of it. Wait, I have my own publishing outlet, right here, so umm yeah here it is.....
I am really happy to be up here today to introduce Sara Shettleworth.
I imagine that most of us here take for granted the idea that evolution and cognition go together. Indeed, it would seem almost to be a given that our (meaning all animals’) cognitive systems are the products of natural selection. It would probably surprise many of you to know this way of thinking was not always the case. Oh sure, we all knew it, but nobody really paid attention to it.
I would think it would surprise you even more to know that this was the case in people studying animal cognition. Again, we all knew about the importance of natural selection, we just didn’t put that knowledge into practice.
This all changed in the past few decades, and one of the reasons was the work done by Sara, among others. Her 1972 paper ‘Constraints on Learning’ was, to use a cliché, a game changer. I once asked her about this paper, as I figured she wrote in while a grad student. Her characteristic reply was ‘Oh I was just in the right place at the right time’. (Sara has never been much on ego, indeed, when John Krebs was visiting our lab and we showed him my MA data he said ‘Brilliant’. Sara said ‘well yes, his birds are…..’)
The idea of integrating ecology and psychology has been a running theme in Sara’s career. I think many people who study only boring humans think that those of us who study animals just study a single species (rats, or, more exotically, pigeons). I remember Sara telling Rob Hampton and I that she was at some ornithology conference somewhere and a person asked her what species she studied. Her reply was ‘I study problems, not species’.
The idea of constraints on learning and cognition (due to evolution) and the study of adaptive specializations lead to a number of theoretical works such exemplified by my favourites, 1993’s ‘Where is the Comparison in Comparative Cognition”.
I was in Sara’s lab from 1988 – 1993, and near the end of my time there Sara started talking about her book. This book, which came out in 1998 (the second edition came out in 2010), Cognition, Evolution and Behavior, is probably the most important book in the field of comparative cognition. It integrates ecology and cognition in an almost seamless fashion. Indeed, one might say in a Hebbian fashion…
Sara always gave credit to her students, and was always telling us (or maybe just me) ‘you need to end that paper with more PR, you did some really great work there’. I use that phrase with my students today. She took us to conferences, even as MA1 students, and sent us to others. In 1991 or 92 we were at psychonomics together. Of course I, as a grad student, could not present, but she could, and she presented some of my data. (I was listed as first author of course). Now, on this trip the airline had lost my luggage. Being the early 1990s, I was dressed in big black boots with chains hanging off of them, jeans with holes in the knees, a black beret and a t shirt with some band’s name on it (for that was the style at the time…) I had not changed in 24 hr, and, umm, I may have been drinking the night before. So, Sara is presenting my stuff, and someone asked a question, I think it was Ron Wiseman. I looked at Sara up there and though ‘well, she knows this stuff as well as I do, I am sure the answer will be good’ and she says ‘this really is Dave Brodbeck’s work, you should ask him, stand up Dave’. I stood up, answered the question, semi-coherently, and sat down. It was only later that I realized, getting over my shock and fear…. that most of the presenters did not do that, they just answered the questions. She was giving me credit, and promoting me, and that was pretty cool, if unnerving as hell.
She always treated our opinions as important. Did she guide us along the way, of course, that was her job, but she did take our input seriously. I remember being at U of T for a week, and Sara giving me her NSERC grant and asking my opinion. I read it thinking ‘umm, what the hell does she want my thoughts for?’ I think I ended up saying the font was nice…..
I could stand up here for hours and tell you all stories about Sara, but I already did that with Rob Hampton in 2008 when Sara was honoured by the Comparative Cognition Society. Plus, I want to hear what Sara has to say.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great privilege, and honour, to introduce the 2012 Hebb award winner, Sara Shettleworth.