Dr. Gabriella Vigliocco is Professor of Psychology and Language Sciences in the Department of Experimental Psychology at University College London. There, she is also Director of the Cognition and Language Laboratory and Director of the Leverhulme Doctoral Training Programme in the Ecological Study of the Brain. In addition, Gabriella is a Scientist in Residence at the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute in Philadelphia. Gabriella completed her Bachelor of Science at Padua University and Ph.D. degree at the University of Trieste in Italy. Afterwards, she conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Arizona. Before joining the faculty at UCL, Gabriella served as a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin and a visiting scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Throughout her career, Gabriella has received various awards and honors, including being awarded a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award, being named a Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society, and being named a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Sciences.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:36)
When she’s not working, Gabriella enjoys spending time with her 15 year old son, cooking delicious Italian and fusion dishes for family and friends, reading science fiction and fantasy books, and listening to classical music concerts.
The Scientific Side (6:12)
Gabriella’s lab studies how children learn language and how adults use language. She is interested in determining the mechanisms in the brain that allow us to produce language, understand language, and create representations in our thoughts. Her work spans spoken languages and sign language, and she also works in various populations to better understand how language abilities break down after brain damage.
A Dose of Motivation (8:25)
“A good scientist is a person in whom the childhood quality of perennial curiosity lingers on. Once he gets an answer, he has other questions.” – Frederick Seitz
What Got You Hooked on Science? (11:25)
Gabriella grew up in a small village in rural Italy at the foot of the Alps. During her childhood, she wasn’t particularly interested in science; however, as Gabriella began considering options for her undergraduate education, she was eager to leave home and experience living in a new place. She chose to pursue a degree in experimental psychology because it gave her an opportunity to move away from home and enroll at the University of Padua. Through her coursework, Gabriella discovered she was fascinated by the brain, and she became especially interested in cognitive neuropsychology. She planned to get a job after graduating college, but she also followed the advice she was given to apply to a PhD program as well. While her job applications didn’t pan out, she was admitted into an experimental psychology PhD program. As a graduate student, Gabriella was interested in developing a mechanistic understanding of speaking. When she heard that one of the leading scientists in this area Dr. Merrill Garret would be at a nearby conference, she knew she couldn’t let this opportunity pass her by. Gabriella reached out to the conference organizers to see if she could sneak into the conference to find and talk to Dr. Garrett. This conversation led to her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Arizona and launched her international research career.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (24:34)
Though Gabriella has advanced in her scientific career, she still struggles with getting papers and grants rejected as well as imposter syndrome. Focusing on her successes and remembering that her life is not only defined by her lab are both things that help her stay positive and keep moving forward. Being flexible and being able to adapt are critical in life and in research. Gabriella has enjoyed some fantastic opportunities but also unexpected difficulties. She became a single mother when her son was only three weeks old, and a few years later, she had a major health scare of her own. Gabriella made it through these challenging times by being flexible and having a great network of friends and colleagues to support her.
A Shining Success! (27:18)
Celebrating the big and small successes of her lab members is really important to Gabriella. She recently received the news that an abstract written by one of the undergraduate students in her labs was selected as the best abstract for a major international conference. This gave Gabriella an amazing sense of pride. Not long before, one of the postdocs in her lab received a job offer for a lectureship position, and this was another exciting success. Prior to the pandemic, Gabriella used to bring cake to their lab meetings to celebrate each success, and they have a lot of catching up to do in terms of celebration cakes when the group is able to get together again.
Book Recommendations (4:10)
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Most Treasured Travel (29:57)
Many years ago, Gabriella traveled to Japan with a delegation from UCL to visit a company in Kyoto. Afterwards, Gabriella went to Koba to visit a colleague there. Staying in a traditional Japanese hotel outside of Kyoto, sampling traditional Japanese food, and going to the public bath all made this trip particularly memorable. Also, the architectural contrast was striking, and she remembers seeing a peaceful temple right next to a bustling western shopping mall. When she was in Koba, people eagerly approached her on the street hoping to practice speaking with her in English. More recently, Gabriella has enjoyed many trips to Philadelphia to visit colleagues at the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute (MRRI). She loves the size and the buzz of the city, and MRRI is a fun and welcoming place to visit.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (32:47)
Gabriella’s lab has a wonderful tradition of going on lab walks together to explore different places in the Greater London area. They typically go on one walk during the summer and one around Christmas in the winter. The group plans the route so they can stroll through parks, woods, and fields, and they make sure the endpoint of each of their walks is set at a great gastropub.
Advice For Us All (36:09)
Follow your nose. Don’t base your research on what is trendy or what other people say you should study. If you pursue the questions you are most interested in, you will be much more motivated and perhaps more likely to discover something new. Also, for parents who are trying to balance work and raising a child, don’t be afraid to invest in good quality childcare. Doing so will allow you to feel more relieved and focused at work because you’ll know your child is receiving great care. Then you can enjoy the rest of your time when you are with them.
Gabriella’s research focuses on the cognitive and neurobiological basis of human communication and how, through communication, humans can learn about new objects and ideas – including imaginary worlds. More specifically she is interested in how we learn and process language in face-to-face, real-word settings, how our semantic knowledge interfaces with perception, action and emotion and how these systems are recruited during language learning. Her current efforts focus on the study of language and cognition in their ecology. She also leads an interdisciplinary PhD programme (the Ecological Brain programme) aiming at training graduate students in real-world research.
Her work is interdisciplinary, bringing together theoretical insights from psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, philosophy and computer science. She uses methods from psychology, cognitive neuroscience and computational modeling, integrating evidence from different languages and different populations (adults, children, deaf individuals using British Sign Language, as well as individuals who have developed aphasia or apraxia after brain damage).
Outside of work, Gabriella loves to spend time with family, friends and cook. Watch out for a fusion cuisine recipe book coming out shortly after she finishes her next sabbatical!