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Dr. Ursula Bellugi '52 Explores New Directions without Boundaries

Dr. Ursula Bellugi '52, a professor and director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, is a pioneer in the study of the biological foundation of language. She is regarded as the founder of the study of the neurobiology of American Sign Language, because her work was the first to show it is a true language, complete with grammar and syntax, and is processed by many of the same parts of the brain that process spoken language. Her work has led to the discovery that the left hemisphere of the human brain becomes specialized for languages, whether spoken or signed, a striking demonstration of neuronal plasticity.

Constantly seeking new avenues for understanding the ties between genes, neural systems, and cognitive functions, Bellugi is currently studying individuals with Williams Syndrome. This puzzling, genetically based disorder leaves language, facial recognition, and social skills remarkably well-preserved in contrast to severe inadequacy in other cognitive aptitudes. The search for the underlying biologicall basis for this disorder is providing new opportunities for understanding how brain structure and function relate to cognitive capabilities. Her website is at http://www.salk.edu/faculty/bellugi.html

What brought you to Antioch College? What was your major? A friend of my family told me about it, and it was the only place I wanted to go or applied to. I did not go for the work-study program, but later felt it was a very important part of development and growth. I majored in what now would be called cognitive development, but felt that the system allowed me to explore many new directions without boundaries and partly write my own ticket in education, and I've done so with delight ever since.

What's your favorite memory of being at Antioch? Oh so many. An important memory: one of the first people I met at Antioch was a lovely young woman, an upperclassman named Coretta Scott. She led us, a group of new green freshmen and women, to integrate the movie theater in Yellow Springs, the ice cream parlor, etc.  And I found out that after leaving Antioch, she met and married a rather quiet minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King! A mutual friend told me in confidence that she had become a major influence on his development as a leader of the civil rights movement, and I can readily believe that.

There were always interesting visitors during my time at Antioch: Pete Seegar, the folk singer used to come and do sing-a-longs in the Glen, and Linus Pauling, winner of two Nobel prizes, one in chemistry in 1954, and later, the Nobel Peace Prize, also visited Antioch frequently for fascinating talks with students.   And in summer time, Arthur Lithgow, John Lithgow’s father, directed a wonderful series of Shakespeare plays. What a delight!

It was altogether a colorful and vibrant campus... One friend we called "hyphen" was Eliot Freemont-Smith, later the official translator for the great writer, Jorge Luis Borges.  ‘Hyphen’ was himself a magnificent writer for the New York Times and the Village Voice, as well as co-founder of the National Book Critics Circle. I loved it that students and faculty (but students especially) were individualistic, strong characters each and developed even further, as free thinkers, irrepressible. My husband and I used to read our respective alumni bulletins. He went to Dartmouth, and I to Antioch. His cohorts seemed to end up in business or other steadfast professions, whereas Antiochians seemed to end up anywhere and everywhere and meander along the way...independent film making, a cartoonist for the New Yorker, a new form of psychotherapy, inventing their own obscure but creative directions in life, or so it seemed to us.  We both preferred reading mine.?

Was there a professor that made a huge impact on your life?  Many.  I loved the lines of Chattergee, who used to say "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there." While at Salk, I worked as a research assistant at the Fels Research Institute, and there met Jerry Kagan, now retired from Harvard and author of a new book “The Temperamental Thread” published by Dana Foundation Press, and our paths have continued to cross many times since professionally.   I did studies of child development, devoured the books of Piaget, and later in life I met him in Switzerland.  What I loved also, was the way in which Antioch encouraged, allowed, fostered young people in an atmosphere in which they can develop their own education, something I'm still engaged in at nearing 80.

If you could bring one thing to the future of Antioch College, what would it be? Keep strong its roots in the educational ideas and policies of Dewey, its free thinking atmosphere, and its fertile ground for allowing and encouraging individual growth through broad self-education.