Carnegie Mellon University's Barbara Shinn-Cunningham received the George A. and Helen Dunham Cowan Professorship in Auditory Neuroscience at a ceremony Nov. 6. The event was part of CMU's first Neuro Week, a celebration of innovations in brain research.
"Barb is 'so CMU.' She's an interdisciplinary researcher who is doing ground-breaking work at the intersection of technology and humanity. Barb's approach to her research exemplifies the future of science," said Rebecca W. Doerge, Glen de Vries Dean of the Mellon College of Science. "She's also a visionary leader, whose ingenuity and enthusiasm will elevate neuroscience at the university during this transformational moment for science at CMU."
Shinn-Cunningham joined CMU in 2018 as the director of the Neuroscience Institute. She also holds courtesy appointments in the Psychology, Biomedical Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering departments. Her research combines behavioral, neuroimaging and computational methods to understand how the brain processes sound.
"Barb is renowned scientist, a great leader and a generous mentor," said Richard Scheines, Bess Family Dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. "Her collaborative spirit, strategic thinking, interdisciplinary experience, and scientific acumen form a great combination of skills that make her an outstanding scholar and a perfect choice to lead the new Neuroscience Institute."
Alumnus George Cowan and his wife, Helen, established the chaired professorship. After Cowan earned a doctoral degree in chemistry at Carnegie Institute of Technology, he went to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory during World War II, where he served as the research director from 1949 to 1988. He received the Enrico Fermi Award for a lifetime of exceptional achievement in the development and use of energy and was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The Cowans shared many interests, including a love for New Mexico, the natural environment, the arts and the welfare of children. In addition, their interest in enhancing children's abilities to learn drove the Cowans to support the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC), a joint institute between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. George Cowan served as a CNBC advisory board member and guiding force until his death in 2012.
"I am honored that the chair enables me to take risks on potentially high-payoff projects that are too speculative to be supported by traditional grant mechanisms, and to develop lines of research that I could not otherwise pursue," Shinn-Cunningham said.
She plans to use funding from the chair to support research on brain stimulation and its effect on control of attention, as well as fund graduate students to assist in these goals.
Shinn-Cunningham has received honors from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Whitaker Foundation and the Vannevar Bush Fellows program. In 2019, she accepted the Helmholtz-Rayleigh Interdisciplinary Silver Medal in Psychological and Physiological Acoustics, Speech Acoustics, and Architectural Acoustics. She received the biennial Mentorship Award from the Acoustical Society of America and is a fellow of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineers. She is an associate member of the National Research Council and has been elected vice president of the ASA and to the governing board of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology.