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Princess Laurentien opens new wing of the Max Planck Institute

Princess Laurentien joined Max Planck Institute staff and special guests on 10 June 2015 to celebrate the official opening of the new wing of the institute.
Princess Laurentien opens new wing of the Max Planck Institute

Princess Laurentien plants the Tree of Language

The official opening of the new wing of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics was marked by a day of celebrations on 10 June 2015. The opening ceremony was attended by Her Royal Highness, Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, who planted a tree to commemorate the occasion. The construction of the new wing represents a milestone in the history of the institute, as its state-of-the-art molecular biology laboratories enable researchers from the institute’s newest department - Language and Genetics - to join colleagues from the other departments in the institute’s main building. Bringing linguistics, psychology, neurobiology and now genetics under one roof cements the institute’s position as a world leader in multidisciplinary language research. The new wing also offers improved facilities for all MPI members, including an extended conference room, informal meeting spaces, and new virtual reality, EEG, eye-tracking, and baby labs.

Opening Ceremony

Princess Laurentien with Peter Hagoort (left) and Simon FisherPrincess Laurentien joined MPI staff for a ceremony hosted by MPI Directors Professor Simon Fisher and Professor Peter Hagoort in the new auditorium at the MPI. Also in attendance were Deputy Mayor of Nijmegen Renske Helmer-Englebert and the King’s Commissioner for the Province of Gelderland Clemens Cornielje, as well as many of those who were involved in the design and construction of the new wing, and leading scientists from Nijmegen and beyond. Guests enjoyed the first screening of ‘A Celebration of Language’, a beautiful short film describing the mission of the institute to study language at every level. The film showcases the huge variety of research approaches adopted by MPI scientists, with thoughts on what makes language so remarkable from the directors of the MPI's four departments: Simon Fisher of Language and Genetics, Peter Hagoort of Neurobiology of Language, Antje Meyer of Psychology of Language and Stephen Levinson of Language and Cognition. The first of three guest speeches was delivered by Dr Ludwig Kronthaler, Secretary General of the Max Planck Society, via video. He described the unique position of the MPI as the only institute of the Max Planck Society in the Netherlands and one of only a handful outside Germany. Professor Gerard Meijer, President of Radboud University, praised the close ties between the University and the MPI, which is located on the university campus. Finally Dr Manfred Emmes, Chargé d’affaires ad interim of the Federal Republic of Germany, spoke of the MPI as an exemplar of scientific cooperation between European nations.

The Tree of Language

OpenEventTreeAfter the ceremony, guests gathered outside in the sunshine to witness the planting of the 'Tree of Language' adjacent to the new wing by Princess Laurentien. MPI Managing Director Professor Simon Fisher explained how trees are a recurring feature in the language sciences, from the tree diagrams used to break down sentences into their component parts, to the trees used to illustrate the historical relationships between languages – or the genetic relationships between species. The woodland setting of the MPI was also a guiding influence in the design of the new wing, which aims to create a sense of continuity between the inside space and the forest. The ‘Tree of Language’ is a red oak, and in autumn the leaves will turn a rich red colour.

OpenEventDNAPrepProfessor Fisher guided Princess Laurentien on a tour of the MPI’s research facilities, including the molecular biology laboratories housed in the new wing, and the EEG and virtual reality labs. The Princess, who has a long-standing interest in promoting literacy and is a UNESCO Special Envoy on Literacy for Development, discussed with researchers from the Language and Genetics Department how DNA samples are collected from children with reading and language disorders in order to identify the faulty genes, and how the biological function of these genes is studied in living cells. OpenEventPhDsShe also tried out a virtual reality headset to experience how research participants interact with avatars during experiments run by the Neurobiology of Language Department. To round off her visit, the Princess chatted in the library with MPI directors past and present, junior researchers and PhD students, as well as architects, builders and management staff involved in the construction of the new wing.

A Celebration of Language

OpenEventEichlerIn the afternoon, both researchers and performers took to the stage for ‘A Celebration of Language’, showcasing language as a focus and inspiration for scientists and artists alike. Renowned genetics researcher Professor Evan Eichler from the University of Washington, Seattle gave the keynote lecture ‘What makes us human: insights from a dynamic genome’. Describing his research group’s ongoing exploration of the defining characteristics of the human genome, he ventured that the uniqueness of our species’ cognitive abilities has arisen not just through the accumulation of many tiny genetic tweaks, but also through the emergence of new genes with novel and powerful effects over the size and structure of the brain.

Two Nijmegen-based researchers introduced the creative approaches they are taking to understand how language evolved and is processed in the human brain. Professor Asli Özyürek described how the spontaneous emergence of new sign languages in communities with high numbers of deaf individuals not only illustrates the human drive to communicate using language - even when this cannot be done via speech - but also provides researchers with a unique opportunity to study the birth and early development of a language. Dr Sonja Vernes highlighted the unusual vocal abilities of bats, and the parallels between bat vocal behaviours and human language that may make these animals useful models to pinpoint the genetic and neurobiological innovations that have canalized the evolution of human language capacity.

OpenEventChoirFour very different performances illustrated how language and the human voice have transcended their role in communication to become art forms in their own right. Nijmegen-based chamber choir Mnemosyne performed compositions spanning several time periods and languages, chosen to expose the imaginative, playful, and sometimes highly technical interplay between the dual roles of the voice as both a vehicle for conveying the thoughts of the writer and as a musical instrument. Dutch poet Henk Ester gave a rousing recital of his works, describing how the process of building had been a life-long inspiration to him since growing up amidst the sounds of reconstruction in post-war Rotterdam. OpenEventSignPoetSign language poet Wim Emmerik captivated the audience with his expressive performance of poems in Sign Language of the Netherlands. And closing the event in unforgettable fashion, beatbox artist Hobbit explained how the fundamental beatbox sounds of bass drum, hi-hat and snare are based on the normal speech sounds ‘b’, ‘t’ and ‘k’, before launching into a show-stopping demonstration of how the exquisite control of the vocal tract that evolved for speech can be harnessed to produce extraordinarily convincing imitations of drums, turntables and electronics. At the end of the afternoon, vocal tracts were once again exercised in conversation at a reception on the sunny terrace of the Grotius building, with the gold-tinged façade of the new MPI wing visible through the trees.

Public Open Day

To continue the celebrations marking the opening of the new wing, the MPI will throw open its doors to the public on Saturday 27 June 2015 for an open day where visitors of all ages will be able to learn about the diversity of research taking place at the institute through talks, demonstrations, interactive exhibits and hand-on activities.

Language and Genetics


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