Biologist Ahana Aurora Fernandez Receives Marthe Vogt Award 2022 for Groundbreaking Research on Bats
News from Oct 28, 2022
Dr. Ahana Aurora Fernandez, a biologist at Freie Universität Berlin, has been chosen as the recipient of this year’s Marthe Vogt Award by the Forschungsverbund Berlin (FVB, Research Association of Berlin). In her doctoral thesis, which she wrote at Museum für Naturkunde Berlin (Berlin’s Museum of Natural History) and Freie Universität Berlin, Fernandez investigated the development of the vocal repertoire of greater sac-winged bat pups in the wild. Among her many groundbreaking discoveries, she found out that – just like toddlers – pups of this bat species go through a stage of vocalization practice referred to as the “babbling stage” – and that this babbling stage has similar characteristics to those in humans. Every year since 2001, the FVB has presented the Marthe Vogt Award worth 3,000 euros to a young female scientist who has written an outstanding dissertation within a scientific area covered by FVB. Dr. Fernandez will be presented with the Marthe Vogt Award at an event held between 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, November 2 at the Leibniz Headquarters, Chausseestraße 111 in Berlin as part of Berlin Science Week. Ulrike Gote, Senator for Higher Education and Research in the State of Berlin, will give the celebratory address.
This year’s award winner, Ahana Aurora Fernandez, is a member of the working group at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin led by Mirjam Knörnschild from Freie Universität Berlin. Fernandez studies the neurogenetic mechanisms involved in vocal learning and flexibility in the ability to imitate sounds in greater sac-winged bats within Knörnschild’s ERC Starting Grant project “CULTSONG.”
Fernandez studied social vocalizations and their development in wild greater sac-winged bat pups in the tropical rainforests of Costa Rica and Panama and analyzed them using innovative methods from the fledgling discipline of comparative biolinguistics. She discovered not only that pups of this social bat species, which is widespread in Central and South America, go through a “babbling stage” just like toddlers, but also that bat mothers respond to this “babbling” with special sounds, changing their vocal timbre (i.e., “color” of voice). This phenomenon can also be observed in humans in the form of “motherese” (i.e., speaking in a soothing sing-song voice). This makes the greater sac-winged bat the only other mammalian species besides humans known to date to possess these abilities.
Fernandez’s doctoral thesis contributes significantly to a deeper understanding of vocal development in humans and the development of human language. Her thesis was awarded the top grade of “excellent” (summa cum laude) by Freie Universität Berlin’s Department of Biology, Chemistry, Pharmacy. The FVB jury stated that in her career to date, Ahana Aurora Fernandez has not only been an extremely productive scientist, publishing results of high originality in numerous articles in renowned scientific journals, such as Science, but that she has also been a dedicated science communicator who uses events and podcasts to share her research findings with the general public.
Fernandez says, “It may seem astonishing to draw parallels between bat pups and humans, but research on vocal development in social mammals helps us to determine and better understand the underlying cognitive abilities and mechanisms of complex communication. My doctoral thesis shows that long-term studies on animals in the wild are a prerequisite for grasping such complex behavior in detail and being able to put the subsequent findings into a broader context.”
Dr. Fernandez will be presented with the 2022 Marthe Vogt Award at an event held between 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, November 2 at the Leibniz Headquarters, Chausseestraße 111 in Berlin as part of Berlin Science Week. Ulrike Gote, Senator for Higher Education and Research in the State of Berlin, will give the celebratory address. The laudatory speech will be given by Mirjam Knörnschild. Media representatives are welcome to attend the award ceremony, as is the general public. A livestream of the event will also be available to watch. Those interested in attending the award ceremony in person are asked to register via email.
The Marthe Vogt Award is given annually in recognition of an outstanding dissertation by a woman still at the beginning of her academic career in a field in which the Forschungsverbund Berlin conducts research. However, the work need not have been carried out at one of its institutes. The seven institutes that comprise the FVB conduct cutting-edge research in areas such as information and communications technology, molecular structures, optoelectronics and lasers, micro system technology, new materials, applied mathematics, molecular medicine and biology, veterinary medicine, biotechnology, and environmental research. The dissertation receiving the prize must have been written at a university in Berlin or Brandenburg.
The award commemorates Marthe Vogt (1903–2003), who researched neurotransmitters and worked at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Hirnforschung in Berlin-Buch, where the Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP) is now located. She is considered a role model not only as an academic, but also as an individual. Because she faced persecution from the National Socialists as a Jewish scientist, she left Germany in 1935 and continued her research in the United Kingdom.Invitation and Program
Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science
Dr. Ahana Aurora Fernandez
Email: Ahana.Fernandez@mfn.berlin.de Forschungsverbund Berlin e.V.
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