March 22, 2004

Songbird research nets Maney NSF award

By Rachel Robertson

Listening to the pleasant tones of bird song, few people stop to think what the singer might be communicating. Donna Maney thinks about more than that; she looks deeper into the process by studying the neural basis of singing.

Much has been learned over the past 30 years about the brain nuclei involved in the learning and production of song, but Maney, assistant professor of psychology, would like to push that even further and determine how the song system is connected to other brain regions.

"When researchers who study bird song draw a schematic of the brain regions involved, the system is sort of floating in the brain, not connected to anything else," Maney said. "But of course it's the case that songbirds only sing in very precise social contexts--of courtship or territorial behavior. So, obviously, the song system has to be connected to regions in the brain that are involved in motivation and arousal.

"One of the things I'm trying to do is connect the song system with a network of brain regions that is involved in social behavior in general," she continued.

Bird song offers a unique opportunity to study a complex learned behavior because such behaviors, especially vocal learning, are fairly rare in nonhuman animals. Additionally, years of interest in songbirds by ornithologists and laypeople has yielded a plethora of collected knowledge about the social behaviors of more than 4,000 avian species.

Maney joined the Emory faculty in 2002, and her research   is poised to take off now that she has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development award.

"We are so pleased that Donna Maney has received a Career award," said psychology Chair Elaine Walker. "Such awards are competitive, and recipients are among the top young investigators in their field. We are proud of her."

Career awardees not only must boast outstanding research programs but must also develop plans to incorporate innovative teaching into their career goals. It was not difficult for Maney to come up with a teaching focus because she's been working on it since graduate school. As a teaching assistant at the University of Washington, she learned the importance of rewriting when she gave her students an opportunity to revise their work.

"The improvement was really noticeable," she said, "so I made it a mission of mine to teach courses where the students not only have to write--they have to revise, because that's the only way to get better."

Maney didn't waste any time getting started, teaching three courses in the English department that focused on academic writing while she was still a graduate student. Additionally, as a postdoc at John Hopkins University she helped revamp the undergraduate writing program.

But her focus goes beyond improving students' writing. "When you write about a subject, you really are engaged in it, and I want my students to place themselves in the field as participants and write about it," Maney said. "I'm convinced it's the best way to learn."

Although the NSF grant does not start until May, Maney already has begun implementing her teaching plan. Last fall she taught "Hormones, Brain and Behavior," which satisfied the Emory College requirements for a writing-intensive course. This summer she will conduct a two-day workshop funded by the Center for Teaching and Curriculum for psychology faculty interested in teaching writing courses.

Maney's teaching goals also include introducing comparative behavioral neuroscience models (incorporating those of animals) into the psychology curriculum. This semester, along with Lori Marino, senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology, Maney is teaching a behavioral neuroscience course that includes the study of bats, owls, crickets, dolphins and, of course, songbirds, as well as the more typical species of rats and humans.

As to how Maney felt about receiving the award: "Of course there is a huge feeling of relief," she said. "My research will be funded for the next five years, which gets me off to a great start here at Emory. I'm also very honored, because this isn't just a regular research grant. Lastly, I feel challenged; I proposed an ambitious program of research and teaching, and now I have to follow through."