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VOLUME 13, NUMBER 02 • OCTOBER 5, 2001

Rockefeller hosts workship on bird song

The Rockefeller University Field Center in Millbrook, N.Y., was the site of this year's birdsong workshop.

The Sixth Annual Bird Song Workshop was held July 10 and 11 at the Rockefeller University Field Research Center in Millbrook, N.Y. The meeting brought together a diverse group of about 60 researchers.

"Studying bird song might seem very provincial, but it promotes so much integration of approaches," says Fernando Nottebohm, Dorowthea L. Leonhardt Professor and director of the center.

"People come to vocal learning from a multitude of directions. There are questions of behavioral analysis, of circuitry, of hormonal regulation of the song system, and of neurophysiology. There also are molecular approaches--which genes are activated at what times--and cell biological approaches that deal with neuronal replacement. It's one of the few fields where you can follow a neatly cobbled path through so many levels of analysis, all married to an interesting behavioral question. I like to think that this kind of integration is a model for the future of the neurosciences."

Eighteen talks over the two days represented this range of approaches, addressing, for example, questions about the evolution of vocal learning and of the structures that enable vocal learning. Other speakers talked about the physics of song production, how sounds are represented in the brain, and the use of immediate-early genes to visualize pathways involved in the production of various sounds. Still others focused on variables that govern neuronal survival and replacement in juvenile and adult song systems and the possible relation of neuronal replacement to learning.

It was the third time the workshop has been held at the Field Research Center. "One of the things people enjoy about having the meeting at Millbrook is the informality, the feeling of being in a summer place," says Nottebohm. "All these things end up providing a good atmosphere."

The meeting also owes its congenial nature to long-term friendships and intellectual ties. The community of researchers working on the ethology, molecular biology and neurobiology of vocal learning traces its family tree back to Peter Marler, who was a Rockefeller professor from 1966 to 1989. The lineage continues today at Rockefeller in the Nottebohm laboratory and at the California Institute of Technology in the laboratory of Mark Konishi. Both Nottebohm and Konishi were students of Marler before he came to Rockefeller. All but four of the presenters at the workshop were connected through doctoral or postdoctoral research to these laboratories.

Nottebohm adds that the informal meeting is friendly because "song learning has not been an intensely competitive field. There are so many approaches that people tend to work together. The likelihood of two people working on an identical project is very, very small."

 

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