2003 Donald O. Hebb Distinguished Contribution Award Winner: Dr. Barrie Frost
Barrie Frost is a world-renowned expert in sensory systems neuroscience who possesses the rare talent to effectively and fluidly cross boundaries between disciplines. As a consequence, he is able to take advantage of new avenues of research and make transitions from excellent basic science to concrete and valuable applications. In the citation for award of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, from Concordia University (2000), Dr. Frost was described as having "a psychologist's grasp of perceptual principles, a neurophysiologist's expertise in recording neural signals and analyzing brain circuitry, an ethologist's sense of adaptation to the natural environment and an engineer's feel for the design of information processing and real-time control systems." Dr. Frost's pioneering work in sensory neuroscience has benefited from his wide observations of the natural world and his profound knowledge of neurobiology in order to uncover the neural processing and computations that underlie a diverse range of perceptual and behavioural phenomena from the processing of motion, the visual guidance of locomotion, sound localization, and auditory figure/ground segregation to the neural mechanisms that guide bird and butterfly migration.
Born in New Zealand, Barrie trained first as a primary teacher and obtained his Teacher's Certificate in 1959. Following completion of a Bachelor's (Hons) and Master's degrees in Psychology from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, he traveled to Dalhousie University in 1964 where he completed his PhD in 1967 under the joint supervision of the late Drs. Werner Honig and Lorin Riggs (Brown University). Barrie then completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Dr. Gerald Westheimer at the University of California, Berkeley. There he met and formed lasting friendships with Drs. Michael Land (Sussex) and Ken Nakajima (Harvard) as well as other members of the extremely strong vision group at Berkeley at the time. The discussions he held there with these individuals had a lasting impact on his research. In 1969, Barrie accepted a position in the Psychology Department at Queen's University where he has remained ever since apart from the many visits he has made to collaborate with colleagues abroad.
Arguably, at the root of Barrie's success as a scientist has been his ability to synthesize his knowledge of the behaviour of animals in their natural habitats with classic (and sometimes forgotten) observations in perceptual psychology. Also, for Barrie, selection of the best animal model to solve a difficult research problem is crucial and often has explanatory ramifications over the entire spectrum of life. The major threads of his research interests became evident shortly after he arrived at Queen's, as did his ability to extend basic work in the laboratory to real-world applications. A particularly noteworthy example of the latter was his invention of a tactile substitution device for the deaf that presents sound vibrations to the skin so that users can recognize environmental sounds and even human speech. This innovative work drew heavily upon his knowledge of tactile perception and of van Bekesey's work in audition.
A major focus of Barrie's fundamental research has on motion perception and the mechanisms by which motion is processed in the brain. His appreciation of the importance of the relationship between a stimulus and its background rather than the absolute magnitude of the stimulus itself led to his ground-breaking observations of neurones that code for relative motion. Barrie's work on pigeons has disclosed how the visual motion of objects (and animals) is distinguished from motion of the image produced by eye, head, and body movements. This line of inquiry has produced major discoveries which include the identification of (1) specialized brain structures and mechanisms that respond only to moving objects; (2) populations of neurones that compute the variables governing timely escape from approaching objects (time-to-collision); and (3) other structures that extract self-produced visual motion which control posture, balance, and locomotion. Frost's pioneering work on the visual guidance of locomotion in pigeons, owls, and other birds has significance far beyond avian physiology. He has demonstrated that the avian visual system provides a wonderful model for all vertebrate vision because it contains most of the structures common to all vertebrates, organized in similar if not homologous parallel pathways.
A second major avenue of research for Barrie has been on audition. Using a broad range of research techniques, including single-cell recording, computer-generated stimuli, psychophysics, and detailed mathematical analysis, Barrie and his colleagues have studied neural mechanisms for sound localization, auditory figure/ground segregation, and similarities in the neural computations for stereophonic hearing and stereopsis.
Underlying Frost's phenomenal productivity is his engineering virtuosity. When his experimental goals require equipment that does not exist, he builds it. Many innovative devices in his laboratories have been constructed in workshops at Queen's University, enabling him to pursue projects beyond the reach of many other researchers. Moreover, he is quick to seize upon newly developed technologies in order to approach research issues that cannot easily be addressed by existing methods. For example, Frost and his colleagues are intensively studying how fundamental perceptual principles can be exploited to produce virtual realities and simulators. These are used for innovative scientific research on problems that could not be "cracked" by conventional methods, and for the development of technologies that can be applied to both educational and industrial teleoperational use. The Virtual Reality Lab, which he and his team have designed and built, allows them to manipulate relationships between visual, auditory, and balance cues and other senses. His group is also employing new technologies that have made it possible to record single neural brain activity and behaviours in awake, naturally behaving animals, resulting in measures of unprecedented accuracy and richness.
One ambitious new project, closely linked to his wok on motion and making use of virtual reality technology as well as complex mathematical correspondence theory, is the neural basis of conspecific recognition. Recognition is required for familial bonding and imprinting, which must occur at critical periods in the lives of animals, with far reaching repercussions for survival. A second new initiative involves Sooty Shearwaters, seabirds that make migrations over distances of at least 50,000 km, returning with unfailing accuracy to the same mate and burrow. The focus of study here is on discovering what neural mechanism guides the birds in their unerring navigation, including how information from their sun compass, star compass, and magnetic compass are first detected and then integrated with visual and olfactory landmarks. The birds are tracked by the Argos satellite system and Frost's team has developed a miniature GPS tracking and data-logging device. Already providing vital information for ongoing behavioural ecology studies and conservation efforts to Shearwaters and Albatross, the study will also extend understanding of global atmospheric events (La Nino/La Nina), which these birds' behaviour appears to predict ahead of current meteorological observations. A third recent research initiative has been to build a flight simulator to bring monarch butterfly migratory flight behaviour into the laboratory. This ingenious device has captured long segments of the monarch's migratory flight, and has produced the first clear evidence of their use of a "time-compensated sun compass" and sensitivity to simulated magnetic fields during migration.
During his career Barrie has received numerous honours including the Rutherford Scholarship of the Royal Society, the National Health Scholar Award, the James McKeen Cattel Award, the Queen's University Prize for Excellence in Research, and the Queen's Alumni Prize for Teaching Excellence in the same year (1993)! He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the American Association for the advancement of Science, and the Canadian Psychological Association, and in 1995 was named the first Max Bell Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. The Max Bell Foundation supports outstanding researchers in pioneering initiatives that can be expected to make important contributions and are likely to have an impact on the lives of Canadians. In 1996 Dr. Frost was awarded the Alexander von Humboldt Research Prize in Germany and late last year he was named one of the three finalists of the 2002 NSERC Herzberg Medal, the most prestigious scientific prize in Canada.
Dr. Frost's energy, enthusiasm and skill continue to drive an internationally renowned research program. What cannot adequately be conveyed by a description of his research accomplishments, however, is his generosity in nurturing and promoting others' research. Far from jealously guarding his work, he freely shares it and disseminates it where it will do the most good. He has shown a particular genius for forming strong collaborative relationships with other research labs nationally and internationally. He is driven by the big, difficult questions, and continues to break new ground. Barrie has also provided valuable leadership and guidance as a member of many scientific advisory panels including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council's grant selection and other committees, Medical Research Council committees, the Research Council of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (he was chair of the CIAR Advisory Committee on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics), the U.S. National Academy of Science Workgroup on Tactile Vocoders, and the 1997 NIH Space Neurolab Project Selection Committee.
As one of the country's most innovative scientists and one who possesses an unusual talent for conveying his contagious enthusiasm for sensory neuroscience, Barrie richly deserves the CSBBCS Hebb Award!