Tallal, Paula

Professor II; Co-Director, Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience
Areas of Interest: 
Cognitive Neuroscience, Language and Central Auditory Processing, Language-learning Disabilities.
My Story: 
Tallal, Paula
Paula watching children work on Fast ForWord training at a public school in Queens, 2005.
As a girl growing up in Dallas, Texas, school seemed to me to be more about your appearance and your boyfriend than your academics. My father devised a system where we would be paid a small sum for receiving A’s and B’s on our report cards, but we would have to pay him if we received a C or below. My parents made it clear that our grades and education mattered and this contract was a good way to motivate us without applying too much pressure. My older sister always did better than me in school until one year when I was the first in the family to receive straight A’s. This was in high school where Science and Math required more abstract thinking. I enjoyed Math and Science but also excelled in English Composition because of a fantastic teacher who taught me how to write essays well. I had no artistic abilities but enjoyed crafts and being in the Art department. My Art teacher took me under her wing, and put me in charge of making scenery for the school play. My parents were going through a divorce, so the Art room was a refuge when I needed it. This influenced my choice to major in Art History at New York University when I attended college.

While I loved having a strong liberal arts education, it seemed that I was on my way to a scientific career. I was fortunate to have an aunt who was a physician who invited me to spend the summer with her during my second year of college. She was a terrific role model. She got me a job in a New York City hospital aphasia unit. This exposed me for the first time to people with neurological disorders. Many had lost the ability to talk, which amazed me because I didn’t know this could result from brain damage or a stroke – this had a profound influence on my interest in language. After that, I got a job at Rockefeller University helping in an experimental Psychology lab and gained lots of exposure to research on animals. I made a connection there to someone who thought I would do well in a research lab at Cambridge University, so I made the trip to England.

While at Cambridge I studied the nursing behavior of rabbits that nurse their bunnies precisely the same length of time each day. Our research pertained to neurotiming and neurobiology of this feat. Rabbits only nurse about three minutes a day so I began to take classes during my extra time. I found my language class particularly interesting so I decided to ask the Chair of the department if I could formally attend graduate school there. He accepted me on the spot but I had one weekend to decide what my dissertation would explore. Remarkably, I found an article by Arthur Benson about children with language disorders that affected me. I thought it was bad enough for an adult to not be able to talk, so it would be horrible for a child. I decided I would study children with developmental language disorders and since I didn’t know much about it, I spent a lot of time scouring the library. When I presented my dissertation idea to the Chair, he liked it; I began my research on auditory and temporal processing issues and the way that affects the way a child’s brain organizes sound.

I didn’t have experience working with children in a formal research sense but I have three younger brothers and had a lot of responsibilities taking care of them. I started babysitting for other families when I was twelve, and I was a camp counselor and swim instructor. When I was in college I started a babysitting service because I discovered parent’s frustration with trying to find a babysitter you could count on and trust. I specialized in infants, which was great because they sleep the whole time and I could study. I had more jobs than I could handle so I referred my friends when I was busy and would even get a little commission for finding them their jobs.

Early on in my career I was a professor at a medical school. I had a PhD but I was a woman so it was difficult to get equal review in terms of accomplishments and appointments. I had to bring in my own salary and start my own research group. Over the years it was evident that I was being under-promoted and I, like the other women teaching in the medical school, was not receiving tenure track jobs. This was extremely disappointing, and unfair, because I had more external grant funding than all the others in my department and I still could not get tenure tracking. So I left for Rutgers Newark. Here I have never experienced that kind of bias based on gender; it has always been about my academic credentials and administrative abilities. At Rutgers Newark I have helped create the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience. Our goal was to have equal numbers of molecular and behavioral scientists but also equal numbers of men and women. There were plenty of outstanding women neuroscientists for us to choose from, so hiring was not a difficult task. Some imply that all the women must be in behavioral neuroscience but it is actually the opposite; more women here work within the molecular level.

Several years ago I was invited to participate on an international project called Science and the Spiritual Quest. I was surprised since I am not guided by a particular religion. Growing up, I was interested in music since my father was a musician, and I sang in choirs -- in the school choir but also every church or synagogue choir that would take me. In the end, I got a diverse religious background. I was amazed when, out of the many academics at the conference, I was chosen to be part of a book about scientists and religion. Phillip Clayton and Jim Shaw, the authors of “Practicing Science, Living Faith”, said my science was humanitarian and the way I integrated science in my life was what they wanted to include in their book. I have never felt a conflict between the questions I ask of science, that sometimes I find are unanswered by spirituality.

My research with children and language has gone against the mainstream and spurred tremendous amounts of research. My long-term goal has always been to improve diagnosis, intervention, and treatment for children who have developmental deficiencies in language and reading. I have helped develop a powerful training method to help strengthen basic cognitive building blocks that language and reading depend on. We created a set of computer programs and ultimately realized we had something that could be very beneficial to children. The Rutgers Technology Transfer office helped us set up our company, Scientific Learning Corporation. Our program, Fast ForWord, helps children with language and reading problems, as well as improving general academic skills. Our programs have affected three million children in forty-four countries.

I never dreamed my career would be so successful. I have worked very hard and feel good about what I have accomplished. My students also make me very proud and I love working with them in the lab; I hope to influence their accomplishments in life. Unfortunately, so many children are not able to perform like my students are and do not meet their adequate yearly progress in literacy or are not being diagnosed and treated for learning disorders. Teachers and clinicians tell me how much they appreciate Fast ForWord and how it has helped them to help these children. To know that I have helped these children is truly the most rewarding feeling.

Please visit www.scientificlearning.com to find out more about Fast ForWord and Brain Spark and how to gain access to these programs.


Transcribed from an interview and edited by Lauren Miller