Julia Uddén receives the prize from Minister Helene Hellmark Knutsson. Photo: Emma Burendahl
Julia Uddén receives the prize from Minister for Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson. Photo: Emma Burendahl

Julia Uddén at Stockholm University and Kirsten Leistner at Chalmers University of Technology have been awarded this year’s L’Oréal-Unesco ‘For Women in Science’ Prize. The prize honours promising female researchers at the beginning of their careers in the natural sciences, technology and mathematics, and encourages others to enter STEM fields. Helene Hellmark Knutsson, Minister for Higher Education and Research, presented the award at a ceremony on 6 March.

Julia Uddén has a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from Karolinska Institute. She recently started a research position at the Department of Linguistics and Department of Psychology to work with the Stockholm University Brain Imaging Centre (SUBIC). Before this, she had received a five-year grant from the prestigious Pro Futura program for excellence in research by young scholars. The prize was awarded for the “intellectual boldness of her research, which investigates the development of human language and communication.”

Why do some people communicate better than others?

Julia Uddén researches communication and looks at why some people are better at communicating than others. One of the studies compares the brain activity of adolescents (early- and mid-teens) with the help of brain imaging. The thinking is that the brain’s reaction to simple language or to more complex, less direct language changes during youth. For people with communication difficulties, like autism, less direct language presents a problem. Uddén investigates how the brain’s language-network can be developed at any age to increase people’s ability to communicate, even in people with neuropsychiatric issues. Her work also explores using virtual environments to help people improve their communication.

Passionate about interdisciplinary research

Julia Uddén is an expert in how the brain processes language and communication. She received her PhD in 2012 with a dissertation on the brain’s processing of language sequencing. Afterwards, she became a researcher at Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Holland. She feels passionate about researching at the borders between neuroscience, psychology and linguistics, but keeps one question in mind: Why are some people better at communicating than others?

“I wonder why some people succeed in social situations while others feel constantly misunderstood. There’s research showing what happens in the brain when we learn a new word, but we still don’t understand how we use those words to be understood.”

The five-year Pro Futura grant ensures her the opportunity to fill this gap in our knowledge.

The difficulty of understanding indirect speech

Some situations encourage simpler language. If you want a little fresh and can’t get up, you just say “Please open the window.” Other situations require a less direct approach. In another situation, where you would like someone else to open the window, you might say, “Isn’t it quite warm and a little stale in here?”

“People who have difficulties with communication, as with autism, find it hard to understand this more subtle type of speech. They prefer to always communicate directly and simply. Children also struggle to understand these subtle communication strategies.”

She believes that the brain’s language network needs to be developed, especially if not only in childhood, in order for people to be able to communicate at an adult level. Searching for the brain markers related to communication difficulties could lead to better help for people with these issues.

“A teenager’s brain develops quickly. My idea is to use a virtual environment to provide the necessary training, even if they’re shy,” says Julia Uddén.

She has seen an increased interest in these issues since more adolescents communicate via mobile phones and have less experience with face-to-face conversations. At the same time, she’s quick to point out that emoticons and internet slang are also an important development in contemporary language.

Read more about Julia Uddén, new Pro Futura researcher

More about SUBIC (Stockholm University Brain Imaging Centre)

The other prize winner is Kirsten Leistner, a researcher in chemical reaction engineering at Chalmers University of Technology. Her work seeks a better understanding of how catalysts react differently depending on temperature, promising work that could well lead to the development of better catalysts.

About the prize

This international prize was started by L’Oréal Foundation and Unesco in 1998 to highlight women’s contributions to science. The prize has already drawn attention to more than 2000 women worldwide, of which two later received the Nobel Prize. There are national programmes in more than 50 countries. In the Nordics, there is a L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science Prize in Denmark and Finland.

L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science Prize in Sweden is jointly administered by L’Oréal, the Swedish National Commission for UNESCO, and the Young Academy of Sweden. The Young Academy of Sweden chooses the awardees.