Behavior Analysis receives $3.2 million for brain research

Monday, August 1, 2005

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- In 1977, Sigrid Glenn read the research of Beatrice H. Barrett, director of the Behavior Prosthesis Laboratory at the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass. In the laboratory, Barrett and other researchers examined how adolescents with severe developmental handicaps learn.

Wanting to know more about Barrett's research, Glenn, the program coordinator and clinical director for the autism program of North Texas State University's Center for Behavioral Studies (now the University of North Texas Department of Behavior Analysis) visited her at her laboratory a year later.

Meeting from time to time at annual conferences of the Association for Behavioral Analysis and having phone conversations once or twice year, the two began viewing themselves as "kindred spirits," Glenn said. For years, they discussed their mutual vision for a specialized form of brain research -- one in neuro-operant relations, or comparison of moment-to-moment measures of human actions with precise measures of brain activities associated with those actions.

The vision is now on its way to becoming a reality. The Department of Behavior Analysis received $3,212,000 from Barrett's estate this summer to establish the Beatrice H. Barrett Endowment for Research in Neuro-Operant Relations, which will support the only research program of its kind at a U.S. college or university.

The amount follows $100,000 that the department received when the multi-million-dollar bequest was announced on Sept. 10, 2003. The announcement of the bequest came six days after Barrett, who battled cancer and severe emphysema for 10 years, died at her home in Lincoln, Mass.

Glenn, now a Regents Professor of Behavior Analysis and founding chair of the department, said the $3,312,000 accounts for 90 percent of the bequest. The department is expected to receive the remaining 10 percent within the next year, according to a letter from Barrett's attorney, Alice Brandeis Popkin.

The department also received 35,000 hours of behavioral research data in the form of cumulative records made by participants in Barrett's research program, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health. Jesus Rosales, an associate professor in the department, is working with the Texas Center for Digital Knowledge, a UNT interdisciplinary research center, to create digital archives of the data. The digital archiving, which will be supported by funds from the endowment, will make Barrett's data available to scholars everywhere, Glenn said.

She said the department was chosen to receive the data after Barrett's former research associate, Carl Binder, attended a research paper presentation in 2003 by Rosales and two students in UNT's information sciences doctoral program. The presentation, Glenn said, led Binder "to think that UNT might have just the combination of assets needed to put Bea's archival data to good use: graduate degree programs in both behavior analysis and informatics."

Glenn, who was by then serving as the chairman of the Department of Behavior Analysis, said discussion on space needed to store Barrett's data led to the idea for the research endowment.

In addition to the endowment and the data, the department received a sculpture, valued at $13,000, in memory of Barrett from Pamela Soldwedel, Barrett's sister-in-law. The sculpture, which is on display in Chilton Hall, is titled "A Broken Mind" and represents an experience of watching a family member suffer from schizophrenia.

"Besides being a pioneering researcher, Bea was an arts supporter and contemporary art collector," Glenn said. "The endowment she gave to UNT represents one third of her trust. The rest went to arts organizations in Massachusetts."

The Barrett endowment at UNT provides funding for a full-time researcher in neuro-operant relations. Glenn said a search will begin in August to fill the position. Several current faculty members in the Department of Behavior Analysis will also be involved in the research program, she said.

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