University Professors Antonio and Hanna Damasio — who together have challenged dominant 20th-century views about brain function and demonstrated how emotions play a critical role in high-level cognition — have been awarded honorary degrees from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).
Antonio Damasio said receiving the honor with his wife made the event even more meaningful.
“The nice thing is that we were distinguished together,” said Antonio, who met Hanna in medical school in Lisbon, Portugal. “That made it all the more pleasant.”
The David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience and professor of psychology and neurology, Antonio Damasio is co-founder and director of the Brain Creativity Institute (BCI) housed in USC Dornsife. Hanna is the Dana Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience and professor of psychology and neurology. She is also director of the USC Dana and David Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center, and BCI’s co-founder and co-director.
EPFL is one of two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology and is located in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Docteur Honoris Causa is an honorary Ph.D. given each year to a small number of outstanding scientists during the university’s graduation ceremony.
The institute awarded four honorary degrees during its 2011 graduation ceremony held Oct. 15. Subra Suresh, director of the National Science Foundation, was among those honored with the Damasios. In past years, former United States Vice President Al Gore received the honor in 2008, and Jerry Yang, Yahoo! Inc.’s co-founder and former CEO, earned it in 2010.
“The Damasios’ research and careers are in synch with EPFL’s own vision of science,” said professor Didier Trono, EPFL’s dean of life sciences, who, along with EPFL’s president, Patrick Haebischer, presented the Damasios of USC Dornsife with their degrees at the university overlooking Lake Geneva and the Alps.
The Swiss Federal Government-founded institute is ranked among the world’s top science and technology universities. Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) by Shanghai Jiao Tong University this year named EPFL Europe’s No. 1 in the fields of engineering, technology and computer sciences.
At the ceremony, Hanna Damasio spoke about the great strides of women scientists worldwide.
“The case for women in science and medicine has been made and won,” she said. “This has had a truly liberating effect. It allows us to behave toward each other as colleagues, regardless of gender, and to expect the same opportunities and the same behavior.”
Hanna pioneered the use of brain imaging methods such as computerized tomography and nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in the study of brain lesions. The method can be used for diagnosing and investigating brain diseases.
Antonio Damasio’s research has illuminated the neural basis for human emotions and shown that emotions play a central role in cognition and decision-making.
During the ceremony, Antonio said the break-neck speed of technology must be tempered with contemplation.
“To address the questions we want to see answered in the life sciences, we need the dazzle of new techniques and the speed of communication,” he said. “But to answer those questions well, we need reflection and that takes time. Call it downtime if you wish — and respect for what came before us — call it ancestor worship.”
Three weeks earlier, on Sept. 21, the University of Coimbra in the Damasios’ native country of Portugal also presented Antonio Damasio with an honorary doctorate. Established in the 13th century (1290), the public institution in the city of Coimbra is among the world’s oldest universities in continuous operation. It is also among the world’s largest higher education and research institutions.
In contrast to the Swiss ceremony, a multi-media affair, the Portuguese event was steeped in tradition beginning with the gongs of the university tower bell, a procession and a ceremony conducted partly in Latin.
“These degrees are a recognition presented by our colleagues and that of course means a lot to us,” Antonio said. “It signifies that people have appreciated what we’re doing and like what we’re doing. It’s is always encouraging to see one’s work well received.”