Skip to Content

Helen Neville Tribute Page

Helen Neville

Helen Neville passed away on Friday, October 12, 2018. Helen was one of the most influential and visionary psychologists and neuroscientists of her time. She leaves behind an extended scientific family of former students, postdocs, and colleagues.

You can read more about her academic life and work here.

We created this page to allow those whose lives she changed to have a permanent, public space to write tributes to her.

Please add your testimonials, remembrances, and tributes to the comments.

11 thoughts on “Helen Neville Tribute Page

  1. Helen was much more than a PhD advisor for me. I can tell you she was one of the most brilliant people I have ever met, a fierce scientist, an outspoken woman, a role model. But if you spent 5 minutes with her, you’d already know these. Helen treated me and my family with unprecedented kindness and compassion. She was there for me when my dad passed away during my first term in graduate school. She hosted the most amazing wedding party for me in her house because my Turkish wedding was canceled after my dad passed away. She learned some Turkish to talk to my mother because my mom didn’t speak English. She was there for me when I transitioned to motherhood, always welcomed me and my family to her house, and my daughter grew up telling her friends she was very good friends with a famous scientist. She took me to many concerts at the Hult Center that I couldn’t afford with my grad salary. We watched many soccer games and shared many delicious meals together. It was such a great privilege to know her, to be trained by her, and to be a part of her Brain Development Lab.
    Elif Isbell, PhD

  2. I was privileged to work for a time in Dr. Helen Neville’s lab, prior to entering graduate school. Her passion for research and spirited insistence that science can change the world continues to inspire me. Thank you, Helen, you will be missed.

  3. I join in mourning the passing of Helen Neville, whose contributions to the field of human brain development are among the greatest in the world. Because of my age and early meeting with Helen I recount some of her history which may not be known to all readers.

    I first met Helen Neville when she was a graduate student with Eric Lenneberg at
    Cornell Ithaca. Lenneberg was bor in Germany and migrated to the US. Lenneberg studied the neurology of language. Although the graduate program in psychology was in Ithaca, Lenneberg brought students to NY to the Cornell Medical College now the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in order to observe and study patients with disorders of language.

    My brother, was a professor of Neurology in the medical college, who
    worked across the street at Memorial Sloan Kettering, where he had founded the world’s first program in the neuo-oncology, that is treating in diagnosing and treating brain cancer. He invited me to have a drink at the College Faculty club and to meet Eric Lenneberg and one of his graduate students who it turned out was Helen Neville.

    This event is a kind of flash bulb memory for me, its flash bulb status might have something to do with how beautiful Eric’s student Helen Neville was, or perhaps it was from how impressed I was to hear about a program which really connected psychology and brain research. This was for me a remote goal. I was studying how fast people responded to certain stimuli and was still some years from being able to connect those studies to neural mechanisms.

    Perhaps because of the flash bulb nature of the memory I have followed Helen’s remarkable career from that time forward. She moved west after her Cornell experience to work with two remarkable people at the Salk Institute and UCSD Steve Hillyard and Ursula Bellugi. She could hardly could have done better. From Steve she learned to penetrate the brain’s electrical activity and from Ursula how to study an unspoken but nonetheless complete language, American Sign Language.

    It was very exciting when she agreed to accept a position at Oregon and that decision has led to many important advantages for all of us. Including many visitors and postdocs, the Lewis Center for Imaging and the graduate students, discoveries and public service that her
    Developmental Laboratory has brought to our program.

    Despite the sadness of Helen’s passing it is important to recognize all she contributed during her career to our field.

  4. On Helen

    Many times I saw Helen dancing on the deck of her place at Foxy Hollow,
    partying with her friends, cackling with wicked laughter.
    Helen Neville was a free spirit.

    I once saw Helen keep an audience of hundreds spellbound with her
    charisma, intellect, and poise…her every word hung-upon by the speechless crowd.
    Helen Neville was a sorcerer.

    I once saw Helen spit fire and reduce to ashes a hapless administrator
    whose policies she found ill-planned and thoughtless.
    Helen Neville did not suffer fools gladly.

    I once saw Helen weep over the fate of baby bluebirds.
    Helen Neville was a sensitive soul.

    Helen hobnobbed with Chomsky, scolded the Dalai Lama, and dined with the
    Queen of Sweden.
    Helen Neville was a big deal.

    I once saw Helen infuse new graduate students with the sparks of holy
    inspiration in the power of science to change lives and the world.
    Helen Neville was a missionary.

    I once considered the scope of Helen’s work, cutting across levels of
    analysis, integrating disparate areas within the framework of
    neuroplasticity, threading the unifying theme across decades and
    culminating in interventions designed to help those most vulnerable.
    Helen Neville was a visionary.

    Many times, I saw Helen rail against the injustices of the world, hurl
    invective on the systems of power and their functionaries, and call for
    their ultimate overthrow.
    Helen Neville was a firebrand.

    Many times, I saw, or knew of Helen’s generosity towards her friends,
    family and associates, supporting them in times of hardship.
    Helen Neville was large of heart.

    Many times, I saw Helen defeated by grants, life, circumstance, and many
    times I saw her get up, dust herself off, un-muss her hair, and rejoin
    the battle.
    Helen Neville was a fighter.

  5. Through the ideas she generated and the humans she mentored, Helen’s seedlings are scattered all throughout the field of Cognitive Neuroscience. Countless others have been inspired by her message of “Changing Brains” and the programs she left behind to do just that for those most in need. We miss you Helen!

  6. Helen gave a spellbinding talk at the University of California, Berkeley when I was in graduate school. I had never seen anything like it. Not only did she convey crisp neuroplasticity research with finesse, she shared pictures of the mobile brain lab — a converted RV — that was used to collect EEG data in harder to reach communities. When I joined her lab as a post-doc I continued to be in awe of the span of her vision. It seemed like anything was possible for Helen.

    She was a rare blend of scientist and communicator. Scientists knew her extensive publications in top journals. But she was also an ambassador for science for the local, national, and international community. For Helen, scientists had an obligation to see that their work translated to broader impact. And society had an obligation to listen.

    Helen knew how to bring people together. We so looked forward to celebrations at her home, ‘Foxy Hollow’ — We were surrounded by her collection of art and fossils. There was always music, from Bach to Irish ditties. She was as regal as the giraffes she loved, with a memory befitting the sea-horse earring she always wore — her tribute to the hippocampus.

  7. I will be forever grateful for the contributions Helen has made to further the knowledge and effective interventions aimed at improving the lives and futures of young children around the world. She was a brilliant scientist and a passionate and responsible human being. She inspired me in so many ways and I am so pleased I was able to share some time, ideas, fun and wine with her over the years. She has left a legacy that will live forever in the hearts and minds of those she touched and has yet to touch. With deep sadness and gratitude, I will miss her!

  8. My mother was one of the most brilliant and forward-thinking neuroscientists of her time. She was also an incredibly caring and loving parent. And her concern extended beyond our immediate family and into society, which she fought hard to make more equitable, and into the natural world, which she loved with deep respect. She was an uncompromising and determined voice for women in science at a time, in the 1970s and 80s, when they were treated like forgettable housewives (she notoriously got into an argument with a chauvinist at the Salk Institute who tried to convince her to stay at home—needless to say, he lost the argument). As many others have observed, she was also a scientific visionary, who found evidence for the fact that the brain could change its functions over time, and according to experience. She pioneered the field of neuroplasticity. Yet her sincere concern for those less well off made her decide to make a DVD—free of charge on the internet—to educate those with little or no scientific or academic background about the brain. The DVD was, and is still being, distributed to schools around the US, and a Spanish language version is being produced now. Her life ended up producing a scientific revolution—which is contributing towards a political revolution in education. She collaborated with critical thinkers of all stripes: geneticists, economists, biologists, sociologists, linguists. And she was relentlessly challenging others to base their beliefs on evidence and experimental insight—rather than faith or mere belief. I remember my mother quoting, towards the end of her life, Gramsci’s dictum: ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ Her free spirit and critical mind ought to inspire us all to think twice about our unquestioned assumptions, to wonder at the beauty of nature, and to reflect on social justice. She will be missed, but her legacy lives on.

  9. Helen also believed in helping struggling science reporters understand her work and much else in neuroscience. We both attended the meeting of the Mind and Life Institute with the Dalai Lama in 2004 in Dharamsala, and I included Helen’s fascinating work on neuroplasticity (in people with congenital blindness or deafness etc.) in the book I did on that. She was infinitely patient with my many questions, follow-ups, ‘just one more thing’ pleas and other annoyances. I hope I did her and her work justice.

  10. Oh how I struggle with Helen’s passing. She and I went WAY back: she was my best friend in grad school at Cornell, with Eric Lenneberg as our advisor. However, I was already married when I started grad school, and had young kids, so didn’t have the free time to socialize too much and certainly couldn’t go to NY with Eric and his other grad students — so I stayed behind and worked on …. rats – the furry kind with long tails, and typically mine were white. Meanwhile, I did follow what the others were doing. And Helen and I became very close when she was there. We went to Eric’s funeral together, and she finished up and moved to Oregon. We kept in loose touch, but still felt close – even though, given we were both fierce arguers, we could get into some pretty good arguments. I moved from Cornell to Maryland, where I was a prof of neuroscience, and could see what Helen was doing, and we’d see each other at Soc. for Neuroscience meetings occasionally.My son also moved to Portland, so I was on the west coast quite often and saw Helen from time to time then. But despite our distance and time apart, I felt of Helen as my best friend until quite recently. How I now feel guilty for not maintaining contact and possibly saving her from her ailments, which given that I had battled obsessive behavior and eating disorders, could relate to. With MANY years of therapy, I escaped the issues, but lost track of Helen…. I’m so sad I did now. I do intend to attend her memorial, given my health holds up, which it should, hopefully!

  11. Helen was an extraordinary person, to whom I remain very grateful for her conversations and contributions over about 20 years following the Chelsea Project, about the nature of language acquisition in a deaf adult whose deafness was able to remediated but only starting at age 32. We visited Helen at Salk many times over the years for several days of testing as the habilitation project went on. Helen’s kindness and insights to ‘Chelsea’ and her family are memorable. She is sorely missed. Peter Glusker, MD

Leave a Reply to Ryan Giuliano Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *