Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada
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Past Winner
2002 NSERC Award of Excellence

Barrie Frost

Professor, Departments of Psychology, Biology and Physiology, and Centre for Neuroscience Studies

Queen's University


Barrie Frost
Barrie Frost

Spend some time talking to Dr. Barrie Frost about his research and you'll probably never use the term "bird brain" again. At least not as an insult. During the past 35 years, the visual neuroscientist and bird lover has resolved some of the thorniest questions about how our brains see and hear with experimental subjects who coo or hoot.

Intrigued by birds as a young child growing up in New Zealand, Dr. Frost's professional career has been driven by one central question: how do avian brains process sights and sounds so that birds can get around in their environments? The answer, it turns out, has as much to do with bird brains as our own (a humbling fact given that ours are 300 times bigger). As a result, his research findings are providing practical solutions for a wide range of human sensory problems.

A highly creative experimentalist and talented engineer of new equipment, Dr. Frost's pioneering work has identified how a bird's brain processes visual motion. This includes how a bird is able to distinguish the visual effects caused by its own motion from movement in its environment. This cutting-edge experimental work has now led to the creation of a virtual reality lab that is so seemingly real that Dr. Frost's team has produced the first instance of a pigeon courting a virtual mate.

His highly acclaimed work with pigeons has included identifying the group of brain cells that mathematically compute specific equations to enable these birds, and probably humans, to judge time to collision. Dr. Frost's work with owls has helped elucidate the brain's sensory processing, and how it uses fundamental principles to integrate images from the two eyes and sounds from the two ears.

All of this detailed lab-based bird watching has led to numerous highly practical sensory aids for humans. Based on insights from his research on the pigeon brain, Dr. Frost has created a mat with prominent stripes that Parkinson's patients can unroll in front of themselves to effectively and simply overcome bouts of akinesia, or physical stalling. The "time to collision" research might lead to modified car tail-lights to improve drivers' braking time.

And his research on cross-modal plasticity, begun during his graduate student days, could soon lead to new "hearing aids" for the profoundly deaf. Rather than hear sound, users of the device will feel it through their skin.

Dr. Frost's lifelong interest in animal navigation and his technical ingenuity are currently combined in experiments that are revolutionizing the study of bird and insect migration. With partners at McGill University, he has developed a miniature GPS device to track the 50,000-kilometre yearly migration of the Sooty Shearwater. With another colleague he's developed a remarkable flight simulator for monarch butterflies. This butterfly research has already made international headlines by demonstrating that monarchs use a time-compensated sun compass, and not a magnetic one, to navigate on their incredible 3,500-kilometre journey to Mexico. Dr. Frost is now exploring the brain processes that enable monarchs to migrate, and the Sooty Shearwaters to find their way back and forth from their summer grounds in Canada to their breeding grounds, and Dr. Frost's native home, in New Zealand.

Accomplishments

Dr. Frost is the recipient of numerous national and international awards. In 1995, he was named the first Max Bell Fellow by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. He is an Honorary Research Professor in the Institute of Biophysics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and in 1996 received Germany's Alexander von Humboldt Research Prize. In June 2000, he was awarded an honorary LLD from Concordia University for his broad contributions to Canadian science.

He is an inspirational researcher, teacher, and science popularizer. In the lab he's one and the same. In 1993, he received two awards from Queen's University, the Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching (voted on by current and former Queen's students) and the Prize for Excellence in Research.

He has excelled as a graduate student supervisor: During the past 20 years, five of his Ph.D. students have won one or the other of the university's two prizes for the best doctoral theses. He's been a consultant for scientific films and TV documentaries on the CBC and BBC.

Several of Dr. Frost's more than 100 scientific journal articles have become instant classics. His "How Owls' Eyes Hear" article, co-authored with Dr. Hermann Wagner of Germany's Max Planck Institute, was the cover story of the August 26, 1993, issue of the journal Nature.

A sought-after expert committee member and speaker, Dr. Frost was a member of the NASA/National Institutes of Health (US) study section for the 1997 International Space Neurolab Flight, and has been a member of the research committee for the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems (IRIS), a national Network of Centres of Excellence. He is also one of the editors of the Journal of Comparative Physiology A.

Dr. Frost's first degree was a Teacher's Certificate in 1959 from the Christchurch Teachers' College, New Zealand. In 1961, he completed a B.A. and then in 1964, an M.A. (Honours) from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. In 1964, Dr. Frost left New Zealand for Halifax's Dalhousie University to begin his doctoral studies (awarded a Ph.D. in 1967), supported by a prestigious Rutherford Scholarship from the British Royal Society in London. Dr. Frost joined the faculty of Queen's University in 1969, taking a position near one of Canada's best sites for owl watching, Amherst Island.

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