Steven Small

  Professor Solodkin, Professor Binkofski (Uniklinik Aachen), Professor Small Copyright: © private/Small

Professor Solodkin, Professor Binkofski (Uniklinik Aachen), Professor Small

Research Stay at RWTH Aachen University Guest Professor and Kármán Fellow in the program ERS International in February 2014
Information about our Alumnus

Professor Steven Small, Ph.D., M.D. is a distinguished and renowned contemporary scientist in the field of brain research. He is currently leading and directing the Department of Neurology and the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, Irvine. After his study of Mathematics, Prof. Small received his Ph.D. in Computer Sciences (Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence) in 1980. After a year as a Fulbright Lecturer in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Paris, France, he taught Computer Science and Psychology at the University of Rochester, and then attended medical school there, receiving the M.D. degree in 1987. His neurology residency was completed at the University of Pittsburgh. He is Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago and well known for his fundamental research about modelling of language functions and rehabilitation of functions after stroke. His work is therefore recognized with highest relevance in the fields of language and motor function in brain and imaging methods. Among numerous scientific achievements, Prof. Small is the founder of the Society for Neurobiology of Language and the Editor of the Journal Brain and Language.

For a ten-day-research stay in February 2014, he visited the Department of Neurology at University Hospital Aachen together with his colleague, Professor Ana Solodkin, from the University of California (Irvine). Professor Ferdinand Binkofski as the Chair of Neurology at University Hospital Aachen invited them both to come through the Kármán-Fellowship, to introduce them to the Research Alliance (JARA) collaboration on fields of brain research between University Hospital Aachen and Forschungszentrum Jülich. A future research collaboration will take place on the topic of apraxia, a brain dysfunction.


With Professor Small and Professor Solodkin, we are proud to have hosted two of the world’s best known neurobiologists. We had much benefit from the Theodore Karman Fellowship and the visit of our guests in terms of developing a new project, combining neurophysiological and linguistic expertise. At the moment, we are working on common grant applications to fund our international collaboration. Additionally, subsequent to our guests’ stay, and together with Professor Svenja Caspers of Forschungszentrum Jülich, we participated in a book project of Professor Small and Professor Hickok, publishing a chapter about the intrapariatal lobe. As you can see, the ERS funding of this fellowship was very valuable and fruitful for us.

Professor Binkofski and Dr. Klann

  Ferdinand Binkofski Copyright: © private Professor Ferdinand Binkofski   Juliane Klann Copyright: © private Dr. Juliane Klann  

Interview with Steven Small

Professor Small, what is your main field of research?

My colleague Dr. Ana Solodkin and I study brain circuits and brain connectivity at a systems biology level. That is to say, we look at different parts of the brain and how they work together to perform functions in human beings.

I personally am particularly interested in the neurobiology of human language. I am interested in how brain circuits enable us to talk and understand, to read and write. At the level of brain circuits, it is not yet clear how this works. I am therefore trying to figure out what kind of circuitry exists for doing language. It is very much of an approach that is built on the nature of the computations that the brain performs, in fact, how the brain hardware, the neurons, the axones and the dendrites, and all the connections, collectively implement computationally what the brain needs to do to understand and to speak language.

Was this the first time you were in Aachen? What were your impressions at the first and second sight?

It was my first time in Aachen and I did not know before that RWTH Aachen University is such a strong engineering school, one of the premier engineering schools in Germany. I knew its reputation as a medical center and as a medical school. But I think the fact that there is such a strong engineering program really enhances the work of the medical researchers, which is very exciting. Obviously, the city of Aachen is beautiful and the people are extremely nice as well.

But regarding my research field, I had known Aachen for my entire career because of the very famous neurologist who performed human brain research many years ago, Professor Klaus Pöck, who was the Chair of Neurology at University Hospital Aachen. He and his team did an enormous amount of research in aphasia and language and the brain and developed the premier test for aphasia in the world – the “Aachener Aphasie-Test”. This is why I know a lot of about Aachen, but I have never been there. But now I have been invited by the enormously talented Professor Ferdinand Binkofski, and it was a great pleasure to be able to spend my time with him. He is a huge asset to RWTH Aachen University and it was an enormous benefit to Aachen to be able to get Dr. Binkofski to come. He is world renowned for his work in neurology, so it is an honor to be his guest.

Which reasons led to the research stay at RWTH Aachen University?

My respect for Professor Binkofski is great and the main reason for visiting him is my interest in his work. I worked with him together once before. The idea of possibly being able to work with him again was what we, my colleague Professor Ana Solodkin and I, were looking forward to. The group in Aachen is so well known in cognitive neurology. The other thing I did not know was the relationship between RWTH Aachen and Forschungszentrum Jülich. I was impressed by the Research Alliance (JARA), which is really strong and enhances the work of both the cognitive neurology group in Aachen and the imaging group in Jülich. It is quite clear that this collaboration is good for both institutions. We went there together with Professor Binkofski for one day to meet his collaborators. We toured the facilities and visited the MRI-Imaging Center where Dr. Solodkin and I gave a second lecture on various topics.

  At Uniklinik RWTH Aachen (from left to right) Prof. Stefan Heim, Prof. Walter Huber, Prof. Ana Solodkin, Prof. Ferdinand Binkofski, Prof. Steven Small, Dr. Juliane Klann Copyright: © private/Small At Uniklinik RWTH Aachen (from left to right) Prof. Stefan Heim, Prof. Walter Huber, Prof. Ana Solodkin, Prof. Ferdinand Binkofski, Prof. Steven Small, Dr. Juliane Klann

What are the tangible outcomes of your research stay?

Yes, there is a direct outcome of the visit, which is planning a research collaboration in the area of apraxia, which is a motor programming disorder. Dr. Binkofski is one of the world leaders in the study of apraxia. He has collaborators with large neurological clinics and patients with this brain dysfunction. Our research goal is to better understand the basis of this disorder. With Aachen, we will use advanced imaging and brain circuit modelling to better understand apraxia.

Of course, we would love to come back, particularly to enhance our ongoing collaboration. It was such a great experience. Possibly we will meet each other on August 27, at the annual meeting of the “Society of Neurobiology of Language” [Professor Small is the founder] in Amsterdam. Hopefully Professor Binkofski will come to visit us there.

How do you remember the interactions with students and fellow researchers at your two lectures at RWTH Aachen University?

At RWTH Aachen there is a little bit of more interest in formal linguistics and there are several faculties which are working in formal linguistics applied to the brain. Generally on our side we do not think about the world in that way. We do not think that formal linguistics has an important role to play in understanding the brain. Several people are interested in the precise hardware of the computations that the brain is performing. Formal linguistics on the other hand is very much abstract. As a consequence, the relation between the abstraction and the hardware is very hard to establish. There are some excellent scholars in both Jülich and Aachen who are quite interested in linguistics and the brain. For example, a well-known linguist is Walter Huber at University Hospital Aachen. In Aachen, on this visit, we had some very good debates about this.

Imagine, if there is a student or a fellow scientist that asks you why he or she should go to RWTH Aachen to study or to research, what would you say?

At RWTH Aachen there is one of the premiere major research groups of neurology in the world. I think there is a tremendous collective environment for a medical school. Moreover, the university’s engineering program adds a technical perspective – so to go to RWTH is a very good idea.

Is there anything more you would like to mention?

Yes, I love the geography of Aachen. I mean you guys can go to the Netherlands, collaborate with the people in Maastricht, and go to Belgium for dinner…

Thank you very much, Professor Small, for this great insight.

  • The phone interview was conducted by the Coordinator of “Research Alumni” at RWTH Aachen University in July 2014.