Illustration of two heads, back to back, with drawings of their brains (filled with English and foreign text) overlapping

Bilingualism’s Brain Benefits

Faculty of Arts and Science / NYU Abu Dhabi

Experts have long held that the mental work of filtering and suppressing the language that a bilingual isn’t using is advantageous in surprising ways—for instance when “a kid has to switch from a writing assignment to a math task in class,” says Liina Pylkkänen, an Arts and Science professor of linguistics and psychology. Supported by a grant from NYU Abu Dhabi’s Research Institute, Pylkkänen (who is fluent in English and Finnish) and graduate student Esti Blanco-Elorrieta (English, Basque, Spanish, German; GSAS ’19) found proof via brain imagery that alternating between languages does not require a great amount of cognitive effort for people conversing with other bilinguals who speak the same two languages as they do. The findings suggest that studies of the bilingual advantage need to make a distinction between these cases and those in which the speaker is restricted to the single language spoken by the person with whom they’re conversing.
    Pylkkänen’s graduate student Sarah F. Phillips (English, Korean, Spanish; GSAS ’21), meanwhile, has been working with bilinguals within New York’s Korean American population. Korean can be expressed in both the Roman alphabet and in Hangul (traditional Korean script), and Phillips hopes through imaging to document what happens in the brain when orthography is added to the mix of language switching.

—Lindsy Van Gelder • Illustration by Brian Stauffer

She Calls the Shots

Tisch School of the Arts

Despite modest gains in female representation behind the camera, gender inequality in Hollywood is still rife. The Tisch School of the Arts’ Fusion Film Festival is an attempt to rectify this. Celebrating women in film, TV, and new media, the student-run initiative was founded 17 years ago by Emma Heald (TSOA ’04) and Gina Abatemarco (TSOA ’05) and is overseen by Tisch teacher Susan Sandler (writer, Crossing Delancey). Past honorees of the event include Lucy Alibar (TSOA ’05, cowriter, Beasts of the Southern Wild), Melina Matsoukas (TSOA ’03, director, Queen & Slim), Reed Morano (director, The Handmaid’s Tale), and Amy Sherman-Palladino (creator, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give), Jane Campion (The Piano), and Amy Heckerling (Clueless) are Fusion Film Festival board members.

—Lindsy Van Gelder • Portraits by Lauren Mortimer

Head and shoulders watercolor sketch of four women

From left: Lucy Alibar, Melina Matsoukas, Reed Morano, Amy Sherman-Palladino

The Power of AI–Assisted Mammography

Grossman School of Medicine / Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences

Artificial intelligence and human radiologists are a formidable team when it comes to detecting breast cancer, according to a study led by Krzysztof Geras, assistant professor of radiology at the Grossman School of Medicine (GSM) and an affiliate faculty member at the Center for Data Science (CDS). The study, which included researchers from GSM, CDS, and the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, created an unprecedentedly huge data set of more than a million mammographic images (at least four images each from 229,426 screening mammography exams). The images were then subjected to AI analysis. When it came to spotting malignancies, the AI performed at least as well as a single radiologist, and nearly as well as a team of 14. But the skills of human beings and neural networks are not the same, Geras notes. Unlike humans, computers aren’t subject to eyestrain and fatigue. They are also good at “seeing every tiny thing,” he adds. On the other hand, human brains are more adept at processing shapes and connecting different images. The takeaway, Geras concluded, is that the combined forces of artificial and human intelligence predict cancer with more accuracy and should be the diagnostic protocol of the future. Meanwhile, to continue to test out the data, the researchers have taken the step of putting all their tools online for others to download. “A lot of [researchers] around the world are trying to apply it to their data,” Geras says. Thus far the model is performing “pretty well on their data,” he adds. “It’s reassuring to have confirmation that our results are correct.” Even better? The more images the AI analyzes, the more it learns and improves. To hear from other NYU experts working in the artificial intelligence space, see our feature story.

—Lindsy Van Gelder


Hate Speech Online and Off

School of Global Public Health / Tandon School of Engineering

Mobile phone with a twitter logo on the screen hurled through a window shatters the glass

Rumi Chunara, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the School of Global Public Health (GPH) and computer science and engineering at the Tandon School of Engineering, is studying the increasingly porous border between the real and virtual worlds. Chunara and her colleagues compared FBI records of racial, ethnic, and national-origin hate crimes in 100 US cities between 2011 and 2016 with hate speech on Twitter during the same time frame. “We found that the cities that had the greatest amount of hate crimes correlated with the greatest number of online discriminatory tweets,” says Stephanie Cook, a GPH assistant professor of biostatistics and social and behavioral sciences. Cook and Chunara emphasize that correlation is not causation. However, “this study contributes to showing that what’s online has implications,” says Chunara. “When there are nefarious things in the real world, we should consider the virtual world as a potential factor.”

—Lindsy Van Gelder • Illustration by John W. Tomac

A Grand Entrance

Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

At the end of the seventh century BCE, Babylon was the capital of an empire that stretched from Iran to Egypt. The Ishtar Gate and Processional Way led to the city’s sacred monuments and were a marvel of clay, with figurines of lions and dragons, and bricks glazed lapis lazuli blue to represent the heavens and the primordial waters of creation. This spring, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World displayed 150 objects relating to the craft and materials behind the construction and explained how they reflected Babylonian culture. The objects were on loan from eight institutions including the Louvre. “It’s a look at how ancient people understood the significance of this monument and its artistry,” says cocurator Elizabeth Knott (ISAW ’18).

—Lindsy Van Gelder

Check out our video at

Photo of objects from the exhibition: various bricks, tiles, and vessels

1. Vessel with frieze of kneeling bulls (Iron Age III, ca. 800–600 BCE). 2. Cylinder seal with contest between lion and bull (Middle Assyrian Period, ca. 1300–1200 BCE). 3. Fragmentary bricks with a cuneiform inscription and the hand of a queen (Middle Elamite Period, Shutrukid Dynasty, reign of Shilhak-Inshushinak, ca. 1150–1120 BCE). 4. Bricks with the head of an archer (Achaemenid Period, reign of Darius I, ca. 510 BCE). 5. Eyestone with cuneiform inscription of Nebuchadnezzar II, a dedication to the god Marduk (Neo-Babylonian Period, reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, 604–562 BCE). 6. Fragmentary tile with a genie standing on two griffins in contest with two monsters (Neo-Elamite Period, ca. 800–700 BCE). 7. Friedrich Wachtsmuth’s watercolor Reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate façade (1912 CE).

Photos (clockwise from top left): © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY (vessel); The Morgan Library & Museum (seal); © RMN-Grand Palais/Raphaël Chipault/Art Resource, NY (fragmentary bricks); © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY/Christian Larrieu (archer); © Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft, Archiv/Olaf M. Tessmer (watercolor); © Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Thierry Ollivier/Art Resource, NY (tile); The Morgan Library & Museum (eyestone)

Filling Cavities (and Other Healthcare Needs)

College of Dentistry

The mouth is an indicator for what’s going on throughout the body systemically, from cardiac and inflammation issues to pregnancies culminating in low-birth-weight babies. But when a dentist notices that a patient has high blood pressure—or any other problem that requires further care—follow-up can be spotty. A look at healthcare records revealed that many of the 300,000 patients who annually use the College of Dentistry clinic on East 24th Street did not even have a primary care physician. To help remedy the problem, Metro Community Health Centers (MCHC), which offers both primary and behavioral care, plans to open up a medical clinic on the first floor of the dental clinic this fall. The two clinics will share a lobby, with signage designed to make a visit to both easier. Rita Bilello (DEN ’99), dental director of MCHC, notes that since NYU produces the most dentists of any US dental school each year, a significant number of graduates who have experienced the dual clinic will know how to set up similar offices around the city and beyond.

—Lindsy Van Gelder

Between the Lines

Institute of Fine Arts

The Colombian geometric abstraction painter Fanny Sanín earned a degree in fine arts from the University of the Andes in Bogotá, continued her studies in Illinois and London, and began her career in Monterrey, Mexico. But in 1971, she moved to Manhattan, where she has resided for nearly the last half-century. Focusing on her earliest years in the city, an exhibition of four of her paintings, Fanny Sanín’s New York: The Critical Decade, 1971–1981, is on display through mid-January 2021 at Duke House, home of the Institute of Fine Arts (IFA). “She’s been a wonderful collaborator,” says cocurator Megan Kincaid, an IFA PhD student. “It was such a great experience to work with a living artist.” The curators visited the artist’s studio and saw the sketches Sanín used to prepare for the paintings, and that information is included in the show. The decade under scrutiny was crucial to Sanín’s artistic development, when she shifted to more geometric forms and eventually to full symmetry. Kincaid describes Sanín’s style as mathematically precise and at the same time metaphysical: “These paintings are stunning, and they take you by surprise.”

—Lindsy Van Gelder

Abstract painting with lines and geometric shapes in reds, purple, black, and oranges

Fanny Sanín’s “Acrylic No. 3, 1974,” acrylic on canvas, 71 inches by 66 inches (courtesy of Fanny Sanín/IFA)

Steel Victory

NYU Shanghai

“Shanghai has one of the most sophisticated recycling programs in the world,” says Yifei Li, NYU Shanghai assistant professor of environmental studies. Yet until recently, the campus café offered single-use cups: paper for hot drinks and plastic for cold. Thanks to an idea of Li’s and a grant from the NYU Office of Sustainability, they were replaced by 3,000 reusable stainless-steel cups, etched with the school’s signature lotus design as well as “NYU SHANGHAI” in both Chinese and English. They’re cool—perhaps too cool. A major hit with students, these vessels have become victims of their own success, with hundreds disappearing every month into dorms or winding up elsewhere on campus where beverages can spill onto library books or computers. Sticky fingers aside, at least the cups are cutting down on the waste of paper and plastic.

—Lindsy Van Gelder

Photo of a stainless-steel cup with the NYU Shanghai logo on it

Bagging Bags

Wagner Graduate School of Public Service

Encouraging people to give up disposable bags is more effective if customers must pay for the bags than if they get an equal amount of credit toward their purchase for bringing their own, according to research by Tatiana Homonoff, a Wagner Graduate School of Public Service assistant professor of economics and public service. The phenomenon is known as “loss aversion,” says Homonoff, who has studied single-use bag policies around the country. “People feel loss more strongly than equal gains.” New York State’s law banning plastic bags allows individual counties to set the specifics of their policies on paper bags, and New York City has opted to require stores to impose a charge for each one.

—Lindsy Van Gelder • Illustration by Nathaniel Kilcer

illustration of plastic shopping bags

Artful Degree

NYU Abu Dhabi

A new two-year, full-time master of fine arts in art and media at NYU Abu Dhabi will train artists across disciplines. “Instead of focusing on printmaking or sculpture or performance or video art, students can study all of these,” says David Darts, associate dean of the arts. Studios were built for the endeavor, and existing spaces—such as the printmaking room shown here, photographed by Hoya Liu (NYUAD ’21)—will be used as well. This MFA and a master of science in economics are NYU Abu Dhabi’s first forays into master’s programs.

—Lindsy Van Gelder

Photo of three people looking up at prints exhibited on a wall

An Important New Simulation

Meyers College of Nursing

The Meyers College of Nursing runs simulations ranging from how to assist at a birth to when to give insulin, says Natalya Pasklinsky, executive director of simulation learning. (“The supplies are real, but the medications are fake,” she notes.) Often these sessions involve actors (known in this context as a standardized patient), and a recent simulation was a first of its kind for the college. The future nurses were taught how to interact with transgender, nonbinary, and other sexual minority patients. “The focus was for students to interact with a standardized patient and to ensure the patient felt safe in their care and environment,” Pasklinsky notes. “What if their pronoun or legal name is different from their presentation? What if you call them by the wrong pronoun? How do you maintain privacy and yet treat the patient with respect? What do you do if you hear someone else address them by the wrong pronoun?” After each simulation, these actors who specialize in hospital simulation roles provided the nursing students with feedback on whether their examining room skills were adequately sensitive.

—Lindsy Van Gelder

Monitoring Our Machines

School of Law

Nearly half of federal agencies have experimented with artificial intelligence, and these same agencies also adjudicate more cases than all of the federal courts combined. AI’s increasingly large part in the decision-making processes of these agencies raises significant legal issues and a need for transparency. These were just two of the conclusions of the report Government by Algorithm: Artificial Intelligence in Federal Administrative Agencies, prepared by a team of five School of Law students working in concert with law, computer science, and engineering students from Stanford University. Commissioned by the Administrative Conference of the United States (the nonpartisan independent agency designed to make the government more efficient), the report is the most comprehensive study on AI in government ever conducted. Professor of law Catherine Sharkey, who supervised the NYU group, says that “what was enormously powerful for the students was seeing how valuable it is to get people with computer and technical backgrounds in the same room or virtual room with lawyers and policy analysts.” The report is available at

—Lindsy Van Gelder

De Kooning Goes to Law School

abstract painting in oranges and blues

Last fall, the School of Law got an addition to its already-impressive halls: the painting The Key and the Parade (oil on canvas, 1985, above) by celebrated Dutch American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904–1997, pictured below right in a 1961 portrait shot in his studio). Alumnus John Eastman (LAW ’64), who was the artist’s lawyer, coexecutor, and coconservator, and who is copresident of the Willem de Kooning Foundation’s board of directors, facilitated a long-term loan of the 70-by-80-inch work. It graces a wall of the Law Library, located in landmarked Vanderbilt Hall on Washington Square South. In February, the School of Law hosted a discussion of de Kooning’s technique and vision between artist Joan Levy Hepburn and art historian Richard Shiff (below left).

Richard Shiff points up at DeKoonig's painting, discussing DeKooning's technique with Joan Levy Hepburn in front of a packed crowd

DeKooning sits with hands crossed in front of chest, one hand holds a cigarette