Irene Pepperberg's 30-year relationship with a parrot named Alex radically shifted our notions of bird intelligence. With help from her African Grey companion, Pepperberg found that some birds have cognitive abilities once thought to be the province of primates alone. Pepperberg, who began her work when animal cognition, or cognitive biology, was far from widely accepted, has also been a professor and lecturer at some of the top universities in the U.S. Her many contributions in research have been recognized through numerous honors, awards, and invited membership to prestigious scientific societies and associations, including Radcliffe Institute and Guggenheim fellowships. Many societies, including AAAS, Psychonomics, APA, and APS have named her as an honorary Fellow. On top of that, her books "Alex & Me," which was a New York Times best-seller and won a Christopher Award, and "The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots," exemplify Pepperberg's commitment to making groundbreaking scientific research accessible to the general public.
Pepperberg enrolled at Harvard University in 1969, having completed her undergraduate degree at MIT. At this point, she imagined herself pursuing a career in chemistry, most likely becoming a university professor. She completed her Master of Arts in chemistry in 1971, and then decided to stay in Cambridge to complete her PhD in chemical physics in 1976.
As much as she found her classwork fascinating, it was an episode of the PBS TV series “Nova” about animals and language which influenced her to abandon chemistry in favor of animal biology. "I still remember the visceral shock of these shows," she said. "They were a revelation. Humans communicating with animals, animals communicating with humans, and humans learning about how animals learned to communicate with each other—it seemed little short of a miracle to me." With that moment of epiphany, Pepperberg began to spend less time at Harvard's chemistry building, and more time in Harvard's comparative zoology studies, where she began her pioneering work.
Today, Pepperberg continues to fulfill her calling as a research associate and lecturer at Harvard University, showing the level of esteem in which she holds her alma mater. Furthermore, her wide-reaching mentorship of undergraduates, many of whom have followed similar career paths, has been continually acknowledged by Harvard, which granted Pepperberg a Certificate of Excellence award in 2010, 2012, and 2015.