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University of Iowa News Release


Jan. 23, 2009

UI Graduate College alumna wins nation's top dissertation award

University of Iowa alumna Jessica Horst has won the nation's most prestigious honor for doctoral dissertations, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS)/UMI Distinguished Dissertation Award. Horst, who earned her doctorate in psychology in 2007, won the award for her dissertation "Turning Novel Names into Known Names," a study of how children learn language.

Horst's research proposes a theory on how to combine existing knowledge on how humans quickly identify words ("fast mapping") with knowledge about how we learn. Using lab experiments and computer modeling, she discovered that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the ability to fast map does not mean a toddler has actually learned a new word; full-word learning is a gradual process.

Selected above all other social science dissertations completed nationally for a two-year period (July 1, 2006-June 30, 2008), Horst's study of early language learning was honored at a ceremony during the CGS 48th annual meeting in December. She received a certificate, a $2,000 honorarium and travel expenses to attend the award ceremony.

Horst's dissertation was directed by UI psychology professor Larissa Samuelson, with Bob McMurray, Gregg Oden, John Spencer, Karla McGregor, and Prahlad Gupta, all faculty in the UI's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, on the dissertation committee.

In 2008, Horst won the American Psychological Association Dissertation Award in Developmental Psychology. While at the UI, she was honored with a university-wide Outstanding Teaching Award from the UI Council on Teaching and was the winner of a Seashore Dissertation Year Fellowship from the Graduate College. She served for several years as a senator for the Graduate Student Senate, including service as secretary and vice president. As part of those duties, she helped increase scholarly interaction among UI graduate students, serving as co-chair for the Jakobsen Conference, a student-organized forum presenting graduate student research and creative work from across the entire campus. Horst is currently an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom.

Horst also won the UI Graduate College's 2009 D.C. Spriestersbach Dissertation Prize for best dissertation in the social sciences, an award that placed her work in the running for the national award as the UI's nominated dissertation. She will receive the Spriestersbach Prize honors, along with $2,500, in March at a special UI reception held in conjunction with the James F. Jakobsen Graduate Research Forum, organized by the Graduate Student Senate.

Winners of the UI's Spriestersbach Prize have fared exceptionally well in the national competition. The UI, with five winners, has garnered more national awards than any other institution, public or private. With this year's award, the UI surpasses Yale University, which has had four winners.

The other UI recipients of the national prize were: Michael Chasar, English, most outstanding dissertation in the nation in the humanities, 2008; David Lasocki, music, most outstanding dissertation in the nation in the humanities, 1984; Matthew P. Anderson, physiology and biophysics, most outstanding dissertation in the biological sciences, 1993; Susan Behrends Frank, art history, most outstanding dissertation in the humanities, 1997. Ten other UI nominees have been finalists in the national dissertation competition.

"The success of the UI's candidates in the national competition is a tribute to the high standards of excellence met by doctoral research conducted at this university," said UI Graduate College Dean John Keller.

For more on the CGS visit

For information about the UI Graduate College visit

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Jennifer Masada, UI Graduate College, 319-335-2815,; Nicole Riehl, University News Services, 319-384-0070,; Writer: Jennifer Masada