Education Funding

Philanthropy

September 06, 2000 1 min read

Infant Brain Research: It began, as so many things do, with the birth of children.

As the Seattle-based telecommunications billionaire Bruce McCaw and his wife, Jolene, welcomed their two children into the world, they wanted to be the best parents they could.

But they soon found themselves frustrated with the lack of solid, scientific, yet understandable information about how infants learn. So they sought out John Medina, a University of Washington molecular biologist.

Over lunch, the three lamented the scarcity of research on infant brain development and imagined the profound influence such knowledge could have on anyone who raises or works with children. In July, the McCaws announced a $91 million commitment to make that vision a reality by founding the Talaris Research Institute in northeast Seattle.

Breaking their usual habit of extreme privacy to appear at a news conference, the McCaws said they want the best in learning opportunities for their daughter, now 21/2, and son, 9 months.

“You realize there is so much you want to know,” said Mr. McCaw, who ran a leading cellular phone company, McCaw Cellular Communications Inc., before selling it to AT&T Corp.

Mr. McCaw, 54, now runs an auto-racing company.

Mr. Medina, who will serve as Talaris’ founding director, said the institute will be an unusual blend of science and communications. As many as 100 researchers will study brain development in infants and young children, and the staff will then share those findings with parents and educators, the news media, and the business community.

The McCaws paid $18 million for a pastoral 20-acre site to house the institute and have committed to spending $48 million or more to construct new buildings on it. In addition, they pledged $25 million in operating expenses for the first five years, said family spokesman David Schaefer.

Kyle Pruett, the president of Zero to Three, a Washington-based nonprofit group that advocates healthy practices for infants and toddlers, said the “resources, integrity, and passion” of the institute make it “very promising.” But he urged parents to remember that while scientific understanding can enhance a child’s early years, a close emotional bond with parents is crucial.

“Even the brightest mind, if not connected to a good emotional experience, is not going to do anyone any good,” Dr. Pruett said.

—Catherine Gewertz cgewertz@epe.org

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