APS Members Win Troland Award

APS Members Frank Tong of Vanderbilt University and Michael Kahana of the University of Pennsylvania have each been awarded the 2010 Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Science (NAS). This $50,000 prize is awarded annually to two young researchers (under age 40) in recognition of their exceptional achievements in empirically based psychological research.

NAS is honoring Tong for his “pioneering use of neural decoding techniques to explore mechanisms in the human brain mediating perception, attention, and object recognition.” As a graduate student at Harvard University, he became fascinated with the expanding field of cognitive neuroscience, functional MRI, and its possibilities for studying the neural bases of conscious visual experience. He recalls learning from his PhD mentors, Ken Nakayama and Nancy Kanwisher, not just about visual perception and the visual system, but more importantly, how to approach challenging scientific problems while having fun with the process of not knowing the answers yet. He also recalls attending compelling lectures as a graduate student, particularly those by William Newsome and Nikos Logothetis, who were making major advances in understanding the relationship between neuronal activity and subjective visual perception by studying awake-behaving monkeys.

Currently, Tong uses functional MRI to study the neural bases of visual consciousness in humans. Much of his research utilizes fMRI scans to decode the neural bases of phenomena such as attentional selection, conscious perception of features and objects, and visual working memory.

Tong is honored to receive this award and is very humbled by the recognition he has gained from his peers throughout the process. “It was almost daunting to look through the list of past recipients,” said Tong. “I was somewhat awe-struck to be in their company.” Tong has already enjoyed several other accomplishments in his career including receiving a Scientific American Top 50 Award in 2004 as well as Young Investigator Awards from the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in 2006 and from the Vision Sciences Society in 2009. He is trying to take this award in stride as well. “I’ve had a lot of good things happen to me in my career, and I think it’s because I’ve been surrounded by so many great people,” he said. “I should particularly highlight Yukiyasu Kamitani, a former postdoc and now an associate professor, who deserves 99 percent of the credit for jump-starting my lab’s focus on decoding the information contained in brain activity patterns.” With everyone in the laboratory pushing themselves towards new experiments and ideas, he believes it can be surprisingly easy to gain inspiration from one another.

Inspired by the support he feels for his research, Tong will continue his work decoding patterns of brain activity as they relate to visual and subjective phenomena. He is excited to start working on a new project involving high-resolution functional imaging scans of the visual cortex that can provide even greater detail and insight into visual processing.

Michael Kahana is being honored for his “innovative experimental, theoretical, and computational work leading to new insights regarding the dynamics of human episodic memory.” While pursuing his PhD at the University of Toronto, Kahana had the opportunity to work with eminent memory scholars Ben Murdock and Endel Tulving. “In the process of wrestling with (their) alternate frameworks, I began to develop my own ideas about how to capture the distinction between episodic and semantic memory in a mathematical model,” said Kahana. “Together with my first graduate student, Marc Howard, who is now a professor at Syracuse University, we developed the temporal context model of episodic memory that has since helped us understand a number of puzzles in the memory literature.”

After completing his doctorate at Toronto, Kahana went to Harvard to do postdoctoral work with William K. Estes.  Kahana recalls the interactions he had with Dan Schacter and Mike Hasselmo during his postdoctoral year as influencing him to begin exploring the neural basis of human memory, a topic that has become a major focus of his research.  His interest in the neural basis of human memory was strengthened by interactions with the neuroscience community at Brandeis University, where he had his first faculty appointment.  “I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to study under luminaries in the field of cognitive psychology at Toronto and Harvard, and then to have a chance to learn about neuroscience from a terrific group of colleagues when I was an assistant professor at Brandeis.”

Kahana moved to the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, where he is Professor of Psychology and also runs the computational neuroscience undergraduate and graduate training program.  He feels greatly honored to have his work recognized by the NAS, and he plans to focus his energies on bridging the gap between cognitive and neuroscientific theories of human memory.

To learn more about the Troland Awards, and other awards from NAS, please go to http://www.nasonline.org.

Observer Vol.23, No.3 March, 2010

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