2016 Janet Taylor Spence Award
Indiana University Bloomington
Please briefly describe your research interests.
Perhaps my research can be a little bit difficult to classify within a single field or topic, as it spans a few. I am a psychologist, a computational and cognitive neuroscientist, and a vision scientist. I am interested in understanding the biological and behavioral processes of vision, attention, and cognition. In my research, I strive to bridge the development of quantitative and biological methods and the measurements from living human brains. I am interested in understanding the fundamental brain processes that implement human perception and cognition and make each one of us the unique individual that we become during our lives, through development and aging.
What was the seminal event, or series of events, that led you to an interest in your award-winning research?
My career has been strongly influenced by my genuine curiosity about how the human mind works and how its workings might be rooted in the forms and structures of the brain. As a young adult I had fervent interests in psychology, philosophy, and engineering, and it therefore felt natural to me to study cognitive science during my undergraduate career at the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy. During my study in Rome, I was offered a fellowship in artificial intelligence and took up the challenge of learning computational methods to model the mind.
When I came to the United States, I initially planned to study cognitive psychology. Instead, purely by chance, I literally stumbled upon the beautiful field of vision science and psychophysics on my first visit to New York University (NYU) by mistakenly walking into the wrong office — that of my future advisor, Marisa Carrasco. At NYU, I investigated how cognition affects the way we see the world. I learned to measure human behavior as well as brain activity using magnetic resonance imaging technology (MRI). A MacCracken Graduate Fellowship supported my work at that time.
After I left NYU, I worked with Vince Ferrera in the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia University in the scientific environment created by the extended group of Michael Goldberg. At Columbia, I worked on human decision-making and the effects of expected value on brain response. My work at Columbia was supported by two training grants from the National Institutes of Health and one fellowship by The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America. During the same period, I became a visiting scientist at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute (RIKEN BSI), a leading Japanese research institution. Working with Justin Gardner and David Heeger, I helped develop a computational model that would predict human behavior using measures of brain activity (Pestilli et al., 2011). I won a prestigious fellowship from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for my work at RIKEN BSI.
After Columbia University and RIKEN BSI, I moved to Stanford University to study the interplay between attention and reading in developing children with Brian Wandell, and we were supported by the National Science Foundation. During the early course of my appointment at Stanford University, I shifted my interest toward computational methods, the study of human brain networks, and white matter. The work at Stanford led to the development of a new brain-mapping technology used to study brain connectomes: Linear Fascicle Evaluation, or LiFE (Pestilli et al., 2014).
It seems that notwithstanding my nonlinear career trajectory, I perhaps ended up precisely where I was meant to be — working at the interface between psychological science and engineering.
Tell us about one of the accomplishments you are most proud of within this area of research. What factors led to your success?
To date, one of my most cited articles is my first publication on the effects of attention on human vision (Pestilli & Carrasco, 2005). Insights from this early work inspired me to develop a computational model that predicts the effects of attention on brain responses (Pestilli et al., 2011; Hara et al., 2014). This work has sparked debates in the field of attention.
Since my time at Stanford, I have been studying human white matter and large-scale brain networks. I like to think about white matter as the “dark side” of neuroscience: We still know so little about it. I developed the LiFE method to establish the accuracy of large-scale brain networks in living individuals (Pestilli et al., 2014). The method generates synthetic brain data given a putative model of brain networks and facilitates the visualization of biological human-brain connectomes. The new technology allowed me and my collaborators to discover several major and previously unknown brain connections (Pestilli et al., 2014; Yeatman et al., 2014; Gomez et al., 2015; Takemura et al., 2015; Leong et al., 2016).
Resilience is my good friend. I do not give up easily and am relentlessly focused on the accuracy of measurements, modeling, and data visualizations. That, I think, characterizes the strength of my scientific contributions well.
What contributions, or contributors, to psychological science do you feel have had a major impact on your career path?
During college, I was inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud, Richard Shiffrin, Herbert Simon, Allen Newell, Amos Tversky, and Daniel Kahneman. Reading Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter, was an inspirational turning point for me, further igniting my interest in psychological science and the mechanisms of the mind.
During graduate school, I was inspired by the work of many brilliant scientists: Marisa Carrasco of NYU, David Heeger of NYU, J. Anthony Movshon of NYU, Denis Pelli of NYU, John Reynolds of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, John H. Maunsell of The University of Chicago, Michael Goldberg of Columbia University, Norma Graham of Columbia University, Karen DeValois the University of California, Berkeley, Anne Treisman of Princeton University, Brian Wandell of Stanford University, and William Newsome of Stanford University.
I consider myself extremely lucky to have had the honor to work with some of these scientists.
What questions do you hope to tackle in the future?
Every time you go to the eye doctor for new glasses, vision measurements are taken. The doctor uses these measurements to create a precise medical prescription that helps you, and only you, see the world better. This approach is at odds with the standard practices in other fields of medical science. For example, despite differences in our genetic backgrounds or body types, we all are prescribed one or two aspirins for a headache — no additional measurements are taken into account.
Trained as a psychologist and vision scientist, I am pursuing the development of methods that can advance a personalized understanding of vision, cognition, and the human brain. I strive to contribute to what I like to call “precision brain science.” I am interested in questions that precision science asks about human individuality in the context of the larger population, and I would like to contribute to developing a precise psychological and brain science of human individuals. We do not yet have established methods to do this. My background in vision science might give me an edge in this field.
What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?
Professionally, I truly believe this award is not just for me, but also for all the people who put trust in my abilities and supported me throughout the years, including my mentors and collaborators. I am extremely grateful to Olaf Sporns, Brian Wandell, and David Heeger for nominating me for the award.
The award was an unexpectedly welcome event for my family. I am a first-generation college student, and it is difficult at times to fully share my excitement about my work with my whole family. Yet the award has enabled me to do so and to convey the importance of my work to them. It has been a great source of happiness and pride for my parents.
Finally, I feel very fortunate to have found a great friend and loving partner in Susanne Ressl, my wife, who is also a scientist. We support each other to keep up with our lives and careers. She is partially responsible for this award — and I have data to prove this.