APS Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions

Researchers studying transgender-youth development, self-control failure in incarcerated criminal psychopaths, and computational modeling are among those honored with the 2016 APS Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions. This year’s innovative research encompasses a broad variety of topics, including the capacity — or inability — to display self-control, the “dark side of positive emotion,” the impact of societal-level stigma on the disadvantaged, children’s perceptions of social categories, and the intersection between vision and cognition. In the following interview excerpts, the award recipients discuss their groundbreaking research programs. The awards will be presented at the 2016 APS Annual Convention, May 26–29, in Chicago, Illinois.

The Janet Taylor Spence Award is named for APS’s first elected president. An award-winning psychological scientist, she was renowned for her work on the role of anxiety in classical conditioning as well as for her studies on gender studies. Spence, who passed away last year at the age of 91, was also tenacious in her pursuit of gender equality in the sciences, as APS Past President Kay Deaux wrote in her remembrance: “Although Janet entered numerous academic realms as the token woman, she inevitably became an indispensable team member and respected leader. She was smart and clear thinking, someone who was able to quickly separate out the chaff and focus on the essential problem to be solved or task to be done.” A special symposium in Spence’s honor, cochaired by Deaux and Lucia Albino Gilbert, will be held at the 2016 APS Annual Convention.

Joshua W. Buckholtz
June Gruber
Mark Hatzenbuehler
Kristina Olson
Franco Pestilli

Buckholtz_webJoshua W. Buckholtz

Harvard University

scholar.harvard.edu/buckholtz/home

Please briefly describe your research interests.

The capacity for self-control is a defining feature of our species. Yet, while humans are good at self-control on the mean, the range of inter-individual variability in self-control is dramatic. We still know relatively little about the neurobiological mechanisms that produce this core feature of human variation. This is the central mystery that motivates my work. My lab is focused on identifying the specific large-scale brain circuits that drive individual differences in self-control, in order to understand how dysfunction within these circuits leads to impulsivity, aggression, addiction, antisocial behavior, and other forms of psychopathology. A second focus of our work is on uncovering the cognitive and neural foundations for social-norm-based cooperative behavior, particularly norm compliance and norm enforcement.

What was the seminal event, or series of events, that led you to an interest in your award-winning research?

I am a walking embodiment of the maxim “all research is me-search.” Throughout childhood and well into young adulthood, my own capacities for self-control were somewhat lacking. Fortunately, self-control did kick in eventually, but my early experiences with self-control failure made a deep and lasting impression, and I remain fascinated by a set of capacities that was elusive and mysterious to me during a very formative period.

Tell us about one of the accomplishments you are most proud of within this area of research. What factors led to your success?

I am insanely excited about one of our most recent discoveries (currently under review). This work identifies a specific circuit mechanism that predisposes self-control failure in incarcerated criminal psychopaths. In addition, we are able to show that circuit dysfunction can be “rescued” with targeted noninvasive brain stimulation. This work was made possible by a brilliant and determined set of graduate students, RAs and postdocs, especially Jay Hosking, Hayley Dorfman, Erik Kastman, and Ann Carroll.

What contributions, or contributors, to psychological science do you feel have had a major impact on your career path?

My father is a neuroscientist, and some of my earliest childhood memories involve father–son trips to his lab on Saturdays. Proust had his madeleines; I have solvents, scintillation vials, and animal bedding.

In high school, I got my first real taste of research while working in labs at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). There, Kit Bonson and Steve Grant had a profound impact on my development as a scientist.

Joe Newman, my undergraduate research mentor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is responsible for transforming me into a psychological scientist. His class on psychopathy literally changed the course of my life, as did his kindness in allowing me to work in his lab. This was my first exposure to psychological research, and it ignited a passion for discovery that drives me still.

Joe Callicott, at the NIMH, decided to accept me into his lab as an RA despite (or possibly because of) my comically atrocious academic record. He, Danny Weinberger, and Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg gave me a rich tool kit and a massively integrative framework for answering scientific questions.

In graduate school at Vanderbilt, I was blessed with two amazing mentors — David Zald and Rene Marois. I can’t imagine better scientific role models. Each, in different ways, taught me the essential elements of success as a scientist.

I continue to be influenced by my world-class colleagues, and I couldn’t ask for a more supportive and intellectually nurturing department. Mahzarin Banaji, Randy Buckner, Mina Cikara, Fiery Cushman, Sam Gershman, Dan Gilbert, Josh Greene, Jill Hooley, Ellen Langer, Rich McNally, Ken Nakayama, Matt Nock, Steve Pinker, Dan Schacter, Leah Somerville, Felix Warneken, and John Weisz have all had a particularly salutary impact on how I think about psychological science. Outside of my department, I am especially grateful for the mentorship of Lisa Feldman Barrett and Judy Edersheim, and for colleagues and collaborators such as Arielle Baskin-Sommers, Joan Camprodon, Molly Crockett, David Faigman, Judge Nancy Gertner, Uma Karmarkar, Valerie Reyna, Alexandra Rosati, Greg Samanez-Larkin, and Chris Slobogin. And of course, my bizarro-world science twin, Michael Treadway.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

Since I was a kid, the only thing I ever wanted was to be a scientist. Winning this award is an occasion to reflect upon and appreciate all of the people who have made that fantastical dream a reality. All of the people above made that possible, but I would be nothing without my indefatigable partner, Ashley; our kids, Leo, and Natasha; my endlessly supportive parents; and my inspiring siblings.

Gruber_webJune Gruber

University of Colorado Boulder

colorado.edu/clinicalpsychology/june-gruber-phd

Please briefly describe your research interests.

Emotions are an essential ingredient of what makes us human. Surprisingly, there remain many mysteries as to how we can harness emotions to improve mental health outcomes and enhance well-being. My research lies at the intersection of positive emotion and psychopathology, focused on delineating the ways in which positive emotion can go awry and towards developing an integrated clinical–affective science model of positive emotion disturbance. Specific questions of interest include whether positive emotion — in particular degrees, contexts, durations, or types — predicts maladaptive behavioral syndromes and psychological-health outcomes.

What was the seminal event, or series of events, that led you to an interest in your award-winning research?

I first got involved in research in emotion as an undergraduate volunteering in psychology labs at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University. This exposed me to the rich literature and methodological tools in affective science. Later on during my graduate studies in clinical psychology, I gained first-hand exposure to patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder where I first saw the potential negative consequences of heightened euphoria during mania. At that time, there remained much room to translate the theoretical insights on positive emotion to clinical populations, such as bipolar disorder. I’ve continued to focus on understanding the “dark side of positive emotion” ever since.

Tell us about one of the accomplishments you are most proud of within this area of research. What factors led to your success?

Our 2011 paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science (Gruber, Mauss, and Tamir, 2012) turned my thinking about “happiness” upside-down, and also made me rethink its broader implications for the scientific study of positive emotionality. In this paper, we focused on presenting a theoretical framework that highlighted key boundary conditions for the ways in which happiness might not portend maladaptive psychological and health outcomes. More importantly, this paper introduced me to two of my most esteemed collaborators and lifelong friends — Iris Mauss and Maya Tamir.

What contributions, or contributors, to psychological science do you feel have had a major impact on your career path?

We are lucky that psychological science is such a warm and generous world to live in. Each project I’ve participated in has been part science and part exposure to incredible minds and human beings. A bow of gratitude to graduate mentors: Allison Harvey, Sheri Johnson, Dacher Keltner, Ann Kring, and Robert Levenson. A second note of indebtedness to senior colleagues who continue to mentor me in the multitudes of science and its practice: James Gross, Jeanne Tsai, Ian Gotlib, Jutta Joormann, Brian Scholl, John Bargh, David DeSteno, Kent Hutchison, and Tor Wager. Unbelievably importantly are my peers (and buddies) who keep science fun as we forge into the unknown together: Tessa West, Iris Mauss, Jamil Zaki, Amy Cuddy, Maya Tamir, Wil Cunningham, Hedy Kober, Kateri McRae, Pranj Mehta, Doug Mennin, Christopher Oveis, Greg Samanez-Larkin, Emma Seppala, Greg Siegle, David Rand, Josh Buckholtz, Leah Somerville, Michael Norton, Jordi Quiodbach, and Lauren Weinstock. And a final shout-out of gratitude to those who, like Janet Taylor Spence, demonstrate that some of the best science would not be possible without women doing it: Tania Lombrozo, Wendy Berry Mendes, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Judith Moskowitz, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Tackett, Sona Dimidjian, Joanna Arch, and Marie Banich.

What questions do you hope to tackle in the future?

One next step in unpacking positive emotion disturbance is asking why it occurs. This mechanistic approach will necessitate careful measurement of cognitive, neurophysiological and neuroendocrine mechanisms involved in the onset and maintenance of heightened positive mood states. Subsequent translational studies underway focus on the real-world developing and testing novel interventions to promote strategies that carefully cultivate healthy positive feelings, and successfully harness other positive states and their precursors.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

As both a female scientist and a recent “academic mama,” it means a lot. It’s humbling and inspiring to see science honor women within the practice, and to do so via honoring the trailblazing scientist Janet Taylor Spence and her legacy.

Hatzenbuehler_webMark Hatzenbuehler

Columbia University

mailman.columbia.edu/people/our-faculty/mlh2101

Please briefly describe your research interests.

Psychological science has provided essential insights into how stigma operates to disadvantage those who are targeted by it. At the same time, stigma research has been criticized for being too focused on the perceptions of stigmatized individuals and the consequences of such perceptions for microlevel interactions. I have developed a new line of research expanding the stigma construct to consider structural forms of stigma, defined as societal-level conditions, cultural norms, and institutional policies and practices that constrain the opportunities, resources, and well-being of the stigmatized. Using a multimeasure, multimethod, and multidisciplinary approach, my colleagues and I have demonstrated that structural stigma has far-reaching health consequences for members of stigmatized groups, ranging from dysregulated physiological stress responses measured in the laboratory to premature mortality at a population level.

For instance, in one natural experiment, we examined mental-health outcomes among lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) respondents who were assessed before and after several states passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. We found that LGB adults who lived in states that passed the constitutional amendments experienced a 37% increase in mood disorders, a 42% increase in alcohol-use disorders, and a 248% increase in generalized anxiety disorders in the 12 months following the bans. In contrast, LGB respondents living in states without these bans, and heterosexuals living in states with the bans, did not experience a significant increase in psychiatric disorders during the study period. In another study, we constructed a measure capturing the average level of antigay prejudice in a community. To do this, we took four questions on people’s attitudes towards gays and lesbians that had been repeatedly assessed in the General Social Survey across 14 years and aggregated these individual responses up to the community level, such that each community had an average prejudice score. This information on prejudicial attitudes at the community level was prospectively linked with mortality data via the National Death Index. We found that sexual minorities who lived in high-structural stigma communities — operationalized as communities with high levels of antigay prejudice — had increased mortality risk compared with those living in low-structural stigma communities, controlling for individual- and community-level covariates.  This effect translates into a life expectancy difference of 12 years on average (range: 4–20 years), which is similar to life-expectancy differences between individuals with and without a high school education.

The consistency of the associations that we have observed between structural stigma and health inequalities across numerous studies, and the ability to triangulate evidence across several methodological approaches, highlights the robustness of evidence for these relationships. Consequently, our work suggests that structural stigma represents a significant, but thus far largely underrecognized, source of social disadvantage for stigmatized populations.

What was the seminal event, or series of events, that led you to an interest in your award-winning research?

When I began searching for a way to study the health consequences of structural stigma, I confronted several challenges. First, there was a lack of structural-level measures of stigma because most stigma research had focused on the individual and interpersonal levels. Second, the few structural stigma measures that did exist, such as laws, often had no variation; for instance, the Defense of Marriage Act was a federal law, and therefore affected all LGB populations in the United States. Third, few large-scale data sets that included measures of stigmatized populations and provided geographic units of analysis (e.g., states) existed, making it difficult for researchers to link structural stigma variables. A confluence of fortuitous events made it possible for me to overcome these challenges. I had begun working with a nationally representative data set of US adults that was released just as I started graduate school, and it included a measure of sexual orientation, mental-health outcomes, and the state of residence of the respondents. At about the same time, the policy environment surrounding LGB populations was rapidly shifting; some states enacted laws that provided protections for LGB individuals (e.g., through hate-crime laws), while others promulgated stigma against these individuals (e.g., constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage). It occurred to me, in one of those rare moments of inspiration, that I now had a measure of structural stigma (i.e., state policies) that had sufficient variation to detect an effect (should one exist), as well as a data set that provided the rare opportunity to examine a fairly basic, but heretofore unanswered, question: Would sexual orientation disparities in psychiatric morbidity be more pronounced in states with structural forms of stigma against gays, lesbians, and bisexuals (i.e., state laws that did not provide hate-crime or employment nondiscrimination protections for LGB individuals)?

My colleagues and I found evidence for this hypothesis, and the results were much stronger than we had anticipated. We found that sexual orientation disparities in some psychiatric disorders (i.e., dysthymia) were eliminated in low-structural stigma states; conversely, sexual orientation disparities in other disorders were nearly four times more likely to exist in high-structural stigma states. Importantly, we were able to control for experiences of interpersonal discrimination and demonstrated that structural stigma remained associated with psychiatric morbidity over and above stigma at other levels of analysis.

This finding raised several new questions that have guided my program of research over the past several years: Is an effect of structural stigma on health still observed using designs that permit stronger causal inferences (e.g., prospective, quasiexperimental)? Do different operationalizations of structural stigma produce similar results? Does structural stigma contribute to negative health outcomes other than psychiatric disorders? Is there evidence for plausible alternative explanations for the relationship between structural stigma and health (e.g., social selection)? Are relationships between structural stigma and health disparities evident in other stigmatized populations? What psychosocial factors moderate and mediate the relationship between structural stigma and health?

Tell us about one of the accomplishments you are most proud of within this area of research. What factors led to your success?

Several of my studies have been used in amici curiae briefs in cases on status-based discrimination. One of the highlights was having the work cited in several briefs submitted for Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide last year. It was professionally gratifying to have my work used to inform public-policy debates. It also was personally rewarding to see the research have a positive impact on the LGB population in places like Tennessee, where I grew up and where the state had historically silenced LGB individuals’ self-expression and stigmatized their identities.

What contributions, or contributors, to psychological science do you feel have had a major impact on your career path?

Robert Frost once said, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” I have had the great fortune to be mentored by three people who awakened in me a passion for my work. As a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Yale University, I approached Susan Nolen-Hoeksema about working with her. Even though my interests were fairly tangential to hers, she immediately welcomed me into her lab. Her generosity and capacious knowledge of the field helped me find my footing. Jack Dovidio joined the social psychology department just when I decided to blend models and theories from clinical and social psychology to understand the mental-health consequences of stigma, providing further evidence for the importance of luck in the research endeavor. I took a seminar on stereotyping and prejudice with Jack and was hooked. His creativity and ability to quickly home in on the most important questions continue to inspire me. I could not have conjured a more perfect mentorship team in graduate school; Susan’s and Jack’s probing intellect and love of learning were infectious and were matched only by their incredible dedication to mentoring their students. Susan tragically passed away 3 years ago, but her legacy lives on in the lives of all of us who benefited so tremendously from her talent and support.

My third mentor is Bruce Link, who was my postdoctoral and early career mentor at Columbia University. Bruce is a sociologist (we won’t hold that against him) and a leading expert in the field of stigma. Like Jack and Susan, he is a deep thinker and a fierce advocate for his mentees. Bruce nurtured my inchoate interest in structural stigma, and his early encouragement of my ideas gave me the confidence to pursue and expand them. He emboldened me to stretch and ask bigger and broader questions about the role of stigma as a source of disadvantage. Bruce once told me that every time he thought he had a new idea about stigma, he reread Erving Goffman’s work and found some version of it there. I feel the same about Bruce.

There are several factors that have contributed to my success. First and foremost: my dad always told me to surround myself with people who are smarter than I am, and that has proven to be very sage advice.  My mentors— have shaped my thinking in fundamental ways, and their support at crucial points in my career gave me the confidence to pursue my ideas. My collaborators, many of whom are from other disciplines (including medical sociology and psychiatric and social epidemiology), have provided inspiration and good counsel. There are too many to name, but I’m especially grateful to Bruce Link, Jo Phelan, John Pachankis, Katie McLaughlin, and Kerry Keyes. I have wonderful colleagues in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University. My office is right next door to two sociologists and an anthropologist, and I routinely interact with health psychologists, historians, and political scientists. This interdisciplinary setting has undoubtedly contributed to the kinds of questions I ask and the manner in which I pursue answers to them. Finally, at the risk of this turning into an Academy Award speech, you simply can’t do good work without a foundation of love and support. I clearly won the lottery with an incredible family, partner, and friends.

What questions do you hope to tackle in the future?

At first glance, it may appear that research on structural stigma falls outside the purview of psychologists, who tend to study individuals and groups rather than social structures. However, research is beginning to indicate why structural stigma is important to psychological science, and the questions I want to pursue hopefully will provide further evidence for this claim. For example, influential theories of stigma at the individual and interpersonal levels posit structural-level sources for stereotypes and stigma-related stressors (e.g., self-stigma, concealment), but they do not explicitly interrogate such sources by locating variation and testing their impact. This is due in part to the fact that, until recently, the field lacked the measures and data sets necessary to incorporate structural stigma into psychological research on stigma. With the advent of new measures and data structures that permit the examination of structural stigma, it is now possible to conduct novel tests of existing theories about the causes and consequences of stigma processes that have long been the traditional focus of psychological science. Our recent research, for instance, has suggested that individual-level stigma processes may be generated in part by structural forms of stigma. Using data on country-level structural stigma (e.g., laws and policies related to sexual orientation discrimination) across 38 countries in Europe, we showed that sexual-minority men living in high-structural stigma countries were more likely to conceal their sexual orientation (i.e., an individual-level stigma process) than were those in low-structural stigma countries; in turn, concealment was associated with greater HIV risk behaviors among men living in high-structural stigma countries. Examining direct and synergistic relationships across different levels of stigma not only will open up previously unexplored areas for research on stigma, but also will suggest new ways of thinking about how to change and ultimately reduce stigma related health disparities.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

It’s very humbling to receive this award. I am a big admirer of many of the past recipients, so it is quite an honor to join their ranks. As someone who studies stigma and discrimination, I am particularly honored to receive an award named after Janet Taylor Spence, who was such a pioneer in confronting and addressing gender bias and discrimination. It is validating to have my work acknowledged in this capacity. There were times when I felt as if my focus on broad social structures was too far afield to be considered psychological science, so I’m grateful that the committee has recognized that this work has important implications not only for understanding basic psychological processes, but also for applied psychological science.

Olson_webKristina Olson

University of Washington
depts.washington.edu/uwkids

Please briefly describe your research interests.

My research interests focus on how young children learn to divide the world into social categories and how they discover their place within those categories. While I spent many years focused on groups like race and social class, most recently, I’ve begun a larger longitudinal study of transgender children. I also conduct research on early prosocial behavior and have dabbled in working to understand how people think about ownership.

What was the seminal event, or series of events, that led you to an interest in your award-winning research?

A series of fortuitous events led me to my new line of work on transgender youth development. First, my long-standing interest in children’s social categories led me to wonder about the experiences of transgender children — what are the implications of feeling like you are in a social category that, at least initially, no one else believes you to be in? How does the rejection or affirmation of that identity influence a child’s life? In addition to this long-standing interest, I had a close friend whose child was transgender, and as I began to read literature on the topic, I discovered that most research on gender-diverse youth has come from a more clinical tradition, despite identities being inherently social and developmental experiences. This interest was percolating to the top of my research priority list right as I was moving to the University of Washington, where I had funds to start a new project. At the same time, more and more families were becoming public about their children’s transgender identities, and the public had a growing interest in transgender people. It was really the culmination of these forces, combined with support from my mentors and students, which allowed me to tackle what is without a doubt the hardest and most public-facing project I’ve worked on to date.

Tell us about one of the accomplishments you are most proud of within this area of research. What factors led to your success?

I think my proudest achievement within this area has been recruitment. When I started this project, I dreamed that I would one day find 50 families of transgender children who would agree to participate in a long-term study about their families. We have now more than tripled that number, and in the process have logged visits to more than 25 states. I think sheer will on behalf of my extraordinary team is to thank for this accomplishment. My students and staff have traveled at all hours of day and night, stayed in pretty lousy hotels, subsisted on popcorn and peanut butter, and have not been paid very well — all so that we could do this work. Their hard work, along with the faith of families who sign up to participate, is why we’ve had such success.

What contributions, or contributors, to psychological science do you feel have had a major impact on your career path?

I think my work has been really fortunate to exist at the time it does — a time when interdisciplinary research is being celebrated in psychological science. I’m confident that the work I find myself doing now simply could not have happened at another time. My work builds on the tightly controlled, beautifully designed research in cognitive and social–cognitive psychology (much of which I learned from my undergraduate mentors, Roddy Roediger and Alan Lambert), as well as the nascent but prolific work at the intersection of social and developmental psychology (much of which has happened because of my graduate mentors, Mahzarin Banaji, Liz Spelke, and Carol Dweck, as well as my early colleagues and mentors, Karen Wynn and Paul Bloom). Additionally, my work has been inspired by research that is informed by public discourse on social issues (e.g., everything from Kurt Lewin’s action research to modern work on police brutality). Without these people, and these scientific traditions, I would not be able to do the work I do.

What questions do you hope to tackle in the future?

In the next few years, I plan to tackle questions about the long-term impact of early affirmation or denial on a child’s identity and well-being. I also hope to expand my work on early gender understanding to broader ranges of people — children who are intersex, those who have fluid gender identities, and children in other cultures with gender identities we don’t yet recognize in the United States. Further, I want to understand how a child’s sense of place within a social category influences that child’s perceptions of other categories. I’m sure I’ll never get to fully answer these questions, but I hope my lab’s work can make a dent in them.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

To me, this award is recognition of the work of a much larger group of people than just me. Even though technically my name is on it, I think it’s an award for my research group, as I wouldn’t have had the early career I did if they hadn’t been there. This award is most gratifying because it is a reflection of the opportunity to work with such a tremendous group of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, staff, and undergrads since I started as a faculty member. I think they are incredibly deserving of this award and I’m excited to share it with them.

An environmental portrait of Franco Pestilli.

Franco Pestilli

Indiana University Bloomington
francopestilli.com; https://pestillilab.indiana.edu

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.

 

 

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