Newsletter Article

2010 Faculty Promotions

We are very pleased to announce the promotion of several of our faculty. As you can see from the descriptions below, they all lead exciting research programs. In addition, they all uniquely contribute to the high quality educational experience of our undergraduate and graduate students.

 Miriam Bassok: promotion to Full Professor

Photo Miriam BassokThe general topic of research in the Bassok laboratory is high level cognition, and more specifically formal (i.e. mathematical or physics related) problem solving in the real world. She is interested in understanding how one’s semantic understanding of real world objects impacts our approach to solving problems.  She was the first to find that our reasoning abilities (especially in the domains of physics and math) appear to be dramatically influenced by our (learned) understanding of the functions and significance of the elements of the problem.  For example, people tend to add together objects that are perceived to come from the same semantic category: tulips and roses (from the semantic category of flowers) tend to be added together. In contrast objects from different semantic categories (e.g. tulips and vases) tend to divide object numbers. Dr. Bassok’s most recent work shows that the impact of this kind of semantic alignment occurs without the awareness of the individual. This knowledge about our reasoning abilities could have profound implications for the development of math or physics related curricula at all levels (K-12, or even college level). Most recently, Dr. Bassok has established a new collaboration with Professor Osterhout in our department to begin neurobiological assessment of semantic alignment and its consequences.

 Ione Fine: promotion to Associate Professor with tenure

Photo of Ione FineDr. Fine’s research is to understand the organization of sensory processing in the brain.  Her approach has been to study neural and behavioral recovery from sensory loss or deprivation using brain imaging methods (e.g. fMRI).  In this way, she is able to gain new insight into normal brain plasticity mechanisms (i.e. flexibility in processing) by observing how the brain reorganizes as a result of the sensory insult, and how it tries to ‘recover’ when sensory input is restored.  This challenging yet innovative approach has allowed Dr. Fine to document that the brain’s information coding schemes are not as ‘set in stone’ from birth as previously thought.  Rather, the traditionally defined ‘visual areas of brain’ can actually ‘learn’ to process auditory information if visual input is denied.  Such findings have tremendous impact on not only our understanding of brain function and plasticity, but also on the development of effective therapeutic treatments.

Cheryl Kaiser: promotion to Associate Professor with tenure

Photo of Cheryl KaiserDr. Kaiser has become a leading expert in the field of prejudice, social stigma, and discrimination.  Her laboratory was the first to document the negative impact on those who protest about being victims of discrimination. Her research describes the negative social stigma attached to individuals that blame racial discrimination for their negative evaluation. This can explain why few workers are willing to complain when they feel discriminated against. Another facet of her work studies how the social perception of an individual that belongs to a stigmatized group can vary depending on how much that individual identifies with the stigmatized group. NSF funded work focuses on the conditions that lead to a group member deciding whether to interfere or help with the success of another group member in a highly competitive situation. For example, will senior female colleagues interfere with the promotions of junior female colleagues? The question is: will those higher up on the ladder ‘lift up’ or ‘kick down’ colleagues from a similar stigmatized group?  Dr. Kaiser’s work has already impacted national policy, and has the potential to have direct impact at state and local levels as well. 

Scott Murray: promotion to Associate Professor with tenure

Photo of Scott MurrayDr. Murray’s research program focuses on extra-retinal influences on visual perception.  Dr. Murray has made important contributions to a growing literature showing that neural responses and visual performance is strongly affected by factors such as attention and 3-D context.  This has revolutionized the way we think about how the early stages of the visual processing occur in the brain (within a structure called V1).  For example, Dr. Murray recently showed how changes in the perceived size of a stimulus affect the neural representation of that stimulus. This is a great example of how contextual information affects the way information is represented in the brain.  Importantly, receptive fields of V1 neurons, which had previously been considered static, dynamically shift depending on the perceived distance of an object. This may have important implications for further neural processing in the service of learning and memory.

Sean O’Donnell: promotion to Full Professor

Photo of Sean O'DonnellOver the years, Dr. O’Donnell has successfully established one of the most influential research labs on social insect in the world (e.g. he was featured on a National Geographic episode). His research seeks to understand the neurobiological and evolutionary (i.e. genetic) basis of social behaviors of all animals. To study such a complex problem, Dr. O’Donnell developed methods for studying model animal systems that have clear social organization (and hence are tractable).  These are societies of wasps, bees, and ants. Within these groups he studies fascinating topics such as the determinants of social hierarchies, socially-induced aggression, and communication amongst members of a society.  He looks not only at adult systems, but he is also interested in how these complex behaviors develop and change within a lifetime. In addition to this core research program, Dr. O’Donnell has become interested in understanding the impact of human habitats and climate change on the variety of terrestrial ecosystems in the tropical montane forests.

Joe Sisneros: promotion to Associate Professor with tenure

Photo of Joe SisnerosUnderstanding the behavioral, hormonal, and neural mechanisms of gender specific acoustic communication has been the primary focus of the Sisneros laboratory.  The fish is a particularly good model for examining hormone effects on auditory perception because of their seasonal (i.e. hormone dependent), tractable, and reliable gender-specific courtship behaviors.  Dr. Sisneros’ discovery that reproductive hormones impact acoustic perception and sound detection resulted in a Science paper during his first year here at the University of Washington.  This finding also received a tremendous amount of press coverage because of the obvious implications.  For example, as people age, there is a reduction in reproductive hormone levels (estrogen and testosterone) that is coincident with a loss of hearing in the high frequency range.  The particular fish model under study continues to serve as a platform for studies on the underlying biological bases of gender specific behaviors.