Newsletter Article

Davida Teller

Professor Emerita Davida Teller passed away in her sleep on the night of Wednesday, October 12, 2011. Davida was a Professor at the University of Washington in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. She joined UW Psychology in 1965 and was active in the areas of cognition and perception, behavioral neuroscience, and developmental psychology. Her trademark course, "Vision and its Physiological Basis," merged perception, psychophysics, anatomy, physiology, and philosophy of science, and launched many a scientific career.

Professor Emerita Davida Teller
Photo: Professor Emerita Davida Teller

Davida is known for bringing the study of infants to the worldwide vision community. Early in her career, she developed a method known as "forced-choice preferential looking" that put infant data into a form familiar to scientists that study adult vision. The idea is to present an infant with a visual stimulus at one of two possible locations. An adult observer who cannot see the stimulus then judges which location the infant prefers. If the observer can correctly judge the infant's preference, then the infant must be able to discriminate the stimulus from a blank field. By varying the stimulus, one can determine what the infant can and cannot discriminate. Such measurements of the accuracy of a binary choice are the most common behavioral measurements used in adult vision research. Thus, infant data became easy to compare to adult data and the method gained wide acceptance in the vision community.

For three decades, she used this and other new methods to address the development of a wide swath of topics in visual perception, including spatial, temporal, binocular and color vision. She was not content with just measuring the behavior of human infants but also worked to make connections with the behavior and physiology of infant monkeys. For example, she used the forced-choice preferential looking procedure in parallel experiments to measure visual acuity in both human and monkey infants.

Realizing that her basic research could contribute to the health of infants, Davida took the preferential looking method out of the lab and led the effort to develop the "Teller Acuity Cards." These cards are illustrated in the photo which shows Davida holding her infant grandson in front of her son, Steve Teller, who is holding an acuity card. Infants typically stare at the bold pattern shown in the picture. By using cards with increasingly fine patterns, a clinician can make a quick assessment of an infant's visual acuity.

As Davida's career evolved, she devoted more time to understanding the principles of how to relate behavior to physiology. This led to several articles on "Linking Propositions." In Davida's words, "Linking propositions are statements that relate perceptual states to physiological states, and as such are one of the fundamental building blocks of visual science." She loved these ideas and particularly enjoyed using them in teaching about vision.

Davida’s contributions to UW Psychology include guiding a two year evaluation and revision of our graduate program. In recognition of her passion for seeking and valuing graduate student input and her clear assessment and determined pursuit of ways to improve students’ training and future prospects, UW Psychology graduate students established the Davida Teller Distinguished Faculty Award, which is presented annually to a faculty member selected by the graduate students. Davida was the first recipient of this award.

Davida's legacy has other sides, as well. In the first part of her career, the world was harsh to women scientists and she made her feminist voice heard. In more recent times, that voice focused on mentoring her many students. Her "red ink" and no-nonsense advice is deeply etched into her students and colleagues. That voice is now carried by generations of scientists. We will miss her.