The Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 10, 1997
Nov. 10, 1997
VOL. 27, NO. 11


Mathways To The Brain

Recognition: Van Zandt is one of only 60 young academics to win award

Emil Venere
News and Information

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

When Trisha Van Zandt declares that psychology should be treated as a hard science, some of the nation's most influential people are listening.

She recently learned that her admirers extend all the way to the White House, where she received a prestigious Presidential Early Career Award last week through the National Science Foundation.

"It's kind of shocking," said Van Zandt, 34, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and one of only 60 recipients.

The honor, bestowed annually on young scientists with exceptional research and teaching skills, provides $100,000 annually over five years toward Van Zandt's work. The proposal that won her the award detailed both her research plans and her goal of making mathematics and statistics a larger part of the psychology undergraduate curriculum.

Van Zandt is a quantitative cognitive psychologist, who delves into the hardcore mathematics of human cognition. She wrestles with complex calculations in attempts to design mathematical and statistical models that mimic and measure how the human brain makes decisions, retrieves memories and performs other essential functions.

Van Zandt's work focuses on how information is transmitted from the senses to different areas in the brain. To do this, she measures the speed and accuracy with which people make simple decisions in a variety of computerized tests. Her experimental subjects press appropriate computer keys to indicate their decisions.

"If you have someone making a simple decision--like, is the light you are looking at red or green?--then I am interested in how that information is transformed from the retina all the way through the point where you initiate a button-press-type response on the computer keyboard," Van Zandt says.

She currently is studying how closely computer neural-network models can mimic human performance in simple tasks.

"They are really important models from a psychologist's perspective because they are our first step toward constructing models that act like the brain acts," Van Zandt says.

But she notes that much more research will have to be done before realistic models exist. "We still have a long way to go," she says.

The eventual aim? To understand at a basic level the computations that the human brain makes. Along the way, her research may lead to the formulation of computer programs that think like the neural networks of brains, programs that might one day read handwriting effortlessly, duplicate a human being's sensory capabilities and perform various other feats that are far beyond today's computers.

After all, "the ultimate goal of psychology is to understand how the brain works," says Van Zandt.

Such research requires theoretical psychologists to have a thorough knowledge of higher mathematics, statistics and computer programming languages. "You just can't do it with pencil and paper," says Van Zandt, who joined the Hopkins faculty in 1994.

Psychology majors are currently required to take one year of statistics and one semester of calculus, "but I think we can do better," says Van Zandt, who thinks more hard sciences are vital. "I tell them, as their adviser, that it's time to take intro to chemistry, and take the lab, and take some more calculus. And they say, 'Oh no, not me!'

"It's unfortunate," she says. Even for students planning to become clinical psychologists, doctoral programs are getting more and more competitive, often requiring a master's degree in a related area or several years of experience in the field.

"The people with bachelor's degrees being accepted into clinical programs are those who have math and science_hard science, not this biology-for-the-real-world stuff that I had to take when I was a psychology major."

Van Zandt stresses, however, that many Hopkins psychology students are rising to the challenge of gaining more statistics and mathematics training.

Says Mollie Galloway, one of Van Zandt's students, "I think it's a great idea because if I am going to go on and do research, I'm going to need background in statistics. With just one year, I really would not have any idea what I was doing,"

Galloway, a senior who plans to pursue a graduate degree in educational psychology, is taking Van Zandt's higher-level course called Advanced Statistical Methods, which better relates statistics to psychology research.

"She is pretty down to earth," says Galloway, 21, who is working on research dealing with social influences on academic achievement. "She tries to relate all the concepts that sometimes are confusing to something in the real world, or something in medicine that we might have studied or we might know about."

In addition to the pure practicality of studying statistics and mathematics, there may be some aesthetic reasons as well, Van Zandt says.

"It's important to exercise those neurons, to see how to do something in a functional way," she says. "Calculus is fun.

"Even students who have no intention of doing science ever in their careers have to develop critical thinking skills. When The New York Times writes a story on global warming or the results of some opinion poll, everyone needs to be able to interpret and evaluate what is being presented. Too many people, even the well-educated, tend to believe that because something appears in print it must be true. Mathematical and statistical training doesn't only make for good science, it makes for good citizens, good consumers of information."

Van Zandt's grant proposal included plans to create two new undergraduate courses geared specifically for psychology majors. One of those courses will deal with neural network modeling, introducing advanced mathematical concepts gradually.

"By the end of the course, the students will not only have more mathematical skills, but they will also be familiar with one of the most important areas of modeling in experimental psychology," she wrote in her proposal.

Van Zandt also hopes eventually to receive funding that would enable the department to buy computers specifically for undergraduate research and labs.

Howard Egeth, chairman of the Psychology Department, says Van Zandt is a natural at Hopkins because the Psychology Department has a history of stressing the importance of mathematics and statistics.

"It's always been such a traditional strength at Hopkins," Egeth says. "Our Ph.D. students would always write, saying, 'I'm sure glad I had such good training in methodology and statistics.'"

However, the tenured professors whose research and teaching were most concentrated in modeling and statistics have retired. So Van Zandt is a good fit.

"At the moment she is all alone," he says, adding that the department is planning to hire another researcher specializing in mathematical psychology.