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Zhang Drives Toward Career in Neuroscience
Xiaoyu Zhang ’11
Don’t let the modest demeanor of Xiaoyu Zhang ’11 fool you. Zhang’s Hackman adviser, Charles A. Dana Professor of Psychology D. Alfred Owens, calls the student a “firecracker.”
Coming to Franklin & Marshall from Shanghai, Zhang was originally interested in studying mathematics or physics. A psychology course she took during her sophomore year changed her plans, leading to a whole new career direction. Her interest piqued in this new field, she eagerly sought out opportunities to become involved in psychology research projects on a variety of topics.
“One day, out of the blue, this young woman from China showed up at my door seeking opportunities to do more research,” Owens says. He took her on and “she quickly proved to be an extremely bright, tireless and independent thinker.”
Now a psychology major with a minor in mathematics, Zhang has spent the last two summers working in the Perception Laboratory with Owens. Together, they have collected extensive data on two modes of motion perception: self-motion and object-motion. They also investigated the effects of different levels of visual contrast, such as fog, on the perceived speed of external objects.
Her results showed that reduced contrast causes an illusory decrease in the perceived speed of external objects but has no effect on one’s perception of self-motion, confirming Owens’ hypothesis that these perceptual functions involve different neural systems.
There are both theoretical and applied purposes for Zhang’s and Owens’ research. Their findings have potential implications for nighttime driving and driver education or could even help to inform changes in road design. It also addresses a serious intellectual question, because they are learning more about the brain and how it functions. Owens, Zhang and fellow Hackman scholar Johnny Lawrence ’11 presented their findings at the Optical Society of America in October and expect to publish their results.
“I was very glad that I could take this opportunity to explore these deeper issues of human brain function,” Zhang says of her research experiences. “I hope that with my interest and determination, I can make a meaningful contribution to our understanding of human cognition and perception.”
Zhang's ultimate goal is to become one of the best psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists in the world. “It’s a big ambition,” she admits, “so I know I will need to work hard.”
Her record thus far shows she has the ability and drive to achieve it.