Is the banana yellow and fresh or brown and mushy? Is the tarmac shiny wet and slippery, or will it offer good grip because it is dry? We are constantly taking snap decisions like these in our everyday lives. Dr Katja Dörschner-Boyaci is researching how our visual perception functions. A psychologist and expert in magnetic resonance imaging, she combines behavioural studies with computer imaging processes. In 2014, she received the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Sofja Kovalevskaja Award.

Dr Katja Dörschner-Boyaci

Dr Dörschner-Boyaci, your research focuses on visual material perception. What does this actually mean?

This is a fairly new field of research that has only been pursued for around 15 years. In our everyday lives, we often decide within a blink of an eye whether a table is smooth and shiny or rough and scratched, yet we still have little knowledge about how our visual perception of material properties precisely works. I am interested in discovering which visual stimuli are relevant when it comes to identifying surfaces and basic materials. At the same time, I am trying to find out which processes in the brain are responsible for our visual material perception and how the different areas of the brain communicate with one another.

What made you interested in this field of research?

I ended up in psychology and cognitive neuroscience through art. Having always been interested in the visual, I initially studied at the Anklam Graphic Design School and also worked as a multimedia designer in the USA. Even back then I wanted to know why certain compositions and designs work well while others are less effective – which is how I stumbled into perceptual psychology. In the end, I was so fascinated by the human brain that I decided to pursue a career in research. I then began studying psychology at the University of Rhode Island. Later I did my PhD on the subject of colour perception at New York University.

As winner of the 2014 Sofja Kovalevskaja Award, you are now establishing a research group at Justus Liebig University Giessen (JLU). Which project will you be pursuing there with your team over the next five years?

Visual material perception is also my field in Giessen. I use magnetic resonance imaging to focus on which areas of the brain are involved in material perception and how the flow of information works. Furthermore, in the next few years I intend to research how networks are formed in the brain during the process of perceptual learning of visual properties.

Which new scientific possibilities have been opened up to you in Germany?

Thanks to the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Sofja Kovalevskaja Award, I will be able to concentrate one hundred percent on my research in the next few years. Naturally this gives a unique boost to my young research career. I am in exactly the right place to tackle this subject, as Justus Liebig University Giessen leads the field in perceptual psychology, both in Germany and worldwide. More than 40 staff members are working on this topic. I find it very inspiring to be sharing my research interests with a large group of excellent colleagues. JLU also offers the ideal technical infrastructure, as the necessary test set-ups and devices are already on hand to conduct every conceivable experiment. This makes it possible to work very effectively. I received phenomenal support from the university’s management, staff and my colleagues, which got me off to a very uncomplicated start in Germany.

Dr Dörschner-Boyaci, thank you for talking to us and best of luck with your research project.

Are you also interested in a research project at Justus Liebig University Giessen? Then visit the university’s website:

www.uni-giessen.de

Sofja Kovalevskaja Award

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Sofja Kovalevskaja Award provides funding for promising young academics from abroad. Applications can be submitted until 31 July 2015.

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