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MIT professor to receive Brandeis science award

Published: February 18, 2011
Section: News

Peter Schiller, the Dorothy W. Poitras Professor in Medical Engineering and Medical Physics in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, has been selected to receive the Jay Pepose ’75 Award in Vision Sciences.

Pepose, a graduate of Brandeis, conducts groundbreaking research in vision sciences and ophthalmology. According to Pepose, he and his wife, Susan Feigenbaum ’74, also a graduate of Brandeis, designed the $1 million award to promote graduate studies in visual sciences. There are two aspects to the award, a lectureship, and fellowships for graduate students.

Schiller, whose office is decorated with optical illusions, Magic Eye books and rotating sculptures he builds as a hobby, said, “I’ve given quite a number of presentations on this topic in other settings, but this is one of the great honors.”

In his lecture, Schiller will speak about the different functions of ganglion cells in the retina that process different aspects within the visual scene, and his collaborative efforts with colleague Emilio Bizzi, to carry out experiments on the neural mechanisms of eye movements. “In 2007 I presented this topic at Brandeis,” Shiller said, “and recently I’ve turned to the study of depth perception which is an interesting and taxing problem.”

According to Schiller, the retina is a two-dimensional surface. The images that fall on it have to utilize cues from which it can derive a third dimension. The difficulty of this is exemplified by the fact that a number of neural mechanisms have evolved to tell us about depth. The two mechanisms that Schiller studies are stereopsis (the brain’s ability to determine depth despite perspective disparity between two eyes), and motion parallax, the brain’s ability to understand where something is moving in the world in relation to the eye, as images at different distances from the eye move at different rates across the retinal surface. “At birth,” Shiller said, “some people have misaligned eyes or strabismus. Unless this is corrected very early, these people will not be able to see stereoscopic depth. Between 5 and 10 percent of the population in America is stereo blind.”

Currently Schiller is working to establish the critical period in which stereopsis can be corrected before surgery is needed.

As an undergraduate student, Pepose worked under Brandeis Professor and mentor John Lisman. According to Lisman, “Jay was very good at doing experiments and within less than a year, completed a project that led to a publication in the Journal of General Physiology.”

Post graduation, Pepose began research on viral infections of the eye, and was part of the first group to describe the ocular manifestations of AIDS and a number of other infectious diseases. “More recently,” Pepose said, “my research has been focused on optical approaches to presbyopia (the age-related loss of near vision).”

According to Pepose, “Brandeis was a place where people were not afraid to ask questions and find answers. There was a feeling of comradery and community, and the creation of life-long friendships.” Pepose continued to say, that Brandeis is where he met his wife, Susan, and he felt that working with Professor Lisman had so profoundly impacted his career, that they wanted to see Brandeis continue as a center of excellence for research in vision and visual processing.

Pepose and his wife are among 37 alumni to make a gift of $1 million to Brandeis. “Brandeis tries to impress upon current students that they will be walking in the shoes of the alumni in a few short years,” said Vice President of Development in Alumni Relations, Myles Weisenberg.

According to Weisenberg, alumni make gifts in a variety of forms, such as scholarships for undergraduate students, fellowships for graduate students, endowed faculty chairs, gifts to academic programs or to the Annual Fund, which supports the university’s most pressing needs. “Alumni remember the great education they received here, and want that to continue, which means they need to make gifts to ensure Brandeis continues to have the best faculty and state-of-the-art facilities. Jay and Susan are alumni citizens who care about Brandeis,” Weisenberg said.

Schiller, who will be introduced by his former student John Maunsell, Lab Director at Harvard Medical School, will give a public lecture on “Parallel Information Processing Channels Created in the Retina” on March 14 at 4 p.m. in Gerstenzang 121. “If anyone chooses to enter this field,” Schiller said, “you need to do a lot of hard, experimental work to make discoveries. But if you keep working, eventually you will succeed.”