Tom Slick Research Award in Consciousness recipient has MSF-funded research published in prestigious journal Science
The January 1, 2010, issue of Science magazine featured the article, "Reproducibility Distinguishes Conscious from Nonconscious Neural Representations,” based on research by Aaron Schurger -- with credit to the "Mind Science Foundation" in the acknowledgements section.
The article is based on Dr. Schurger’s MSF-funded research, “Comparing the Distributed Pattern of Neural Activation in Response to Perceptual Events With and Without Awareness." Dr. Schurger was a 2005 recipient of a Tom Slick Research Award in Consciousness. The article also appeared in the November 12, 2009, online version of Science magazine, ScienceExpress as “Distinguishing Conscious and Unconscious Brain Signals."
This study, jointly conducted by Dr. Schurger, Francisco Pereira, Anne Treisman, and Jonathan D. Cohen, all of Princeton University, produced findings that, according to Science, “may help researchers assess the consciousness of patients who have been under anesthesia or in a coma, and they may also be useful for studying brain function in conditions like schizophrenia, autism and dissociation disorders.” Dr. Schurger’s research technique involves using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), “to record brain activity patterns while volunteers performed a simple visual category discrimination task” (Science).
Aaron Schurger's research is primarily focused on sensory awareness and its relationship to perception and attention. The brain can process information from the senses to a remarkable level of abstraction, without that information necessarily being accessible to awareness. Dr. Schurger is interested in comparing the neural dynamics that accompany perception-with-awareness with those that accompany perception-without-awareness. Specific areas of research include the role of neural synchrony in attention and awareness, "blindsight" (the ability of some cortically-blind patients to guess remarkably well regarding visual stimuli that they cannot see), and localized versus distributed correlates of awareness (using fMRI pattern-classification techniques).
Dr. Schurger Thanks MSF and MSF Donors
Being a scientist is often glamorized in popular culture. Some of this is not far from the truth - when you make an exciting discovery, it really is exciting! And the hard work that goes on behind the scenes can also be very engaging and satisfying. But for the scientist, this is also the way you make your living - pay your rent or mortgage, buy groceries, save up to send your children to university, buy holiday gifts for your family and friends, and so on. Part of being a scientist inevitably involves trying to secure funding, and since the funding often ends up (at least in part) contributing to your salary, it can have a big impact not only on the research, but also on the life of the researcher.
In fact, it almost seems strange to talk about "funding for research" as if the research and the researcher can be treated separately. As a young scientist I have learned that it can be difficult to stay focused on research goals when you find yourself confronted with personal financial uncertainty. It was at a time like this that the Mind Science Foundation came through for me. I was able to complete my final year of PhD research with a major scientific discovery, without subjecting my family to a period of financial precarity. In March of 2006 I received an award letter from the Mind Science Foundation along with a check for $15,000 with the words "Tom Slick Research Award" typed on the memo line. This was a check that would mean the difference between throwing in the towel, because providing for my family would have to take priority over my research ambitions, and pursuing a risky cognitive neuroimaging study that would eventually lead to a PhD degree from Princeton University and a publication in Science Magazine. I did not fit the profile of the typical graduate student when I arrived at Princeton in the Fall of 2001: I was married, had a two-year-old son, and had worked for five years as a consultant in the private sector. My wife was incredibly supportive of my decision to return to school to pursue a doctoral degree in psychology and neuroscience, even though this would mean a leaner income for a few years. I knew that I would earn relatively little while I was a graduate student, but I was determined to provide at least a respectable living for my family during this time (we had two more children while I was at Princeton). My wife and I had also decided that it was better to take a year longer to finish the PhD than for me to become an absentee father, or worse yet, for us to end up divorced (the divorce rate is particularly high among married graduate students).
For the final year of my PhD research I had been awarded an NRSA fellowship from the National Institutes of Health. While these fellowships are prestigious and highly competitive, they do not pay particularly well. By then we had three children and I was concerned that we would not be able to make it, even with what my wife earned as a freelance simultaneous interpreter. I was already in my first year of overtime and at that point the research had not met with any great success. I had invested so much hard work and had put such a strain on my family and my marriage to get to this point , and I started to worry that I was going to watch the project run aground, because in the end I knew I would have to put my family first and start looking for a job.
However, at about the same time that I was applying for the NRSA fellowship, my adviser, Jonathan D Cohen, received an invitation from the Mind Science Foundation to submit a research proposal, and he suggested that I look into it. Once I realized that this funding was targeted specifically at my area of research - the brain basis of human consciousness - I decided to invest all of my available time into preparing that proposal. It was a little over a year later that we received the good news, and the check, from Mind Science. To say that Mind Science "made a difference" would be a gross understatement. By itself $15,000 may not seem like a lot, but combined with the $20,000 from the NRSA, I was able to complete my last 18 months of PhD research and meet (and exceed) my research goals. It may not be obvious how family finances have anything to do with the advancement of science - but what is fuel for the researcher and his family is fuel for the research. I've come a long way since starting my career in science as a PhD student at Princeton University. Thanks to Mind Science I was able to complete a ground-breaking study on human consciousness, and I am ready to do it again.
Aaron Schurger, PhDWith special thanks from my wife, Corinne, and our children Adrien, Juliette, and Sonia
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