The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has selected Doris Tsao (BS '96), professor of biology, T&C Chen Center for Systems Neuroscience Leadership Chair and Director, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, as a 2018 MacArthur Fellow. The MacArthur Fellowship is a $625,000 no-strings-attached award to people of "outstanding talent," according to the foundation website, to support their "originality, insight, and potential."
"Doris's selection as a MacArthur Fellow is a great honor for her and extremely well deserved," says Stephen Mayo (PhD '87), Bren Professor of Biology and Chemistry and William K. Bowes Jr. Leadership Chair of the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering. "Doris has been a true pioneer in exploring how we perceive the world around us and she has completely revolutionized our understanding of how our brains see faces."
Tsao is a systems neuroscientist studying the neural mechanisms underlying primate vision. She and her group aim to discover how the brain "stitches together" individual pixels of light—the photons hitting our retinas—to create the visual experience of discrete and recognizable objects in space.
In 2017, Tsao and her team discovered the mechanism that the brain uses to represent facial identity. Even though an infinite number of different possible faces exist, they found that the brain needs only about 200 neurons to uniquely encode any face, with each neuron encoding a specific dimension of facial variability.
Tsao is widely recognized for pioneering the use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to target electrodes for studying visual processing in monkeys, and has also demonstrated the existence of "face patches" in the macaque brain. Face patches are regions that contain neurons that respond to faces more than any other kind of object. Because cells coding faces are so tightly packed in these regions, it is easy to access them and study them in detail. Over the years, Tsao and her colleagues have figured out how these cells detect and recognize faces, how they are connected to the rest of the brain, and how face perception becomes distorted when the patches' activity is perturbed.
"I am deeply grateful to the MacArthur Foundation for this great honor. I think it's not so much a recognition of me personally as it is of a crazy, shared dream to understand vision. I've been lucky to be on this journey with incredible mentors, colleagues, students, and postdocs. This award is every bit a recognition of their hard work and brilliance. I thank three people in particular who've encouraged me every step of the way: my father Thomas Tsao, my PhD advisor Margaret Livingstone, and my mentor David Hubel. I was completely shocked to get the phone call. I was at an airport in Virginia and as soon as the caller announced she was from the MacArthur Foundation, I tuned out. All I could think of was that I wanted to tell my family and my lab," says Tsao. "My lab is taking some completely new directions right now—venturing into new parts of the brain and a new species. This award says to us, 'Go ahead, take whatever risks necessary.'"
Tsao received her PhD in neuroscience from Harvard in 2002 after completing her undergraduate studies in biology and mathematics at Caltech. She returned to Caltech as an assistant professor in 2008 and became a full professor in 2014, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in 2015. Tsao has received a number of awards including the Sofia Kovalevskaya Award, NIH Director's Pioneer Award, and the Golden Brain Award. In 2016, she was appointed leadership chair and director of the T&C Chen Center for Systems Neuroscience at Caltech. Earlier this year, she received the 2018 Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize.
The 2018 class of MacArthur Fellows also includes Caltech alumna Sarah Stewart (PhD '02).