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UD neuroscientist Maryam Vaziri-Pashkam has been awarded the Sloan Research Fellowship.
UD neuroscientist Maryam Vaziri-Pashkam has been awarded the Sloan Research Fellowship. Vaziri-Pashkam’s research explores the intersection of visual cognition and action. Her work aims to advance understanding of the computational and neural mechanisms that underpin our interactions with the world, enabling us to relate to objects and other people in real time.

Maryam Vaziri-Pashkam awarded Sloan Fellowship

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

UD neuroscientist will explore the intersection of visual cognition and action

Maryam Vaziri-Pashkam, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware, has been selected to receive the Sloan Research Fellowship, one of the most competitive and prestigious awards available to scholars early in their careers. 

Given by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the two-year, $75,000 fellowship is given annually to innovative young scientists across the U.S. and Canada. The 2024 class of fellows includes 126 scholars from 53 institutions pursuing research in chemistry, computer science, Earth systems science, economics, mathematics, neuroscience or physics.

“Sloan Research Fellowships are extraordinarily competitive awards involving the nominations of the most inventive and impactful early-career scientists across the U.S. and Canada,” said Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “We look forward to seeing how fellows take leading roles shaping the research agenda within their respective fields.”

As a neuroscientist, Vaziri-Pashkam is exploring the intersection of visual cognition and action. Her research aims to advance understanding of the computational and neural mechanisms that underpin our interactions with the world, enabling us to relate to objects and other people in real time. 

For instance, consider the cognitive decision-making required to do even simple tasks, such as picking up your morning coffee order from the counter at Starbucks. First, your brain needs to process the object to see and identify it as a cup of coffee. To pick it up, you need to identify where the center of gravity lies, how the object will fit in your hand and what direction to reach to grasp the cup. The same is true for anticipating the handshake of a colleague and positioning your hand to properly grip the other person’s at just the right time. 

All of these minor tasks occur within fractions of a second and without much conscious thought; however, they also require the cooperation of the cognitive, visual and motor systems within the brain. If one of these systems malfunctions, problems can occur.

In her work, Vaziri-Pashham employs the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) capabilities at UD’s Center for Biomedical and Brain Imaging to understand how people interact with objects. Functional MRI is a technique that uses changes in blood flow to measure brain activity and determine what part of the brain is involved in each function.

“If you want to understand any deficit that is related to interacting with people or objects in the environment, we must first understand how the interaction works in healthy individuals,” she said. “We record the brain’s activity signals to understand what part of the brain is involved in each piece of the process.”

Having a firm grasp on the brain circuitry and the mechanisms at work can help researchers develop new treatment approaches or devices for stroke patients suffering from optic ataxia, a condition where patients struggle to reach for something they are looking at. 

“There are parts of your brain that, if they get damaged, you will lose these abilities,” said Vaziri-Pashkam. “If you ever want in the future to make a brain-computer interface that helps people perform such daily activities, you first need to understand the visual system and the way it interacts with the motor system to allow humans to interact with the world.”

Understanding how the brain helps humans make predictions during real-time social interactions, such as the handshake example above, can inform approaches for autism spectrum disorders, particularly where social deficits, such as an ability to make eye contact or read another person’s actions, are affected, she said.

In her work, Vaziri-Pashkam combines body movement tracking with neuroimaging, collection and analysis of large datasets of human behavior in natural settings, neuroimaging and computational methodologies, such as machine learning and natural language processing. Her studies bridge traditional field boundaries and link cognitive, social and motor neuroscience together.

She also incorporates machine learning into her work, collaborating with colleagues to figure out ways to use what is known about the brain to build better machines. In one project, she has enlisted an undergraduate student studying game design to move some of her experiments into virtual reality, extending her work from the real world to the virtual world. The end goal is to have a positive effect on humanity, whether that's enabling better robots to assist humans, improved interfaces to help humans interact themselves, or greater understanding of deficits that might appear in certain health care conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and autism.

Vaziri-Pashkam earned her Doctor of Medicine from Tehran Medical University and holds a doctoral degree in cognitive psychology from Harvard University. Prior to joining UD in August 2023, Vaziri-Pashkam completed a postdoctoral fellowship in psychology at Harvard University and a research fellowship at the National Institute of Mental Health’s Laboratory of Brain and Cognition. She is a member of the Society for Neuroscience and Vision Science Society. 

Supporting inclusivity in neuroscience

Inclusivity is another one of Vaziri-Pashkam’s passions. She has sought to incorporate outreach into her work, helping graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, undergraduate students and high school students in Iran and elsewhere. She’s given talks about vision science to high school teachers and elementary students from underrepresented areas. Vaziri-Pashkam also has been involved in Neuromatch Academy, a volunteer-led, online computational neuroscience program aimed at diversifying neuroscience broadly to audiences across the world.

At UD, she also is helping to lead the Delaware Bridge program, a two-year, post-baccalaureate fellowship program designed to support underrepresented groups with intensive training in data science toward applications for studying the brain and behavior. Students who graduate from the UD program are awarded a certificate in Data Science and Psychology.

Vaziri-Pashkam called the Sloan Fellowship “a great honor.” She plans to use the funding to pilot new experiments and to support graduate students in her lab. 

UD cohort of Sloan Fellows

Since the program’s inception in 1995, nine faculty from UD have been designated Sloan Research Fellows from a variety of disciplines, including chemistry, mathematics, physics and ocean sciences. In addition to Vaziri-Pashkam, other UD awardees include Frank Schroeder (2021), Catherine Grimes (2017), Nayantara Bhatnagar and Joel Rosenthal (2014), Matthew Oliver (2012), Klaus Theopold (1992), Lila Gierasch (1984) and Douglass Taber (1983).

According to the Sloan Foundation, to date, 57 Fellows have received a Nobel Prize, including Moungi Bawendi, the 2023 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering and synthesizing quantum dots. Noteworthy past Sloan Research Fellows include physicists Richard Feynman and Jim Cronin, and John Nash, a mathematician credited as one of the fathers of modern game theory. Additional Sloan Fellows include 71 National Medal of Science honorees, 17 Field Medal in mathematics winners and 23 John Bates Clark Medal in economics winners.

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