Neuroscientist Doris Tsao from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) was awarded the Genius Grant for her creativity and talent in neuroscience on Thursday.
The Genius Grant, also known as the MacArthur Fellowship, is a no-strings-attached award with 625,000 US dollars to people of "outstanding talent," for their "originality, insight and potential," according to the MacArthur Foundation.
Tsao is a systems neuroscientist studying the neural mechanisms underlying primate vision. She and her group are working to discover how the brain "stitches together" individual pixels of light, the photons hitting retinas, to create the visual experience of discrete and recognizable objects in space.
In 2017, Tsao and her team discovered the neural mechanism for face recognition. 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 functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to target electrodes for studying visual processing in monkeys. She also demonstrated the existence of "face patches" in the macaque brain.
"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," said Tsao.
She said her lab is taking some completely new directions right now, venturing into new parts of the brain and a new species.
"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," said Stephen Mayo, chair of the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering.