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USC College Neuroscientist Tapped for Endowed Chair

Professor Zhong-Lin Lu recognized for excellence in research and teaching with appointment as William M. Keck Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience

USC College Neuroscientist Tapped for Endowed Chair

Scholar Zhong-Lin Lu, co-director of the Dana and David Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center, has been named the William M. Keck Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience in USC College. The chair, which is endowed by the W.M. Keck Foundation and awarded for a five-year term, honors Lu’s remarkable achievements in studies of how the human brain works.

“In concert with his distinguished colleagues, Zhong-Lin Lu has helped launch an exciting new era in brain research at USC College,” Dean Peter Starr said. “The Keck Chair recognizes his growing number of contributions to science, as well as the key role we expect him to play in the university’s neuroscience community.”
 
Through Lu’s study of the neural activities that underlie disorders like dyslexia and amblyopia — as well as the brain processes that govern commonplace activities like vision, decision-making and learning — he has illuminated not only how the brain handles information, but also how these processes might improve through training and practice.

A professor of psychology, neuroscience and biomedical engineering, Lu began his academic career as a physicist. Reflecting on the relationship between his study of physics and neuroscience, he commented, “As you study physics, you learn to build theories and models for how things operate. This is consistent with my interests in building mathematical or computational models that function as the human perceptual and cognitive systems. My research has to a large extent been problem-driven, and I’m interested in building model systems to understand and, sometimes, fix those problems.”

“Zhong-Lin is both an exceptional cognitive scientist and an exceptional teacher. The fact that he is also a physicist makes him an outstanding asset to USC at this time of expansion of scientific and technological programs,” said neuroscientist Hanna Damasio, director of the Dornsife Imaging Center and the Dana Dornsife Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience.

One of the problems Lu has begun to analyze is how students do or don’t learn the material they study. He recently began working with the College’s new Brain and Creativity Institute to apply principles of cognitive neuroscience to education in an effort to determine how to monitor and encourage learning processes, and ultimately, better motivate students to learn.

“You can actually get neural feedback on the state of the student as he studies,” explained Lu, who hopes such data might help educators determine how best to present information to students. Lu noted that because tutors observe the learning success of individual students and instantaneously change their teaching methods accordingly, tutoring is the most efficient form of teaching. “One of our goals is to build a computational system that mimics the most effective tutor,” he said.

Irving Biederman, a professor of psychology, neuroscience and computer science who formerly held the Keck Chair, took one of Lu’s graduate seminars on functional magnetic resonance imaging. Biederman, the Harold Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience, praises his colleague’s world-class research on motion perception and computational models of attention, Lu’s important role in the creation of the Dornsife Center, as well as his excellent teaching: “Zhong-Lin did a great job. In a single semester, he was able to take students with no background in neuroimaging and teach them the principles of physics and neuroscience that underlie the methodology by which one designs and interprets experiments. By the end of the semester, Zhong-Lin’s students were able to conduct neuroimaging experiments themselves.”

Wayne Raskind, the College’s dean of faculty, said, “We are very pleased to announce Zhong-Lin’s appointment to the Keck Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience. His wide-ranging scientific interests and his leadership role in the Dornsife Center are very crucial to our efforts in this field.”