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Freshman co-authors research paper in Nature

MIT freshman Renee Lau didn't wait for post-graduate study or even a UROP project to start her research career--or to publish her first scientific paper. She is co-author of a paper in the January 23 issue of Nature on how the brain processes sensory information.

Ms. Lau, a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Hong Kong, began research for the paper after her junior year at Dana Hall School in Wellesley.

She won a 10-week "Summer Odyssey" internship at Brandeis University in Waltham in the laboratory of Professor Robert Sekuler, lead author of the Nature study. Professor Sekuler's daughter, Professor Allison Sekuler of the University of Toronto's psychology department, also co-authored the paper.

"Renee collected all the data in the paper," said Professor Sekuler, professor of psychology at the Volen Center for Complex Systems at Brandeis. "She did a pilot study in my lab and then continued on her own to do three more experiments."

According to Professor Sekuler, Ms. Lau returned to Dana Hall and convinced that school's administrators to give her a room and a computer to continue her experiments. She kept an e-mail account at Brandeis and continued her work independently under his supervision.

Ms. Lau said she wrote a program that showed a moving projectile on a computer screen. The human test subjects later described what they saw on the screen. She said she likes working with computers and people. "I could use my skills with computer programming in research on the biology of the brain."

The Nature paper argues that humans actually "see" with their ears--what we see is not the exclusive work of the eyes. That conclusion came from experiments in which the perceived movements of objects on a computer display were dramatically altered by an accompanying sound.

"In our everyday lives, sound is much more integrated with sight than we realize," Professor Sekuler said.

To illustrate his point, he used the example of playing ping pong or baseball while wearing earplugs. "We think that our reactions in such games are governed by what we see--where the ball looks to be headed--but actually the sounds made by the ball are very important as well," he said.

Professor Sekuler and his two colleagues tested the connection between vision and hearing by means of a computer display in which two small disks moved toward each other, coincided and moved apart. When the researchers introduced the sound of a collision (a click) at or near the point at which the two images coincided, the test subjects tended to perceive that the images were indeed colliding rather than merely passing by each other. The physiological origin of sound's effect on visual perception remains unknown, he said.

Both he and Ms. Lau emphasized the importance of laboratory experience to young would-be scientists. "Experiences in the laboratory are the best thing in undergraduate work, more important than classes," he said. "The student learns about discipline and about the excitement of science."

"After doing the research, I knew I liked science," said Ms. Lau. "I got hands-on experience and I remembered things much better."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 12, 1997.

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