• Honored to live in this boom time for science, research, says scientist


  • News & Events | About PKU News | Contact | Site Search 


    Peking University, June 22, 2011: Fang Fang is professor of psychology at Peking University. He grew up in east China's Anhui Province and earned his BS in psychology and ME in signal and information processing at Peking University. From 2001 to 2007, he did his PhD and postdoctoral training in cognitive and biological psychology at the University of Minnesota with He Sheng, Daniel Kersten, and Gordon Legge. He then moved back to Peking University and started his own lab as principal investigator. His research has focused on human visual perception, attention, and awareness, using functional brain imaging, psychophysics, and modeling.




    Current Biology published an interview with Professor Fang Fang on June 21. Full text:


    Q: What got you into vision and cognitive neuroscience?


    A: Two invaluable books. One is The Cognitive Neurosciences edited by Michael Gazzaniga, published in 1995. The other is David Marr's book Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information. Psychology is sometimes thought to be a "softer" science because the human mind is so complicated and it might appear to be scientifically intractable. Gazzaniga's book delineated an emerging field that studies the brain and mind. It made me believe that the relationship between the physiological mechanisms of the brain and the psychological reality of the mind could be investigated in a mechanistic way. Marr's book revealed an approach and a structure for such investigation. It explains his strategy of dividing the problem into several levels of analysis and provides a framework for dealing with challenging questions about vision. His book inspired many young scientists to study vision, including myself (as I confessed to Tomaso Poggio, once a colleague of Marr; Marr died in 1980 aged just 35). I was extremely lucky to read the two books (both the English and the Chinese versions) when I was a senior undergraduate student. They influenced my decision to aim for a career in vision and brain research. Otherwise, I would probably be a computer programmer somewhere.


    Q: Do you have a favorite scientific paper?


    A: I have many favorite papers, but two come immediately to my mind.


    One is David Field's 1987 paper “Relations between the statistics of natural images and the response properties of cortical cells” (J. Opt. Soc. Am. A, 4, 2379-2394). It describes a novel attempt to show that the receptive-field properties of mammalian cortical cells are well suited to efficiently representing the information contained in natural images. It provides insightful suggestions for how to relate the statistics of the natural environment to cortical cell behavior.


    The other is a 1997 paper by Stephen Engel and colleagues “Retinotopic organization in human visual cortex and the spatial precision of functional MRI” (Cereb. Cortex, 7, 181-192). The work reported in this paper demonstrated that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can go beyond being just a cortical localizer and can be used to characterize the computational properties of neural populations within functionally and anatomically meaningful visual areas. It has been an inspiration to numerous quantitative fMRI studies.

    Q: Do you have a scientific hero?


    David Marr, as you have probably guessed from my answer to the first question. A second hero is Sherlock Holmes, from Conan Doyle's fiction! I am extremely impressed by his astute logical reasoning and his ability to draw important conclusions from what others consider minor details. I tend to believe that excellent scientists, especially cognitive neuroscientists, should have the same great capabilities as Holmes. Human cognitive neuroscientists (and vision scientists) cannot directly measure neural activities inside the brain. They have to rely on indirect measurements with brain-imaging techniques and psychophysics, and then make inferences about what is going on in the brain and the mind.

    Q: What is the best advice you have ever been given?


    A: Don't follow fashion and do work on what you are truly excited about. Hot topics come and go. It is not easy to predict what topics will be hot even in just five years. More specific to my own area, although I spent a lot of time and energy learning brain-imaging techniques, I was advised to master more traditional skills of designing strictly controlled experiments to test well-developed theories and hypotheses – these skills have turned out to be critical for my career development.

    Q: If you knew what you now know earlier on, would you still pursue the same career?


    A: Yes, I think so, though I would like to spend more time learning high-level mathematics and doing computational modeling research.


    Q: What is your greatest ambition in research?


    A: That would be to completely understand our ability to recognize visual scenes with such high accuracy and speed and to duplicate this human ability in an artificial visual system. This artificial system would perform just as well as our visual system, even make the same "mistakes" that we do; for example, it would even "see" the motion aftereffect!

    Q: What do you think are the big questions to be answered next in your field?


    A: In the short term, as far as I can see, it is to understand cortical plasticity, especially plasticity in visual cortical areas. Visual experience, including priming, adaptation and perceptual learning, can significantly change our visual functions (for example, improve our ability to detect features and recognize objects). How does visual experience shape our visual system at the levels of single neurons, neuronal circuits and cortical connections? Answering this question might provide a key to understand our extraordinary abilities of visual perception.


    In the long term, it is the nature of consciousness. Though doubtful whether I have enough courage to tackle the problem, I am often interested in touching on the most difficult aspect of consciousness, the so-called "hard problem" of qualia – the greenness of green, the happiness of happy, and so on.

    Q: Why did you move back to China?


    A: First of all, I feel extremely privileged to be educated and trained at the University of Minnesota. There are many superb scientists studying vision and brain imaging there. My collaboration with them led to some intriguing findings on visual adaptation, unconscious visual processing, and contextual modulation in early visual cortical areas. From them I learned not just experimental skills, but also various distinct perspectives on these same scientific questions.


    Career-wise, working in China is very attractive to me. Government research funds in China have been growing at an annual rate of more than 20%. Ample funding allows me to explore and carry out much larger and more risky projects. At Peking University, I have been enjoying working with the country's most intelligent and hardworking students. In addition, I am a big ping-pong and soccer fan, and living in China gives me a lot more opportunity to enjoy these sports.

    Q: Could you tell us something about neuroscience in China?


    A: Neuroscience in China has a tradition of excellence. I would like to mention the founders of modern Chinese neuroscience – Robert Lim Kho-seng, Feng Te-pei and Chang Hsiang-tung. Lim and Feng were members of the US National Academy of Sciences. Lim carried out pioneering work on the physiology of neuromuscular junction and synaptic plasticity. Interested readers might want to read a chapter published in the Annual Review of Neuroscience in 1988 (11, 1-12) about Lim's career development and the early history of neuroscience in China. Chang was one of the pioneers of studying dendritic potentials and among the first to recognize the functional significance of dendrites in the central nervous system.


    Neuroscience in China has grown steadily since the 1920s, and started to flourish in the 1990s. In 1995, the Chinese Neuroscience Society was founded and it now has more than 2,500 members. Major neuroscience research programs are located in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Peking University, Fudan University, Beijing Normal University, University of Science and Technology of China, many medical universities and institutes, and many more places. Research areas include molecular, cellular and developmental neurobiology, systems and computational neuroscience, as well as cognitive and behavioral neuroscience. Chinese neuroscientists are making their contribution to the development of this field on a par with their peers in the international arena, as demonstrated by their frequent publications in almost all prestigious journals (including Current Biology).

    Q: And what about psychology in China?


    A: Psychology, on the other hand, took a slightly different turn. In 1917, the first psychology laboratory in China was set up at Peking University, under the guidance of then President Cai Yuanpei. Cai studied psychology with Wilhelm Wundt when he was in Germany.


    Unfortunately, the development of psychology was suppressed for a long time, even halted during the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-76). This is because psychology was criticized as a pseudo-science. In 1981, only four universities had a psychology department. Interestingly, the turning point for the development of psychology was also in the 1990s, almost in parallel with the time when neuroscience started to thrive. Up to now, there are more than 200 psychology departments/institutes in China. Founded in 1921, the Chinese Psychological Society now has about 8,000 members. Psychological research in China covers almost all basic and applied fields. Brain and cognitive science has been identified as one of the eight research frontiers by the central government in 2006 and two national key laboratories have been set up targeting fundamental issues in this area.


    The rapid development of psychology (and neuroscience) in China is partly due to the nation's economic boom and thus a rapid growth in research funds. I feel honored to live in this era and to experience the dramatic (positive) changes of science and research in China.



    Extended Reading:

    Boom time for neuroscience in China



    Edited by: Jacques

    Source: Current Biology