Barbara Dosher, UCI Distinguished Professor of cognitive sciences and National Academy of Sciences member, has been named a 2018 recipient of the Atkinson Prize in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences. The NAS award recognizes her groundbreaking work on human memory, attention, and learning.”

“Barbara Dosher is an intellectual leader and an absolute inspiration throughout her career in the cognitive and sensory sciences. Her work in human perception and visual psychophysics has been revolutionary and field-defining. This award is fitting recognition for one of UC Irvine's shining lights,” says Bill Maurer, social science dean.

An experimental psychologist, Dosher has focused her 40+ year academic career on studying distinct forms and processes of attention, memory and perceptual learning. Understanding these processes at the basic science level, she says, is key in understanding how the underlying cognitive and brain systems work in those with deficiencies and disorders.

"Attention and memory are central cognitive functions used in many of our day to day activities from the most basic of tasks such as seeing and listening, to the more complex tasks, like learning or making decisions,” Dosher says.  When these cognitive processes are disrupted or altered, performance of these activities can suffer, as is often the case for those with diagnosed cases of attention or memory disorders and less so, but still observed in, schizophrenia and stress disorders.

"Only a small fraction of the complex, visual information in the world can be fully processed for recognition and action," she says.  “Attention plays a critical role in selecting and enhancing relevant information for processing and filtering out irrelevant or distracting information. Understanding the sub-types of attention that normally operate helps us identify what can go wrong in disorders or with information overload.” 

Learning or practice improves our ability to perceive and remember what we see, making attention less necessary, she says, adding that there is some evidence that perceptual learning may be used to counteract functional losses in aging.

Her work uses experimental results to develop formal models of these psychological mechanisms. The models provide hypotheses that are then tested through rigorous laboratory experimentation; those models that survive the test of experiment are then applied to new situations. 

And while attention has been one important focus of her research, the spotlight is never something Dosher has sought. Yet it seems to find her. She began studying human memory as a graduate student at the University of Oregon in the late 70s, where, as a female academic and aspiring scientist, she was one of only a handful of women in mathematical cognitive psychology.  She went on to perfect ground-breaking testing methods at Columbia University where she spent 15 years as a professor studying short- and long-term memory and visual perception.

Her research findings have been published in major journals such as Psychological Review, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Psychological Science, Vision Research, and the Journal of Language and Memory, among others. She has served as associate editor for Psychological Review, has been on the editorial boards of many others, and served on standing grant review committees at the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health. She has served on the executive boards of the Vision Sciences Society and earlier of the Society for Mathematical Psychology, where she also served as President. Her research has been funded through multi-million dollar grants from the National Eye Institute, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, National Institute of Mental Health and National Science Foundation, among others.

When Dosher came to UCI in 1992, her blossoming research success quickly earned her election as a fellow to the Society for Experimental Psychologists and the American Psychological Society.  Her UCI career has been marked with numerous campus, school and departmental administrative posts including positions as vice-chair and chair of UC Irvine’s Academic Senate, chair of UCI’s University Committee on Academic Personnel and of the UC-system Council on Academic Personnel, and department chair of cognitive sciences.

In 2002, she was named dean of the School of Social Sciences. In her 11-year tenure at the helm of UCI’s largest academic unit, Dosher helped to grow social sciences undergraduate and graduate programs by 44 and 35 percent, respectively, increased the number of degrees conferred by the school, and oversaw planning and construction of a new building. Most impressive, however, were her efforts to increase faculty extramural research funding. Under Dosher’s leadership, grant funding for research grew more than 115 percent in the School of Social Sciences.

In 2011, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. A year later, she was named a UCI Distinguished Professor. In 2013, the UCI Academic Senate named her the recipient of the Distinguished Faculty Award for Research, and the Society of Experimental Psychologists awarded her the Howard Crosby Warren Medal, the oldest and one of the most prestigious awards in experimental psychology.

Her most recent NAS honor comes with a $100,000 prize that was established by Richard C. Atkinson in 2013. Joining Dosher in receipt of this year’s prize is Richard M. Shiffrin, Indiana University. The two will be among 19 honored at the 155th annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences on April 29.

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