For Barbara Dosher, dean of UC Irvine’s School of Social Sciences, attention is something to be studied, not sought. Highly regarded for her research on the subject, the professor of cognitive sciences prefers to stay out of the spotlight – a nearly impossible feat recently.
On May 3, it was announced that Dosher had been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, which many consider the highest honor in U.S. scientific research.
“We are extremely proud of the scientific accomplishments of Professor Dosher,” says Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Michael Gottfredson. “She is a model academician – passionate about her field of scholarship and committed to helping advance the careers of her colleagues and students.”
Dosher was one of only 72 new members and 18 foreign associates accepted by the prestigious academy this year – UCI’s only professor elected in 2011 and the School of Social Sciences’ first woman.
“I am honored and also very grateful for the wonderful collaborators, students and colleagues who contribute to a stimulating research environment,” she says.
As an experimental cognitive scientist, Dosher has spent her 34-year academic career studying the distinct forms and processes of attention, memory and perceptual learning. Understanding these processes at the basic science level, she says, is key to helping people with deficiencies and disorders.
“Attention is a central cognitive function 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 and making decisions,” Dosher says.
When attention processes are disrupted or altered, performance of these activities can suffer, as is often the case for those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and has been observed in people with schizophrenia and stress disorders.
“Only a small fraction of the complex visual information in the world can be fully processed for recognition and action,” Dosher 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.”
Practice improves people’s ability to perceive and remember what they see, making attention less necessary, she notes, and there’s some evidence that this perceptual learning could counteract age-related functional losses.
Her early research, says UCI Distinguished Professor of cognitive sciences and NAS member R. Duncan Luce, changed the way researchers think about two important aspects of memory. Dosher’s findings provided strong evidence that, unless instructed otherwise, long-term and short-term memory retrieval is conducted in parallel, and similar processes occur when one forgets both conscious and subconscious memories.
“Barbara’s work on memory, vision, attention and perceptual learning is exemplary in its application of the scientific method,” says Michael D’Zmura, a fellow cognitive sciences professor at UCI, explaining that Dosher uses existing study results to develop formal models of psychological abilities.
These provide hypotheses that are subjected to rigorous laboratory experimentation; the models that survive testing are then applied to new situations. “She has constructed, in this way, what is now the leading account in psychological research of how practice and paying attention help one sense and perceive things better,” D’Zmura says.
Dosher began studying these processes in the late ’70s as a graduate student at the University of Oregon ¬– one of only a few women worldwide in the field of mathematical cognitive psychology.
She went on to perform groundbreaking research at Columbia University, where she spent 15 years as a professor studying short- and long-term memory and visual perception. During that time, Dosher was elected president of the Society for Mathematical Psychology, after serving on the group’s board.
Her research findings have been published widely in such major journals as Psychological Review, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Psychological Science, Vision Research, and Journal of Memory & Language.
She was associate editor for Psychological Review, has been on the editorial boards of many other publications, and served on standing grant review committees at the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health. She’s currently fulfilling a four-year elected term as a member of the Vision Sciences Society board.
In 1992, Dosher came to UCI, where her blossoming research success quickly earned her election as a fellow to the Society of Experimental Psychologists and the American Psychological Society.
Her career since then has been marked by numerous campus, school and departmental administrative posts, including positions as vice chair and chair of the Academic Senate, chair of UCI’s Council on Academic Personnel and the systemwide University Committee on Academic Personnel, and chair of the cognitive sciences department. In 2002, Dosher was named social sciences dean.
“Despite our current budget climate, Barbara has maintained faculty and staff morale, continued to inspire a research and community service vision for the school, helped maintain a high-quality education for our students, and achieved success in advancing the school’s development and fundraising efforts,” says Bill Maurer, anthropology professor and director of the Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion.
In her nine-year tenure as dean, Dosher has been credited with helping grow social sciences’ undergraduate and graduate programs by 44 percent and 35 percent, respectively, and increasing the number of degrees conferred by the school from 1,640 in 2003 to 2,411 in 2010, a 47 percent jump – all with a limited number of faculty and staff, due to hiring restrictions.
Most impressive, however, have been her efforts to boost faculty extramural research funding. Under Dosher’s leadership, grant support for research has grown by more than 115 percent in the School of Social Sciences.
This accomplishment, says UCI Distinguished Professor of cognitive sciences and NAS member George Sperling, is not surprising, given her success in obtaining extramural money for her own research. “In her academic career, Barbara has never been turned down for a grant to which she has applied,” he said at a congratulatory reception for her in May.
Dosher is quick to point out that there have been a few instances in which she was denied a grant – until she revised the application. Even while dean, she has secured multimillion-dollar research grants from the National Eye Institute, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation, among others.
To have achieved what Dosher has while serving as dean of UCI’s largest academic unit, says Luce, is remarkable.
“It’s a miracle, to my mind, that someone could do administrative work at the level she does and continue to do fine research,” he says. “Her election to the National Academy of Sciences is a most justified honor.”