Arts professors earn science grants

July 07, 2005, vol. 33, no. 6
By Diane Luckow

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Ever since the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council announced its New Discovery grants program in 2003, SFU's faculty members in the arts and social sciences (FASS) have been applying, with considerable success.

In this year's round, 20 FASS faculty received new or continuing grants to further their research into everything from human circadian rhythms (the body's biological clock) to the biogeochemistry of the Mackenzie Delta.

“Contrary to some perceptions, there are several departments in FASS that have researchers engaged in highly technical, laboratory-based research,” explains associate dean Alison Gill.

“Especially in disciplines like psychology and geography, but increasingly in other departments like linguistics, philosophy, archaeology and economics.”

John McDonald, an assistant professor of psychology who holds a tier 2 Canada Research Chair in cognitive neuroscience, is one of several faculty members to receive a new grant this year.

McDonald will use the $108,845 grant to investigate how paying attention changes the way sensory information is processed by the brain and how information from different senses, such as vision and hearing, are merged in the brain to form complete perceptions of real-world objects.

“One of our objectives is to determine how the brain picks out relevant information while ignoring other information,” says McDonald. “Which is what happens when we perform most everyday tasks.”

He's hopeful that this research will help to shed new understanding into clinical syndromes like autism and attention deficit disorder, leading to improved diagnoses and treatments.

It could also lead to new and improved instruments, like those in an airplane cockpit, for example, that enable users to extract information more efficiently.

“Even just understanding people's ability to pay attention over time could have implications for how long pilots should fly,” he says, “or how long air traffic controllers should stare at a display.”

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