The man and his vision
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It is nice to spot a familiar face in a crowd of unknowns. But how do we do that? And why do people who recover sight after years of blindness continue to have problems with perception? These are some of the questions Pawan Sinha and his lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are trying to unfold.
Growing up in the IIT Delhi campus, where his father worked in the administrative section, he went on to get a B.Tech from the institute before moving to the US to pursue a masters degree in artificial intelligence, the subject in which he also earned a doctorate. Then he joined MIT as faculty in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, where he began studying visual perception. "I have always been interested in understanding the roots of intelligence," he says. "As an amateur artist, I was curious to understand how good painters are able to convey the essence of objects with very few brush strokes. This led to my interest in visual perception and the deeper questions of how our brains make sense of the complex information they get from sensory organs." Even though he was initially associated with the computer science department, Sinha was fascinated by the workings of the brain and began delving into them.
The scientist, who is married to Pamela Lipson-Sinha (also a Ph.D. from MIT), juggles teaching, mentoring and research at the institute. A major part of his research involves studying how the brain perceives and decodes objects. With the aid of computer applications, Sinha's lab is trying to build models of the brain's visual circuitry.
The 2007 recipient of the Troland Research Award, Sinha recently launched Project Prakash in India. It is a humanitarian project aimed at providing treatment to blind children in remote parts of India, which is home to 30 per cent of the world's blind. The project also provides an important scientific opportunity for his lab.