Shiffrar, Maggie

Areas of Interest: 
Visual motion perception, visual object recognition, perception-action coupling, autism, pedestrian visibility, visual detection of intention.
My Story: 
When I first started studying science, I was interested in animal behavior. One time while I was doing animal research out in the field, I was bit by a squirrel. The squirrel latched onto my thumb and it was hard to pry him off. I think that experience had a lot to do with me going into the lab. This was another happenstance event that led me to where I am today. Sometimes it all feels like a fluke: I was good in school so my mom pushed me to go to college; I took Pre-Med classes but I didn't like them; I took a Psychology class to fill a general requirement and fell in love with the topic. Only after the squirrel bit me did I end up in a lab that happened to be doing research on eye movement; only then did I realize I found the topic interesting. It's only when I look back at the details that can I see how one little step led to the next such that I landed where I am today.

When I was little, the area I ended up getting my degree in--Cognitive Psychology-- didn't exist. I grew up in California in what some people might consider to be a redneck family. If I had done what was expected of me, then I would have been a secretary in a trucking company. Consequently, it seems that my family may have influenced me more than I realized. At a very young age my father took me deer hunting. I would stare at the hills for hours to find a moving animal. Perhaps that has something to do with why I now study the perception of movement. I also come from a long line of artists and sculptors. My sister is an amazing photographer. My whole family is very visually oriented, so interest in visual perception seems to go way back. Most of my extended family is in farming. For my first journal article I researched the sex typing of day-old chicks. How we learn to differentiate things perceptually is a fundamental question in the visual sciences, and for my first journal article I studied vision in a way that was relevant to farmers.

There have been many people who had a positive influence on me. Getting into the visual sciences is due to a professor at UC Santa Cruz, Bruce Bridgeman, who ran the first lab I was a part of. He was always very supportive and wrote letters of recommendation that got me into graduate school. Misha Pavel, currently at the Oregon Graduate Research Institute, was a professor at Stanford University where I did my PhD. He never gave me any grief for being a woman even though, at that time in the 1980s, the vision sciences were strongly dominated by men. The technology used to study vision back then meant you spent all day in a dark room staring at a computer and something about that seems to have attracted more men to the field than women. On some level, I feel that being gay has made it easier to be "the odd woman out" in the sciences. I grew up not really fitting in, so I think that made it easier to go into a field where I didn't really fit in because I was a woman.

After I obtained my PhD, I did a Post-Doc at the University of Paris V and another at NASA's Ames Research Center. When it came time to choose my career path, I realized there was so much more freedom in an academic setting than there was in research and development. As long as I perform my responsibilities as a professor and justify my scientific approaches or topics in a way that is interesting to other scientists, I can do whatever I want. I then had to choose where it was I wanted to be. Misha Pavel pointed out someone I could use as a role model in vision science-- a Rutgers professor, Eileen Kowler-- who is a world-renowned vision expert, smart and tough as nails. Alan Gilchrist is another wonderful vision scientist at Rutgers Newark, and I loved the idea of having them as colleagues, so this drove my interest in being a professor at Rutgers Newark.

Rutgers Newark is the most ethnically diverse college campus in the entire country and has been for the last fifteen years running. I taught at Stanford but I find teaching at Rutgers Newark much more fulfilling. I feel like the students here really want their education and they're going to do something amazing with what they have learned. Now if only the population of professors would reflect the diverse student population. We're seeing a rise of women in the sciences at the undergraduate level but it has been relatively slow getting women into science faculty positions. When I first started out as an assistant professor, people would assume I was a secretary when I attended a meeting or turned in paperwork. I once complained about this to Hilda Hidalgo, a Puerto Rican professor and later New Jersey's assistant commissioner of education, and she told me "Honey, they think I'm the cleaning lady." When university professors project an image that looks like the outside world in terms of diversity and everyone is accepted in the field, we will have come a long way.

With this end in mind, I am proud to be part of the RU Fair program, which helps provide young faculty with a more supportive environment than the senior faculty had coming up in the ranks. On several occasions in the past, I have experienced sexual harassment, and negative bias towards my performance and work, because I am a woman. Other women have experienced worse than I, and so we strive to build a world where those negative experiences do not happen.

I started out being trained in traditional visual science but since I've come to Rutgers, my research has shifted toward studies of the links between vision and behavior. I'm proud to be a part of a group of scientists who have pushed a boundary and argued that our visual systems didn't evolve to determine which way random dot patterns move in a dark room; our visual systems evolved to help us interact with other people and the physical environment. That involves a completely different approach and set of assumptions, and over the past twenty years we have convinced other scientists of this view and pushed it closer to the mainstream. Currently I am involved in studies of Autism Spectrum Disorder which have identified the presence of perceptual atypicalities in people with autism, whereas most studies have focused on genetic, cognitive and social difficulties in children with autism. Our studies suggest that the visual systems of people with autism aren't tuned for the detection and interpretation of other people's actions. Discovering this is exciting, because it suggests a whole new area of treatment for people with autism. If we treat this perceptual atypicality, perhaps it will improve social functioning.

As a professor at Rutgers Newark, there is so much that I want to accomplish and so many students I want to teach and mentor. I am proud of the work that I do but I am most proud of my graduate students. I love to see them go off and become gainfully employed and respected in their fields. It is a sight that really makes me smile and makes all the challenges worthwhile.


Transcribed from an interview and edited by Lauren Miller
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