Courtesy of the Faculty of Arts and Science

Two Yale professors each received nearly half a million dollars in research grants for their work in the field of human perception and the process of light emission.

Assistant professor of psychology Ilker Yildirim received the funds through the Young Investigator Research Program Award, or YIP, from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The award was granted for his work on “computational architecture of high-level attention.” Yildirim joins a group of 36 scientists and engineers — chosen from more than 175 submissions — selected to receive an award this year. His winning research proposal is entitled “Computational architecture of high-level attention: Reverse-engineering representations and goals that drive seeing in complex, dynamic environments.” 

Totaling $450,000 in grants over three years, Yildirim will use the monetary award to fund further research endeavors into interpreting raw sensory inputs and the way they engage with the retina and brain to shape humans’ experience of objects and events in the world. Yildirim explained that the funds will allow him to move toward discovering an integrated explanation of human perception that cuts across cognitive and neural lenses. 

“Specifically, we will address the computational architecture of high-level attention, to understand the true depth and richness of perceptual representations and how they are deployed given the immediate goals of an observer in complex, dynamic environments.” Yildirim said. 

Yildirim’s research at Yale’s Cognitive and Neural Computation laboratory is centered around an aim to explain the biological computations underlying how people see, reason and interact with the world. A unique feature of Yildirim’s research lab is that it is primarily a computational modeling lab. 

He said that most psychologists see cognitive modeling work as engineering-oriented, but that it ignores the failures of the human mind, a concept Yildirim actively pursues in his research. 

“It is as if engineering challenges are fundamentally a trade-off against understanding the computational basis of seeing and thinking,” Yildirim said. “In our work, really to our surprise, we find that the closer we take models to explain the experience of seeing, the more promising they become as engineering tools, for example, to build safer and more flexible AI systems.” 

Graduate research fellows in Yildirim’s laboratory work with him to research the hypothesis of efficient inverse graphics, or EIG.  This hypothesis is an attempt to understand how visual processing in the brain interprets the world, according to Aalap Shah GRD ’27, a doctoral student in the psychology department working under Yildirim. 

Shah explained that the hypothesis attempts to prove that the brain translates 2D images of the world into 3D images. Because the brain receives relatively low-dimensional information from the eyes, he said, the research seeks to discover what mechanism must be allowing people to see the world in the way they do. 

“I believe the work that we are pursuing at the lab is challenging, cutting-edge, extremely compelling and I guarantee that even someone unbeknownst of the field would go ‘WOW!’” Shah wrote in an email to the News. “We are attempting to understand the algorithm that operates in the brain which allows us to see, think and act in the way we do. To this end, we provide behavioral, computational and neural evidence for theories that are either novel or were abandoned by the community at large since they seemed too difficult/implausible to achieve.”

Yildirim’s role as the director of the Cognitive and Neural Computation lab at Yale has shaped his research process, as he engages with many graduate researchers to further his study of the field. 

He said that he can usually be found right next to his students — or sometimes, in virtual environments, in a little box over Zoom — puzzling about code, data and analysis. He also assists his students in writing research papers of their own.

“Professor Yildirim has been … the most ideal primary investigator I thought I could never have,” Shah wrote to the News. “He is kind, patient, thoughtful, extremely helpful and at the same time is ambitious, highly driven, and undeniably loves his job.” 

Yildirim was not the only Yalie to receive the prestigious award. Assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering Peijun Guo was also honored for his proposal titled “Understanding White-Light-Emitting Semiconductors for Incoherent and Coherent Light Sources.” 

Guo detailed his plans for allocating his new funds to the News. 

“The award will be used to fund research on white-light-emitting semiconductors, which work in a very different way from traditional semiconductors widely used in light-emitting diodes,” Guo said. “Our research will examine the fundamental photophysical processes of white light emission, as well as making efficient light sources using these materials.”

Besides excitement for new research opportunities, Guo expressed pride and enthusiasm about achieving this rare level of professional recognition — he received his doctorate merely five years ago. 

“This prestigious award is a true recognition of my past achievements and provides me the critical support to launch my early career at Yale, especially under the various challenges caused by COVID-19,” Guo said. 

With the 2021 YIP award program, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research has awarded approximately $16.2 million in grants to scientists and engineers from over 30 different research institutions.