Higher Learning: Philanthropy’s Impact on Graduate Students

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Hans HuangA picture’s worth a thousand words, or so the saying goes. But does the brain agree? For that matter, does the brain interpret pictures differently than the way it reads alphabetic words? What about computer icons, and logograms such as Mandarin characters?

These are questions Sheng-Cheng (Hans) Huang, MS ’05, is trying to answer in the course of his study of human-computer interaction in the School of Information. Using a neuroimaging technique called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI, Huang hopes to identify the cortex of the human brain that is activated when we view a picture, icon, alphabetic word, or Mandarin character. He then hopes to figure out the regions and routes our brains use to attach meaning to these different presentations of information.

“It’s critical that we understand the cognitive processes of how we interact with information, and consequently how we establish criteria and make conscious decisions in selecting what is meaningful or useful,” says Huang. Understanding these processes, he says, will allow for better design in human computer interaction, including website usability and technological product design.

Randolph Bias, an associate professor in the iSchool and Huang’s mentor and adviser, describes him as “a serious student, indefatigable in his pursuit of the experience that will allow him to be a first-rate academic.” Huang’s dedication has been rewarded at UT with support from the Cullen Trust for Higher Education Endowment Fund and the Catheryne S. Franklin Centennial Endowed Scholarship.

Huang recognizes that in studying “information” — a rather broad academic field — it is important to work across disciplines in his research. He is taking advantage of the breadth of resources at the University by bringing his background in engineering, computers, and information together with the neuroscience, psychology, and linguistics departments. With help from UT’s Imaging Research Center, where many fMRI studies have been done, Huang will complete a structural and functional scan of the brain while his human research subjects complete cognitive tasks related to processing information.  He then will conduct an imaging analysis to identify specific brain regions the subjects used to understand what they experienced.

Use of fMRI technology has the potential to unlock new discoveries in optimal brain and neural processing, and Huang is working at the forefront of this new area. He “possesses the essential knowledge of neural informatics, psycholinguistics, and electrical and computer engineering to allow him to push the frontiers of research in this significant area,” according to iSchool professor E. Glynn Harmon.

A native of Taiwan, Huang has lived in Texas since 2001. He received an MS from the University of North Texas before enrolling at UT, where he has earned another master’s degree and is now working toward a doctorate. His favorite thing about Texas has been the people, especially their willingness to help him and make him feel at home. And just how much are they willing to help? So much that some will even let him peek into their brains in the name of science — and good website design.

by Kathleen Mabley
March, 2010

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