Professor Donald Hoffman, having received exceptional mentoring when he was an undergraduate, tries to offer the same types of opportunities to the students he mentors. Through working in his lab, many students have discovered a true passion for research, going on to pursue advanced degrees. He particularly enjoys the new ideas and ways of thinking that undergraduates bring to his own research. Professor Hoffman further demonstrated his dedication to undergraduate research by serving on the UROP Faculty Advisory Board 1995 to 2007.

1. How did you develop an interest in mentoring undergraduate research or creative projects, and what type of projects have you directed?

As an undergraduate at UCLA, I had the opportunity to do research with Professor Edward Carterette. I wrote programs that controlled experiments studying the perception of sound and interaural time differences. Professor Carterette introduced me to research in artificial intelligence and computer vision, which eventually led me to attend MIT and to do graduate work in the MIT Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department, and in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Because of Professor Carterette's mentoring, I know first hand how important and influential undergraduate research experiences can be. I now try to offer undergraduates the same opportunities that Professor Carterette offered me. Each student has different talents and interests, so the specific details of the research project differ widely from student to student. One aspect of my research is psychophysical studies of human visual perception, which involves running human subjects in computer-controlled experiments. Some undergraduate researchers help run subjects. Some help in the design of the visual stimuli and in writing MATLAB programs that control the experiments. One particularly talented student generated her own new research ideas, and conducted experiments that led to a couple of professional publications. Some specific research questions that I study include the following: How do we see color, shape, volume, and motion? How do we recognize objects? How do we analyze facial expressions? How do we determine where another person is looking? How is conscious visual experience related to brain activity? Can two people have radically different color sensations, even if they have identical performance in all color experiments? How does evolution shape perception? Does natural selection lead to true perceptions? Or does it lead to perceptions that hide the truth? What could that mean? What can computer simulations based on evolutionary game theory tell us about the nature and reliability of perception in humans and other animals?

2. What do you look for and what are your expectations of undergraduates you select to conduct research under your guidance?

The research in my lab is a combination of psychophysical experiments, computational modeling and mathematical modeling. To get the most out of the research experience, I recommend first taking some courses that provide important background in research methods. For instance, the Department of Cognitive Science offers a three-quarter class on Experimental Psychology in which students learn in detail how to design, conduct and analyze experiments. This course is an excellent introduction and gives students a chance to find out if they enjoy the process of conducting experimental research. Also available is a course in MATLAB programming, which is an essential tool for both experiments and computational modeling. Mathematics is another essential tool. I recommend courses in probability and statistics, linear algebra, and calculus. Mathematics is the language in which our most developed theories are couched.

3. Describe your level of engagement and style in mentoring undergraduates.

My level of engagement varies with the student. Some students work more directly with my graduate students, assisting them in the dissertation research. Others work directly with me. It depends on what projects are currently active in my lab, and what the interests and talents of the student are.

4. In your experience, how have your students improved or benefited as a result of their undergraduate research experience?

Undergraduate research experiences can help a student to find out if they enjoy doing research. Many are surprised to learn how much they enjoy the process of exploring nature through research, and end up enrolling in graduate school to get more advanced training. Others decide not to continue in research, but have a better appreciation of what research entails.

5. What have you learned or benefited from guiding undergraduate research or creative projects?

New ideas are critical to the progress of science. As students work on research in my lab, they often find new ways to think about the research projects, and new ideas that can lead to better models and testable hypotheses. This is the most fun aspect of the research enterprise. It is always a great pleasure to hear a new idea from a student that makes me view a research problem in a new light.

6. What recommendations and advice would you give students embarking on undergraduate research or creative projects?

For a student considering research as an undergraduate, I have a couple recommendations. First, take background courses, such as the ones I mentioned above, that will prepare you to profit most from the research experience. Second, go online and read the research profiles of several professors whose research you think might be of interest to you. Once you find three or four such professors, then get a couple of the recent research publications of each professor and read them. These publications will give you a concrete idea of the research going on in the professor's lab. If it sounds interesting to you, then see if you can come up with a couple new ideas about directions the research might go, either theoretically or experimentally. Then contact the professor by email, tell them that you have read such-and-such papers of theirs (i.e., name the papers), tell them that you have some specific ideas about new directions that the research might proceed, and ask if you might meet with them to discuss your ideas and their research opportunities.

Research Interests: Machine and human vision; visual recognition; artificial intelligence; virtual reality; consciousness and cognition; shape from motion

Faculty Profile:


Past Faculty Mentors of the Month

Dec. '09 Professor Donald D. Hoffman
Nov. '09 Professor Bruce Blumberg
Oct. '09 Professor A. J. Shaka
Sep. '09 Assistant Professor William M. Tomlinson
Aug. '09 Professor William C. Tang
Jul. '09 Professor Donald McKayle
Jun. '09 Assistant Professor Gillian R. Hayes
May. '09 Professor Jane O. Newman
Apr. '09 Associate Professor Mark P. Petracca
Mar. '09 Professor Richard T. Robertson