Grad Student Spotlight: Hua Yang

On April 20, 2012 by Grad Forum

hua_feature_editedHua Yang is a second year graduate student in Dartmouth’s Psychological and Brain Sciences Department. Originally from Anhui providence in eastern China, Hua received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Beijing University, and has served as director of Dartmouth’s Chinese Student Scholar Association (CSSA) since June. A member of Professor Bradley Duchaine’s lab, Hua’s graduate research examines prosopagnosia—a cognitive disorder which prevents the recognition of faces by affected patients.

Funded by both the Chinese Embassy in New York City and Dartmouth’s Graduate Student Council (GSC), the CSSA hosts events which help students and scholars from China celebrate traditional Chinese festivals, and meet students from different backgrounds. This past year, Hua organized community-building events in New Hampshire with Chinese Student groups from other institutions—including Brown, Harvard, and Northeastern—and worked with thee undergraduate student groups—Dartmouth’s Chinese Culture Society (DCCS), the Chinese Dance Troupe, and China Care Club—to plan activities that could be enjoyed by both undergraduate and graduate students.

“In the past, the CSSA didn’t host that many events with Dartmouth’s undergraduates. However, upon being appointed director of the CSSA, I thought ‘the more the better,’ so I chose to reach out to the undergraduate student groups this year. As a result, more students from mainland China have attended the CSSA’s events, and I think that a larger percentage of Dartmouth’s student body have experienced traditional Chinese culture,” says Hua.

In the future, the CSSA plans to coordinate more events with other Dartmouth student groups, and will continue to increase campus awareness of Chinese culture, issues, and politics. In addition to the holiday celebrations, performance events, and outings hosted by the CSSA, Hua hopes that in the coming years the student group will invite scholars from Dartmouth and other academic institutions to talk about issues like Chinese politics, economics, and culture.

Hua’s graduate research builds directly upon the work she did at Beijing University. As an undergraduate, Hua worked in a vision science lab where she examined how an individual’s visual perception is shaped by their visual experience. Currently, Hua is a member of Prof. Bradley Duchaine’s lab at Dartmouth, and is researching the cognitive disorder Prosopagnosia, or “face blindness” as it is commonly called.

“People who suffer from prosopagnosia are unable to recognize other’s faces. Depending on the severity of the disorder, face blindness has the potential to significantly impact an individual’s social life. My research focuses on both the developmental processes which lead to the disorder and explores if face recognition and impairment is strictly a human trait, or whether other primates also share a common underlying mechanism of this disorder,” explains Hua.

Both the research on face blindness being done in Hua’s lab and the cognitive disorder itself have received a large amount of press over the past years. This March, Professor Duchaine was interviewed by CSB correspondent Lesley Stahl in a two-part series on prosopagnosia which aired on 60 Minutes, and since 2010, articles on face blindness have appeared in publications including The New York Times, Germánico, The New Yorker, The Sunday Times, and radio shows including National Public Radio (NPR).

“The condition of face blindness often follows a traumatic accident where an individual’s brain is damaged, but it can also occur during the cognitive development of an individual. Currently, my lab is testing individuals for prosopagnosia so that we can more fully understand both the causes of face blindness and the condition itself, explains Hua. “While there is currently no cure for face blindness, I hope that the research my lab is doing will one day help people who suffer from the disorder.”

To increase the population sample they screen for prosopagnosia, Hua’s lab has used media outlets including local television and radio stations, and a website—which has been translated into six languages—to raise awareness of the research being done on the disorder at Dartmouth. While airtime on local television and radio channels allow members of the Duchaine lab to reach individuals in Northeast, the website allows subjects around the world to create an account, and test themselves for prosopagnosia at their computers.

“This past year, I translated the website into Chinese,” explains Hua. “While there is no substitute for testing people for face blindness in our lab at Dartmouth, the online test allow us to collect data from various world populations.”

In addition to the studies that she is conducting on prosopagnosia, Hua’s graduate research also examines other cognitive aspects of human vision, including object recognition and visual consciousness. In her studies, Hua utilizes a combination of scientific methods including the computation modeling of physiologic and psychophysical data.

“I guess you could say that I’m committed to breaking down communication barriers,” says Hua. “The programs I coordinate with the CSSA help students and scholars from China to communicate with individuals whose native language is English, and my graduate research on face blindness explores a disorder which prevents patients from communicating with others.”

by Wesley Whitaker

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