Emory Report
January 14, 2008
Volume 60, Number 15

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January 14, 2008
Taxing job brought scientist to his senses

By Pearl Young

Making the jump from tax lawyer to research scientist is not an everyday occurrence. But neither is Simon Lacey, a post-doctoral fellow in Krish Sathian’s neurology laboratory.

Lacey hails from the outskirts of London. Upon completion of his secondary education, he became a tax lawyer. He worked first for the UK equivalent of the IRS, and then for a group of accountants. Realizing “tax wasn’t going to hold my interest forever,” Lacey earned an undergraduate degree in psychology in 2001 and then a Ph.D. in an aspect of cross-modal object recognition. Lacey became increasingly interested in this issue while conducting original research for his honors project to complete his psychology degree.

“I’m interested in how you can see an object and then later on recognize it by touch just by using the visual information, and vice versa, even though the objects may be totally unfamiliar,” he says.

In 2005, Sathian offered Lacey a postdoctoral position in Emory’s Department of Neurology. This allowed Lacey — who was then completing his Ph.D. at Southampton Solent University in the UK — to continue to pursue his research interests while bringing him to the United States.

Research is compelling because it allows you “to find out stuff you don’t know and hopefully to put it to use,” Lacey says. While he recognizes the importance of uncovering information, Lacey prefers “the possibility that the outcome of that information could be used to help other people.”

At Emory, the Sathian lab is actively investigating how vision and touch integrate information about objects in the brain. “We do that both from a behavioral perspective — getting people to try to recognize objects by vision and touch under various task conditions, especially swapping between the two senses — and also from a neuroimaging perspective,” Lacey explains. “Among other things, we’re interested in using fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging] to image which parts of the brain are carrying out different parts of these tasks. It turns out that many parts of the brain previously thought to be exclusively visual also respond to tactile input.”

“Given that vision and touch are such wildly different ways of perceiving an object, the fact that we can perform these cross-modal tasks is amazing,” he says. “How does the brain take the visual or tactile information and then either translate it or compare it to information gained from the other sensory modality? How does this ability develop? How did it evolve in the first place? We have exciting new evidence that visual imagery is involved in touch. That opens up many new research questions in this fascinating area.”