Xaq Pitkow wins NSF CAREER Award

Rice, Baylor College of Medicine scientist studies theoretical neuroscience

By Graciela Gutierrez
Special to the Rice News

Xaq Pitkow, who holds a joint appointment at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine, has won the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation.

Pitkow is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice and the McNair Scholar and an assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor.

Xaq Pitkow

Xaq Pitkow

The award supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research.

The award will support Pitkow’s research career over the next five years.

“This is my first grant dedicated purely to theoretical neuroscience,” Pitkow said. “These days there is broad recognition that theoretical work is critical for understanding the brain, but with this award, that recognition translates into real, practical consequences for my lab’s ability to do that work. It’s very exciting.”

Pitkow is trying to develop theories of the computational function of neural networks in the brain. This information will help to explain how humans use sensory information to construct coherent perceptions of the world.

His lab concentrates on vision and how the brain transforms low-level visual features like oriented edges into higher-level representations of object properties. The work will have implications for other sensory systems, how neural representations are learned and transformed and whether those representations are efficient in a quantifiable sense.

CAREER award winners go through a rigorous peer-review process where a panel awards those proposals that are most creative, original and hold potentially transformative concepts within each field of entry.

Pitkow has an A.B. in physics from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard University. He held a postdoctoral research fellowship at Columbia University and a postdoctoral research scientist position at the University of Rochester before joining Rice’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2013.

Graciela Gutierrez is assistant director of media relations and communications at Baylor College of Medicine.

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