David S. Olton was a highly regarded brain researcher and former chair of the Krieger School’s psychology department who championed undergraduate research and started the behavioral biology major that is now named for him. In 1994, Olton died at age 51 from pancreatic cancer, and his family honored his commitment to research and to students by contributing funds to the department for undergraduate education.
The David S. Olton Award for Undergraduate Research used to be an honorary prize given in recognition of good research. This year, two students are the recipients of a re-vamped Olton Award, which grants $1,000 to support independent undergraduate research in behavioral biology.
“It’s not a huge award, but it’s enough to make a difference, so that a student can do research on his or her own,” says Professor Gregory Ball, who co-directs the David S. Olton Behavioral Biology program.
Wai Yim Lam, a senior psychology major, and Zarrah Keshwani, a sophomore neuroscience major, received the awards, which will be given annually to one or two students. Each is at work this spring on their Olton-funded research.
Lam’s project, completed with Psychological and Brain Sciences Assistant Professor Amy Shelton, looks at the relationship between spatial skills and traits associated with autism. Lam is interested in why spatial skills might be enhanced in a class of disorders—autistic spectrum disorders (ASD)—known for cognitive impairments.
Keshwani, who works with Professor Steven Yantis, is testing how two types of visual attention processes interact. Her experiments aim to provide insight into the brain’s conception of objects and how it attends to them, and to determine whether these two processes— space-based and object-based attention—are dependent or independent of one another.
Olton’s own work contributed to the understanding of the hippocampus; he pioneered research into learning and memory and studied visual attention in animals. “It was really nice that both of these were lines of research David would have pursued,” Ball says.