Following an enthusiastic endorsement by the Committee on Scientific Affairs, three Rockefeller scientists have been promoted to professor, effective July 1. Receiving promotions are Sean Brady, head of the Laboratory of Genetically Encoded Small Molecules; Winrich Freiwald, head of the Laboratory of Neural Systems; and Luciano Marraffini, head of the Laboratory of Bacteriology.
Freiwald studies how the brain analyzes the visual information it receives from a face. He discovered that the brain is equipped with a specialized face-processing circuit; and his lab investigates how this circuit works, what computational principles it employs, and how it drives downstream processes like memory, emotion, and communication.
“Faces are a very special kind of visual object—one that attracts our attention, makes us wonder about the thoughts of other people, elicits emotions, and engages our drive to communicate,” says Freiwald. “Therefore we can use faces as an inroad into the mechanisms of complex social brain functions.”
Ultimately, he aims to uncover how facial recognition circuits achieve the amazing computational feats that drive human cognition, and how alterations of these circuits might lead to psychiatric disorders.
A basic scientist by training, Freiwald didn’t initially anticipate that his research would have clinical applications. But when he joined Rockefeller as an assistant professor in 2009, his new faculty colleagues suggested that his work could have implications for understanding autism. “That made a lot of sense to me,” Freiwald says, “and it allowed me and my lab to pursue Rockefeller’s mission of doing science for the benefit of humanity.” His lab has since conducted research relevant to understanding face blindness and epilepsy, and it is currently targeting autism and depression.
Recalling his first visit to campus, Freiwald remembers an infectious enthusiasm for research—an enthusiasm that, he says, he now experiences daily. “Whatever I and my lab have accomplished, we owe a lot to the amazing opportunities at Rockefeller.”