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Zvi Fishman

College: City College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2012

Opening a Window to the Brain

"Consciousness is perhaps the most important unanswered question in science," says Zvi Hershel Fishman - Hershy to his friends - "and that's the reason I got into neuroscience. What is it in the brain that makes us able to be aware of things, to see colors, to experience sensations?"

Fishman (City College biology BS, 2010) seeks a path to that unanswered question in his doctoral research at Columbia University. He'll be supported with a 2012 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the most prestigious award a graduate student in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) can receive. Providing $126,000 over three years, the awards recognize and support exceptional students who have proposed graduate-level research projects in their fields.

Having a background in Talmudic scholarship, Fishman came to City College "because I wanted to become a scientist." He graduated first in his biology class with a 4.0 GPA and, at graduation, won the Biology Department's Ward Medal and the Division of Science's highest award, the Gerald S. Brenner Endowed Science Scholarship.

By then, he had distinguished himself in the laboratory of Associate Professor Jay Edelman, where he continued to conduct research for a year after graduation.

"Doing my own research trained me, in a new way, to think like a scientist." Fishman says, adding, "I owe everything to Professor Edelman's support."

In his pursuit of the conscious mind, he was intrigued by Edelman's study of eye movements. Humans and many other animals three-dimensionally map their surroundings through a series of amazingly quick, jerky eye movements called saccades. Saccades are so fast that the brain interprets the visual information as a smooth stream.

Fishman examined how saccadic eye movements reveal the interaction between conscious, voluntary neural motor commands and unconscious, reflexive ones. Utilizing work by Edelman and his student Kitty Xu (City College biology BS, 2009, who is working on a PhD in cognitive psychology at Johns Hopkins University), he asked test subjects to follow visual clues on a computer screen.

When he inserted a surprise visual stimulus near a point to which they had been instructed to move their eyes, a saccade followed immediately, but it was directed mainly to the original goal and only minimally to the surprise. Fishman clarified Edelman's and Xu's earlier work by showing that subjects tended to seek the goal regardless of its spatial relationship to the goal.