Albert W. Johnson University Research Lectureship
The Albert W. Johnson University Research Lectureship is awarded annually to an SDSU faculty member for outstanding achievement in research and scholarship. Its purpose is to recognize such achievement, foster its continuation, and enable a distinguished resident faculty scholar to share their knowledge more broadly with and beyond the academic community. The Lectureship is the University's highest recognition of research and scholarly achievement. The Division of Research and Innovation sponsors the Lectureship with funding partially endowed through the Albert W. Johnson fund.
The recipient delivers a public lecture during the spring semester and is named a Distinguished Professor in their discipline for the remainder of their tenure and retirement at SDSU (this title is not transferrable should a faculty member resign and leave SDSU for a different institution). The title of Distinguised Professor recognizes senior faculty who are nationally and internationally renowned for their innovative body of work and its transformational impact on the field. The Lectureship is awarded to faculty working at the very top of their discipline and who are recognized as a preeminent leader in their field of study. The recipient receives $30,000 in research support. Tenured, full professors who have been on the SDSU faculty for at least 5 years are eligible for this award.
2023 AWJ Lecturer: Phillip Holcomb
Before Phillip Holcomb could learn how to decode the brain, he first needed to tackle
The year was 1976, and the computer was sitting in a lab in San Diego State University’s Life Sciences building, collecting dust because nobody had figured out how to use it. It was the university’s first-ever lab-based research computer and it had the ability, in theory, to collect physiological measurements like heart rate and temperature, vitals that were just starting to be captured electronically.
Holcomb was fascinated by the relationship between brain and behavior, so when his professor, psychophysiologist Jerry Koppman, offered him a role in his lab, Holcomb seized the opportunity. Koppman's first project for the student: get the fancy new computer to work and interface with physiological recording equipment used to monitor brain and other body activity.
“Programming a computer in 1976 was not easy, no one at SDSU knew how to do it,” Holcomb said, recalling late nights (or, rather, mornings) spent at the lab, sifting through a book on Fortran and learning how to code. He ended up becoming the lab’s go-to computer whiz, and after the programming was finished he took up the science of neurocognition, endeavoring to unpack the neural phenomena of arguably our most precious organ.
Holcomb has come full circle and is now an SDSU professor and prolific cognitive neuroscience researcher focused on the brain mechanics that allow humans to read. Humankind has been communicating and using language for thousands upon thousands of years, but only in the last few hundred years has reading become ubiquitous.
“We are really interested in how, with your eyes and the visual parts of your brain, we interpret these little squiggles on a page, and do it quickly and effortlessly,” Holcomb said.
“If the brain hasn’t evolved for reading, then how do we do it?” Holcomb asked. “As we read, the brain basically co-opts areas developed for other skills. One of the things the human brain is really good at is adapting and acquiring skills.”
Holcomb is the 2023 recipient of the Albert W. Johnson Research Lectureship, SDSU’s highest research honor. His lecture, “Reading in the Brain: Unraveling the Neural Mechanisms Underlying Visual Language Comprehension,” is scheduled for 3-6 p.m. March 15 at Montezuma Hall at the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union.
The award comes with $30,000 in research support and title of distinguished professor. For the first time, the ceremony and lecture will also include 2023 recipients of the inaugural SDSU Outstanding Scholar Awards.
“Since Phil came to SDSU a decade ago, he has brought in more than $7 million to further critical research on the way our brain operates, all the while being a phenomenal colleague and esteemed mentor to our student researchers,” said Hala Madanat, vice president for research and innovation. Learn more about Dr. Holcomb