In February 2007, Eppendorf caught up with Dr. Tsao to ask her about herself, her work and how life has been since winning the Prize.
Dr. Tsao, you have your own lab at the University of Bremen but are in fact not German but American of Chinese descent. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself? What do you do when you are not in the lab?
My parents and I emigrated to the US from mainland China when I was 4 years old. I hear a lot about the explosive growth in China and think it would be interesting to set up a monkey lab there someday. I spend most of my hours in the lab. I keep my violin in my office, and practice whenever I get a chance. My perpetually unsatisfied goal is to learn German - I try, but everyone in Germany speaks such good English that I feel like I’m imposing on them when I practice my halting German.
How did you come to set up your own lab at the University of Bremen?
I came to Germany for a summer and worked in a monkey lab in Tuebingen when I was in college and loved it. So I was very happy when I got the Sofia Kovalevskaya Award from the Humboldt Foundation (a program which provides generous funds for young foreign scientists to start their own research groups in Germany). The resources for doing monkey experiments at the University of Bremen are incredible – with a readily accessible MR scanner just down the hallway. Most importantly, the opportunity to become scientifically independent at this early stage was very attractive to me.
Is it a big transition working in Germany after being in an American environment?
I was quite apprehensive before I came that there would be a lot more restrictions and bureaucracy in Germany than in the US. Happily, that hasn’t been the case (there’s more red tape in some areas but less in others). The biggest difference is in the overall structure of the academic system, which is much more hierarchical in Germany. The concept of “Assistant Professor“, someone who does not have tenure but is scientifically independent, is completely new to Germany.
When did you start to become interested in monkeys?
I have always been interested in visual perception, ever since 5th grade, when the paradox of whether space is infinite or not struck me. The realization that one can actually understand vision in terms of concrete mechanisms, through experiments with monkeys (whose brains are highly similar to human brains, especially in terms of sensory processing), was a revelation to me. After that, there was never any question that I wanted to spend my life studying the brain.
How would you describe your work and it’s importance?
My ultimate goal is to understand how the 3D world and the objects within it are represented by the brain. What happens when a 3D landscape emerges from a magic eye stereogram? We are so far from understanding visual perception, but when we do, I am sure the answer will be unbearably beautiful.
How did you first get to know about the Eppendorf & Science Prize and why did you apply?
I learned about the Prize from my advisor, who sent me an email describing the contest. I couldn’t pass up the chance to win $25,000 and have an essay published in Science!
What does winning the Prize mean to you on a personal level? Will it have any effect on your future career?
I feel incredibly lucky and honored to receive this prestigious prize. It is gratifying to know that others share in the excitement of what I'm doing. I am applying for jobs this year, and hopefully the prize will mean something to my future employer as well.
Many of us are curious to know what you are going to do with the prize money. Have you decided?
I put it in the bank – it’s the first time in my life I’m not on the borderline of debt, and that feels good! My mom has sent me lots of emails full of ideas...mutual funds rank high on her list.