Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU)

Posted on Feb 9, 2015


We are looking for outstanding students interested in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at the CatLab at Vanderbilt University this summer 2015. Our REU is part of an NSF-funded project entitled Perceptual Categorization in Real-World Expertise. This project uses online behavioral experiments to understand the temporal dynamics of perceptual expertise, measuring and manipulating the dynamics of object recognition and categorization at different levels of abstraction and assessing how those dynamics vary over measured levels of expertise, using computational models to test hypotheses about expertise mechanisms. Students have opportunities to work on projects ranging from the development of online experiments, development of analysis routines, and development and testing of computational models. This REU is especially appropriate for students interested in applying to graduate programs in psychology, vision science, cognitive science, or neuroscience. The REU provides a $5000 summer stipend, $500 per week for ten weeks; an additional $150 per week helps offsets the cost of housing and meals; a $250 travel allowance is also provided. REUs are restricted to undergraduate students currently enrolled in a degree program and must be U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, or permanent residents of the United States. Undergraduates who are students at Vanderbilt may have the opportunity to continue the REU experience into the 2015-16 academic year.

Project Description

People with perceptual expertise are skilled at making rapid identifications of specialized objects at a glance, often in poor light and camouflage. Forensic experts can accurately match exemplars to latent fingerprints that may be small, distorted, or smudged. Expert radiologists can quickly categorize medical images as normal or cancerous. Bird experts can identify species at long distances and in poor light. This project examines perception, categorization, and identification along the continuum from novice to expert performance in two real-world perceptual domains: analysis of latent fingerprints and zoological identification of birds. Forensic expertise was chosen because of its real-world importance in criminal and civil investigations and homeland security. Bird expertise was chosen not because it is important to understand bird identification per se, but because it is an excellent domain for studying a broad continuum of real-world expertise with a large and willing subject population. The overall aim is to understand how fundamental perceptual and cognitive mechanisms are tuned and modified by experience and expertise. The models arising from this project will enable us to understand the development of real-world perceptual expertise and to validate theoretically-grounded measures of expert performance.

Why study perceptual expertise? Just as gifted athletes push the limits of their bodies, or prize-winning mathematicians push the limits of their minds, perceptual experts push the limits of their perceptual systems. Perhaps with better markers of perceptual expertise and a better understanding of how people become perceptual experts, we could identify potential perceptual experts more effectively, train new perceptual experts more efficiently, and evaluate existing perceptual experts more thoroughly. Studying perceptual expertise can also help inform our understanding of the kinds of everyday expertise that we all have, such as recognizing faces or reading words. This can yield new insights into education and workforce training along with new insights into how the ravages of brain damage or disease might lead to perceptual and learning deficits and potentially inform future breakthroughs in evaluation, intervention, or treatment.

REU Experience

There are several components of the ongoing research that an REU could be involved in: The research in my lab requires developing computerized experiments for online testing using Adobe Flash, Javascript, or the Amazon Mechanical Turk API. It requires analyzing expertise performance data using psychometric tools such as IRT. It requires analyzing behavioral data using customized programs in Matlab or R. It requires characterizing behavioral data by fitting computational models, such as the diffusion model, which in turn requires adapting and writing simulation and model fitting code in Matlab or R. It requires developing and testing new models that explain how behavior changes over the course of expertise. Developing computer programs for experimental design, data analysis, and computational modeling; every graduate student and postdoctoral fellow in an active lab spends considerable time writing computer code in Matlab, R, Flash, or other platforms in order to conduct our research. Some programming experience is expected; while experience with some of these particular programming platforms is desirable, it is not necessary.

Following standard practice in my lab for the past two decades, undergraduates will be paired with a senior graduate student or postdoctoral fellow and work with them on a specific concrete project. They will read relevant research pertaining to the project underway and they will attend lab meetings. They will meet regularly with the graduate student or postdoctoral fellow as well as myself to discuss goals, achievements, and challenges. Undergraduates in my lab typically begin by working on an ongoing project but as their skills develop and their interests blossom, they often end up working on new projects more independently. Lab meetings often offer opportunities to discuss broader issues related to topics like responsible conduct of research and professional development.

Application Procedure

Please send the following to Professor Thomas Palmeri at; we will begin reviewing applications March 1, 2015.

  • 1-2 page cover letter describing your educational experience and research background, your interest in the research in the CatLab, and your future goals; please also describe your computer programming experience.
  • Resume or vita.
  • Transcripts.
  • Name of 2 individuals who could comment on your educational background, experience, and potential for research.


Undergraduate student participants supported with NSF funds in REU programs must be U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, or permanent residents of the United States. An undergraduate student is a student who is enrolled in a degree program (part-time or full-time) leading to a baccalaureate or associate degree. Students who are transferring from one college or university to another and are enrolled at neither institution during the intervening summer may participate. High school graduates who have been accepted at an undergraduate institution but who have not yet started their undergraduate study are also eligible to participate. Students who have received their bachelor’s degrees and are no longer enrolled as undergraduates are generally not eligible to participate.

New Papers

Posted on Jan 28, 2015

New papers in press:

Palmeri, T.J., & Mack, M.L. (in press). How experimental trial context affects perceptual categorization. Frontiers in Psychology.

Logan, G.D., Yamaguchi, M., & Schall, G.D., & Palmeri, T.J. (in press). Inhibitory control in mind and brain 2.0: A blocked-input model of saccadic countermanding. Psychological Review.

Richler, J.J., Palmeri, T.J., & Gauthier, I. (in press). Holistic processing does not require configural variability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Special Issue on Model-Based Cognitive Neuroscience

Posted on Dec 5, 2014

Thomas Palmeri from Vanderbilt, Brad Love from University College London, and Brandon Turner from The Ohio State University are co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Mathematical Psychology on Model-Based Cognitive Neuroscience. This special issue aims to explore the growing intersection between cognitive modeling and cognitive neuroscience. Cognitive modeling has a rich history of formalizing and testing hypotheses about cognitive mechanisms within a mathematical and computational language, making exquisite predictions of how people perceive, learn, remember, and decide. Cognitive neuroscience aims to identify neural mechanisms associated with key aspects of cognition, using techniques like neurophysiology, electrophysiology, and structural and functional brain imaging. These two come together in a powerful new approach called model-based cognitive neuroscience, which can both inform model selection and help interpret neural measures. Cognitive models decompose complex behavior into representations and processes and these latent model states are used to explain the modulation of brain states under different experimental conditions. Reciprocally, neural measures provide data that help constrain cognitive models and adjudicate between competing cognitive models that make similar predictions of behavior. For example, brain measures are related to cognitive model parameters fitted to individual participant data, measures of brain dynamics are related to measures of model dynamics, model parameters are constrained by neural measures, model parameters are used in statistical analyses of neural data, or neural and behavioral data are analyzed jointly within hierarchical modeling framework.

Editors, Review Board, Ad-hoc Reviewers
The guest co-editors for this special issue of the Journal of Mathematical Psychology will be Thomas Palmeri, Bradley Love, and Brandon Turner; appeals to editorial decisions will be handled by the Editor-in-Chief, Philip Smith. We would like this to be a community effort, so we will invite a subset of contributors to join a review board for the special issue, and we will request other contributors to be willing to review at least one submission.

Instructions for submission
– The submission website for this journal is located at:
– To ensure that all manuscripts are correctly identified for inclusion into the special issue, it is important that authors select SI: Model-Based Cognitive when they reach the “Article Type” step in the submission process

Click Here for more details.

PEN XXX Reunion Meeting

Posted on Dec 1, 2014

The Perceptual Expertise Network will be celebrating our 30th workshop by inviting current PEN members, previous PEN members, and PEN friends to join us for a day of talks as well as a reunion dinner following the talks. This will be held on May 14th, 2015 at the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort in St. Pete Beach, Florida, as a satellite to the annual VSS conference.

NEI Grant Renewed

Posted on Nov 4, 2014

Our NEI Grant Stochastic Models of Visual Decision Making and Visual Search was just renewed for another four years, through end of 2018.

New papers from the CatLab

Posted on Aug 27, 2014

Shen, J., & Palmeri, T.J. (in press). The perception of a face is greater than the sum of its parts. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Folstein, J., Palmeri, T.J., Van Gulick, A.B., & Gauthier, I. (in press). Category learning stretches neural representations in visual cortex. Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Shen, J., Mack, M.L., & Palmeri, T.J. (2014). Studying real-world perceptual expertise. Frontiers in Cognition.

Braden Purcell wins honorable mention for James McKeen Cattell Award

Posted on Aug 14, 2014

Braden’s PhD dissertation, Neural Mechanisms of Perceptual Decision Making, has been chosen to receive honorable mention in the 2013-2014 James McKeen Cattell Dissertation competition sponsored by the Psychology Section of the New York Academy of Sciences. The field was highly competitive, with many excellent candidates for the award. His work was highly regarded by the reviewers and by the Steering Committee. The Academy further commended the work of his mentors, Thomas Palmeri and Jeffrey Schall, and the graduate program in Psychological Sciences at Vanderbilt University. In recognition of his noteworthy achievement, he will receive a certificate from the New York Academy of Sciences; his mentors will be similarly recognized. Congratulations Braden!

NSF REU Supplement awarded

Posted on Jul 15, 2014

The CatLab has just been awarded a $19,500 supplementary grant from the National Science Foundation for a Research Experience for Undergraduates. Academic year REU students will receive a $3000 stipend per semester. Summer REU students will receive a $5000 stipend, a $1500 housing and meal allowance, and

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$250 travel allowance. Interested undergraduates should contact Professor Palmeri at for information on how to apply.

Braden Purcell wins Jum Nunnally Dissertation Award

Posted on Apr 22, 2014

Congratulations to Braden Purcell for winning the 2014 Jum Nunnally Dissertation Award! This makes the third CatLab PhD student to win this prestigious award, along with Mike Mack in 2011 and Jenn Richler in 2010.

The Jum Nunnally Dissertation Award recognizes a recent outstanding doctoral dissertation in the Department of Psychology. The recipient receives a certificate and a $500 award. Jum Nunnally came to Vanderbilt in 1960. In 1961, he became the second chair of the department. He served as chair from 1961-1964 and again from 1967-1970. Under Jum’s leadership, the department grew substantially in stature, including significant increases in both the number and quality of the faculty. A memorial fund to support student awards was established in 1982 by his friends and family. Proceeds from this fund were used to establish the Jum Nunnally Dissertation Award in 2010.

Two new postdocs join the CatLab

Posted on Apr 1, 2014

Brent Miller joins to lab as a postdoctoral fellow this month with a background in computer engineering and psychology. He comes from the University of California, Irvine, where he received his PhD in 2014 with Mark Steyvers. Brent is broadly interested in how the mechanisms of information storage, retrieval, and encoding affect judgment and decision making. Previously, he used computational modeling to show how certain decision behavior necessarily arises from probabilistic information representation in the brain. As a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt, he will work on developing and testing computational models of behavior and neurophysiology in our collaboration with Jeff Schall and Gordon Logan.

Jeff Annis will receive his PhD from the University of South Florida this summer, where he has been studying the relationship between memory and perception via sequential dependencies with Ken Malmberg. Jeff is interested in the mechanisms and representations involved in memory and categorization. He will join the lab as postdoctoral fellow this summer to use computational models and empirical investigations to understand the dynamics of perceptual expertise.