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  October 9, 2000

Love of Science, Teaching at Core
of Turvey's Distinguished Career

At the center of Michael Turvey's life are three things: teaching, the science of psychology, and a grand lady named Nell.

The British-born professor of psychology has a global audience as a big league lecturer in several branches of experimental psychology and cognitive science, but he considers himself the most fortunate when the audience hearing his lectures is his Psych 132 class.

A Lady Named Nell
This fall marks Turvey's 36th year of teaching the introductory psychology course to undergraduates. It's also the first year that his beloved mother Nell won't be introduced to his graduate students. She died in the spring at the age of 92.

"My mother knew all of my doctoral students," says Turvey. "She came to the States twice a year from her home in England and was well known among them."

Over the years, says Turvey, who completed work with his 40th Ph.D. candidate in August, many of his graduate students had visited her in London. The welcome mat was always out, he says.

"I would introduce my mother in various ways in my classroom, ways that involved, for example, discussions on the secret of a long life," Turvey says.

"She would tell my class she lived so long and in such good health because she did a great deal of walking every day, enjoyed one or more Guinness stouts every evening, and played Bingo four or five times a week."

Setting High Standards
Turvey considers himself an "old-fashioned" teacher, a professor who appreciates that his undergraduate students are going to find his courses "unbelievably hard," and maybe even impossible.

But he always gives them hope.

"I let them know how long it took me to understand the concepts that I am teaching them now and what kinds of mistakes - frequently silly, sometimes amusing - I made along the way when I didn't understand the concepts well enough," says Turvey.

He has shared that feeling and his knowledge with more than 27,000 UConn undergraduates during a career that has spanned a little more than three decades. Turvey came to the University in 1967 as an assistant professor of psychology.

He believes that one of the more difficult undergraduate courses in psychology is a course he teaches titled "Learning and Cognition." The course delves into the way in which biological systems acquire knowledge and is, he says, conceptually rather deep.

"Every couple of years, someone gets an A," he says.

For Turvey, the greatness of any state university is the heterogeneity of its students.

"A state university opens its doors wide, giving to as many as possible the opportunity to progress in higher education and beyond," he says. "The charge in each class is to teach in such a way that all the students, despite their contrasting skills and dispositions, have a chance of learning from you." The minimal goals, he says, are for students to leave your class knowing what it was all about and to leave with good notes for future reference and study.

That devotion to teaching, coupled with his many research achievements, was formally recognized with the 1994-1997 University of Connecticut Distinguished Alumni Professor award. He also was named a Distinguished Scientist Lecturer in 1998 by the American Psychological Association and, earlier this year, was named one of the first University of Connecticut Board of Trustees Distinguished Professors.

Turvey credits his father and his early teachers for instilling in him a love of learning.

"We were living in an apartment in the docklands of London, which were pretty much demolished during the Second World War," says Turvey. "I was educated by nuns and priests who understood the significance of education."

In addition, he says, his late father, a professional gambler, encouraged him by always bringing home books to their London flat.

Turvey was studying kinesiology in the 1960s at Ohio State University when his eventual doctoral advisor, Professor Delos Wickens, convinced him to change over to psychology.

"He got me a teaching assistantship, even when I didn't know psychology," says Turvey. "'You'll pick it up in a few weeks,' Wickens says with a smile," recalls Turvey, who has earned an international reputation based on his scientific achievements and has racked up dozens of honors, awards and fellowships in the field.

Among his early awards was the American Psychological Association's First Early Career Award in Human Cognition and Learning that was presented in 1974 for his investigations into memory and vision.

Science of Psychology
During a long, distinguished and continuing career at UConn, Turvey has played a major role in the development of the Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action. The center, established in 1987 by the Board of Trustees, is internationally recognized as being on the cutting edge of the ecological approach in the study of psychology. Turvey credits Robert Shaw, a professor of psychology at UConn, and Claudia Carello, the center's director for the past 13 years, for the center's success.

"The ecological approach to perception and action sees psychology as continuous with the natural sciences," explains Turvey.

"At the Center we push for new directions, for non-conventional interpretations. Our work is on the fundamental functions of the brain and mind: how memory works, how vision works, how it is possible to learn to produce movements," he adds.

"While the more orthodox strategy in psychology is to appeal to special mental processes to impose order on perception and action, the ecological approach seeks to expose the laws that underlie these capabilities," he says. "Proponents do not aim to reduce the phenomena of perception and action to known physical phenomena, but to share with the natural sciences the law-based strategy of explanation."

Part of his work takes him weekly to the Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, where he has been a research scientist since 1970. With ties to both UConn and Yale University, the laboratories were founded in the 1930s by Caryl Haskins, a millionaire biologist. They are home to an interdisciplinary group of professionals: linguists, experimental and developmental psychologists, physicists and engineers. It also houses the research unit where a team of scientists headed by the late emeritus professor of psychology Alvin Liberman - one of Turvey's heroes - cracked the speech code and did pioneering work on speech synthesis and reading machines for the blind.

"Most of my work in recent years at Haskins is on how reading works, " says Turvey. "How one can recognize words. How the brain does that and how it exploits speech-related mechanisms in doing so."

Pioneering Theory
Turvey began his pioneering work as a Guggenheim Fellow in 1973 when he wrote a theoretical paper that established a new perspective on the principles by which the nervous system produces coordinating movements. His understanding of the brain's control of movement characterized it as a problem within the physics and mathematics of complex, self-organizing systems.

Later in the 1980s, during a James McKeen Cattell Fellowship, Turvey's search into nervous system functions was extended to the mechanisms of touch. His research disclosed that complicated kinds of physical quantities known as "tensors" are routinely exploited by the tactile nervous system in perceiving the lengths, shapes, and orientations of things people grasp in their hands.

Turvey's research, which has produced more than 300 papers, one book and one edited volume, continues to have a major impact today in the fields of perception and movement coordination.

He concedes he's absolutely stuck on science. And, therein, lies a dilemma of sorts.

"I tell my grad students that one reason you must work hard at your teaching is because the rewards of research are few and far between but the rewards of the classroom are daily," says Turvey. "Every day in a university classroom is a day well spent."

Claudia G. Chamberlain