Dr Niko Troje
Pigeons led the way for Dr Troje
by Meredith Dault
February 14, 2011
A professor with the Department of Psychology, the School of Computing, and (most recently) the Department of Biology, Dr. Troje, who chairs the graduate program in Brain, Behavior and Cognitive Science, also directs the Biomotion Lab, a centre dedicated to research around visual perception and social cognition. He is particularly intent in understanding how it is that people can recognize one another through movement. “I’m interested in the information that is contained in the way you move,” explains Dr. Troje, an NSERC Staecie Fellow, “and how you can attribute something like gender, age, or emotional attributes to how people move.”
But Dr. Troje’s interests are much broader. “What I was interested in, originally, were visual systems,” he says thoughtfully, “so, how animals see -- and seeing, of course, is much more than what’s happening in the eye. Most of it happens in the brain.” He did his Master’s and PhD research in Biology at the University of Freiburg in his native Germany, where he looked at colour perception in flies and bees (“the principals of colour vision are pretty similar between humans and bees and most other animals,” he explains, “but in flies, there was something special. My task was to find out what it was.”)
By the time he finished his PhD, Dr. Troje had become interested in vertebrate vision -- particularly in humans, and soon found himself a position at the Max Planck Institute, a research foundation in Tübingen, Germany. “I ended up working on human face recognition,” he says. “And at that point, I learned that psychology is a tremendously interesting field that has much more to offer than clinical applications. I got more into human visual processing”.
“It was an important time for me,” says Dr. Troje of his three year term at the Max Planck institute (from 1994-1997), not only because of the fancy research equipment he had access to, but also because of the connections he was able to make. “We had a weekly seminar series,” he recalls. “It was probably the most important thing for my career development because I got to know so many people.” Dr. Troje had the job of running the series and had to contact potential speakers. Someone suggested he invite Dr. Barrie Frost, a psychology professor from Queen’s who was doing research in Europe. Dr. Troje invited the Canadian researcher to speak in Tübingen. He had no idea it would change his life.
At the time, Dr. Troje was looking for an animal model to use in his research around face recognition. “Barrie convinced me that he had the right animal,” he explains. “It was pigeons!” Dr. Troje agrees that the birds proved interesting, leading to yet another shift in his research. “Pigeons are social and recognize each other socially, but they don’t use anything similar to face recognition. I am convinced they recognize each other from how they move.” Dr. Frost suggested he come to Queen’s to continue his research.
Soon after, Dr. Troje and his family had relocated to Kingston for a two-year term as a visiting professor. Though a major award in Germany saw Dr. Troje move back to Germany in 1999 to head up a project at the Ruhr Universität Bochum (it’s where he established and ran the first Biomotion lab, which became a model for his Queen’s lab) -- he and his family were already “homesick for Canada.” “We were dreaming of coming back,” he laughs, “but it wasn’t possible for me to leave my growing lab.”
But in 2003, Queen’s proposed he return to Kingston and take up a position as a Canada Research Chair in Vision and Behavioral Sciences. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse. Keeping his lab running in Germany (he was committed to it until 2005), Dr. Troje and his young family settled in Canada. “I really like living here,” he says warmly, “and Queen’s is very very supportive.”
Dr. Troje’s work with pigeons proved vital to his current research, as he became more and more interested in the information contained in movement. His Biomotion Lab is equipped with a sophisticated motion capture system that measures body movement. He currently supervises a handful of graduate students, and employs a full-time technician to run the equipment-heavy lab.
“We represent not only cognition and perception in our research and training, but add to it the fields of communication and social behavior, that is, how we interact with other people, and how we behave in an animate world,” says Dr. Troje, of the graduate program in Brain, Behavior and Cognitive Science. “Our sensory and cognitive systems have evolved to be able to not just interact with dead objects, but with other fellow humans. That is what our program focuses on, and what distinguishes it from other programs with similar names at other places in Canada.”
And he still works with pigeons.