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School of Arts and Sciences

Faculty Focus: Fall 2020

Monday, August 24, 2020

Stephanie Badde is the new Stibel Family Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Science in the Department of Psychology, Kasso Akochaye Okoudjou is a new professor in the Department of Mathematics, and Steve Cicala is a new assistant professor in the Department of Economics.

Kasso Okoudjou, Steve Cicala, Stephanie Badde

Perception Is Not Necessarily Reality

Stephanie Badde
Stephanie Badde, Stibel Family Assistant
Professor of Brain and Cognitive Science

How keen is your sensory perception? Most people assume that they process all that happens around them just fine. As Stephanie Badde says, though, the reality is far more complicated. The brain has to do myriad calculations to funnel out the noise and create the impression that we perceive the world clearly.

"Our senses are actually not that great; they provide very noisy information," she says. "My research looks into some of the mechanisms the brain uses to overcome that by putting together information from multiple modalities. I also look at 'priors'—the idea that our perception is based on inference. That is, perception is based not just on what comes in through the senses but also on what the brain knows about the world."

A German native, Badde holds a Ph.D. from the University of Hamburg. After completing a short post-doctoral fellowship there, she spent five years as a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology and the Center for Neural Science at New York University.

Badde looks forward to her first autumn in New England, but coming to the Hill is about much more than seeing the leaves turn and driving along the picturesque coast (though she plans to do both). She also cites Tufts' tightknit faculty and reputation for having students who are engaged and interested in learning as major draws.

"Another plus for me is that psychology and the computer sciences are very interwoven," she says. "I have a background in both of these areas, and there are not many places where you can find that combination." 

This fall, Badde will teach Multisensory Perception, an undergraduate seminar.

A Long Road Leading to Tufts

Kasso Okoudjou
Kasso Akochaye Okoudjou,
Professor, Department of Mathematics

In 1998 Kasso Okoudjou, who hails from the West African country of Benin, traveled roughly 5,700 miles to attend the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). He went on to earn both an M.S. in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. in mathematics.

Okoudjou has since taught at Cornell University, the University of Maryland, and MIT. Now he is preparing for his first semester at Tufts, where he will teach Graduate Real Analysis this fall.

Over the course of his extensive research career, Okoudjou has been principal investigator on projects funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, Army Research Office, Office of Naval Research, and Simons Foundation. His interests lie in pure, applied and computational harmonic analysis, including frame theory, time-frequency and wavelet analysis, and analysis of graphs and fractals.

"I look at the mathematics that underpins signal processing," he explains. "I investigate how to decompose very complex objects like images, sounds, movies, and more general signals into some basic building blocks, akin to writing a song into musical notes. My specific work involves the construction of these basic building blocks that will allow for efficient signal-processing algorithms."

Okoudjou is also interested in undergraduate education, especially on issues around the use of active learning techniques in precalculus and calculus courses, and in broadening the participation of underrepresented minorities in research in the mathematical sciences.

As a Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professor at MIT from July 2018 to July 2020, Okoudjou visited the Tufts campus several times. He liked what he saw.

"The students here are so engaged, not just on the academic side but broadly on how to change society for the better," he says. "The faculty are very active in mathematical research. And Tufts is quite involved in civic life; that touched me a lot and helped me decide to pursue this opportunity."

Influencing the Public Discussion

Steve Cicala
Steve Cicala, Assistant Professor,
Department of Economics

Steve Cicala studies the economics of regulation, particularly with respect to energy and environmental policy. A recent project of his involved creating a tool to track day-to-day changes in economic activity during the COVID-19 pandemic based on electricity consumption. The New York Times featured Cicala's work in an April 8 article, which has raised his profile considerably.

"Without real-time indicators of economic activity, we're largely flying blind in the middle of this crisis," he says. "It has been rewarding to work on something with such urgency and immediate impact. I had been working on projects related to the electricity sector before COVID, and when the crisis hit, I began trying to see how my work might be useful right away."

Cicala's tracker is based on the insight that electricity is a vital part of our everyday lives and can be monitored on an hourly basis. "With the live data, it's like watching the economy wake up in the morning on the eastern seaboard and seeing their activity throughout the day. The fact that prices are fixed in the short run and there are essentially no substitutes means these data provide a valuable proxy for the health of the economy: Aggregate electricity usage falls when businesses and factories close and when consumers cut back at home."

This fall, Cicala will teach a graduate economics seminar and a Ph.D. class in econometrics. He recently completed seven years as an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and is excited to return to Greater Boston, where he earned a Ph.D. in economics at Harvard University.

"Between Tufts, the many surrounding colleges and universities, and the headquarters of the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge," Cicala concludes, "there's clearly a strong sense of gravity in economics that pulls toward Boston."