Ulrich Mayr receives one of Germany's top academic prizes

UO psychology professor Ulrich Mayer
Ulrich Mayr

Ulrich Mayr, a leading neuroscientist and chair of the UO’s psychology department, is among the winners of this year’s Humboldt Research Award, one of the most prestigious academic honors in Germany.

Mayr holds the Robert and Beverly Lewis Professorship in Neuroscience and is a top researcher on cognitive control and decision making. He is particularly interested in the flexibility of the human brain and has conducted ground-breaking research on brain changes related to aging.

The Humboldt Research Award recognizes the career work of scholars whose fundamental discoveries or new theories have had a significant effect on their field and who are expected to make further important contributions in the future. The award currently is valued at €60,000, or approximately $82,000.

“It was excellent news,” Mayr, a German native, said of receiving the award. “One of the hardest things about being an immigrant is trying to keep in contact with the Old World. The Humboldt Award is a big asset that makes that possible and makes me a happy person here.”

The award will be presented next week by Joachim Gauck, the president of Germany, in a ceremony at a castle in Berlin. Award winners also are invited to spend from six months to a year in Germany collaborating on research with colleagues in that country.

With the award, Mayr said he plans to help some of his graduate students travel to universities in Berlin and Potsdam to participate in research that ties in with their studies at the UO and to bring scholars from Germany to Oregon. He also will spend about six months over the next several years collaborating on research with colleagues in Germany.

Candidates for the Humboldt Award must be nominated by a scholar in Germany. Mayr’s name was put forward by the director of the Max Planck Society, one of the world’s leading research organizations, making the honor especially meaningful, Mayr said.

Mayr joined the UO in 2000. He was named the university’s first Lewis Professor in Neuroscience in 2006 and became head of the psychology department in 2013. He received his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from the Free University Berlin and completed advanced study at the University of Potsdam.

Mayr was a leader in the UO’s effort to acquire a magnetic resonance imaging device for research in a variety of fields, including cognitive neuroscience. He was co-investigator on a proposal that won $4 million in federal funding and, combined with a large donation from Robert and Beverly Lewis, helped establish the UO’s top-tier Lewis Center for Neuroimaging.

A larger and more powerful MRI device was installed in the new Lewis Integrative Sciences Building, replacing the older device and advancing the university’s ability to do cutting-edge research. Mayr serves as the chair of the Lewis Center for Neuroimaging executive committee.

Mayr has done extensive research on executive control and its relation to memory and learning, cognitive development over the life span and the neural basis for public good decisions. He has recently worked with economics professor Bill Harbaugh to examine how the brain responds when people pay taxes and donate to charity and how gender affects competition choice.

Last year, Mayr won a five-year, $1.4 million grant from the National Institute on Aging to continue research that looks at task switching among older adults. The project examines how the brain switches between tasks when people are doing multiple chores and how that process changes with age.

Mayr’s work has shown that as people age they have a greater tendency to look for cues from the environment around them when working on tasks, even when they have all the knowledge they need for the task without any external reinforcement.

“The older we get, the more we rely on information from the environment rather than what we have in our head,” he said. “That has pretty profound implications in many areas of our lives.”

During his time in Germany, Mayr will collaborate with colleagues there on research that looks at related issues.

Mayr is the second UO neuroscientist to receive a major academic honor this year. Last month, professor Helen Neville, who holds the Lewis Chair in Neuroscience, was named to the National Academy of Sciences as a foreign associate.

―By Greg Bolt, UO Public Affairs Communications