4/24/2018 Peter Durantine

Professor Owens: “Many of ‘My’ Best Ideas Came from Collaborating with Students”

After 40 years of teaching and working with students on research at Franklin & Marshall College, Fred Owens, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Psychology, retires from the institution that instilled his love of scholarship.

“F&M and kindred colleges present a different path, where professors get the best of both worlds, a blend of teaching small classes of talented students, and continuing their career in cutting-edge research,” said the ’72 alumnus.

  • “In classes, I shared much of what I had learned about perception, behavior, and the history of psychology,” Owens says. “In classes, I shared much of what I had learned about perception, behavior, and the history of psychology,” Owens says.

Owens earned his postgraduate degrees in experimental psychology from Penn State University in 1974 and 1976. He spent two years as a National Institute of Health postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology & Brain Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Then, he landed the job that defined his career. 

“Quite unexpectedly, my F&M mentor, Professor Eugene Wist, with whom I had first learned the science of visual perception, had accepted an invitation to become a distinguished professor in Europe,” Owens recalled. “At first, I was sad to hear he was moving far away.  Then it dawned on me that I could apply for his position at F&M.”

Over the next four decades, Owens worked closely with many students who enjoyed learning and inquiring about how people see and interact with the world.

“In classes, I shared much of what I had learned about perception, behavior, and the history of psychology,” Owens said. “In the lab, students joined me in identifying new questions for research and developing the methods needed to find answers, to create new knowledge. Many of ‘my’ best ideas came from collaborating with students.”  

Memorable to Owens was a question a student asked after learning about “biological motion,” attaching 12 tiny points of light to a person’s limb joints that allow visual distinction of the person in action. Her question: Might biological motion be useful for marking pedestrians at night? It resulted in advancing “biomotion” in traffic safety and drivers’ education.  

Throughout his distinguished career, Owens published widely on perception and vision; he earned numerous grants and awards for his research, including funding from NIH’s National Eye Institute to investigate “The Central Control of Visual Accommodation,” and a research fellowship to study “Age-Related Changes in Vision and Driving,” awarded by the Center for Eye Research at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, where he later lectured for a year.

Owens taught an array of courses, from introductory experimental psychology to human performance and modern technology to biological bases on mind and behavior, and more. In 1986, he received F&M’s Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.

“The faculty at F&M are able to contribute world-class scholarship through the hybrid mission of teaching and learning with highly motivated and talented young scholars,” Owens said. “In the universe of higher education, this is an extraordinary situation, which I have found to be enormously gratifying.” 

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