Tuesday, January 23, 2018

My friend, Martin Paczynski

It was with much surprise and a  heavy heart that I learned last week that my friend and colleague Dr. Martin Paczynski suddenly passed away. Martin and I met in 2006 when I entered graduate school at Tufts University, and he was the first graduate student working with our mentor Gina Kuperberg (I was her second). He quickly grew to be a close collaborator, a mentoring senior student, my first choice for brainstorming, and my best friend throughout graduate school. Here, I'll honor his place in the sciences and my work.

It's always a nice benefit when your closest colleagues are smarter than you, and that meant Martin's influence on me and my research is everywhere. He essentially trained me in using EEG, and helped me formulate and analyze countless studies. Though he started the program a year before me, we graduated together, which I think made it all the more special.

Though he initially studied computer science and worked in that field, Martin's graduate work at Tufts focused on the neurocognition of linguistic semantics, though he was knowledgeable in many more fields. His early work focused on aspects of animacy and event roles. He later turned to issues of inference like aspectual coercion—where we construe an additional meaning about time that isn't in a sentence, such as the sense of repeated action in sentences like "For several minutes, the cat pounced on the toy." His experiments were elegant and brilliant.

Our collaborative work on my visual language research started with my first brain study, for which Martin was the second author. After graduate school we co-authored our work on semantic roles of event building, which united our research interests. This continued until just recently, as my most recent paper again had Martin as my co-author, directly following our earlier work, almost 6 years after we left graduate school together. And it wasn't just me: he is a co-author on many many people's work from our lab, which speaks to both his generosity and insightfulness.

Authorship wasn't his only presence in my work. If you've ever seen me give a talk that mentions film, you'll see him starring in the video clips I created as examples (him walking barefoot down our grad office hallway... a frequent sight). If you look at page 85 of my book, there's Martin, shaking hands with another friend:

After graduation, Martin's interests moved away from psycholinguistics, more towards research on mindfulness, stress, and other clinical and applied aspects of neurocognition. For many years he talked about one day studying architecture and design using EEG, but hadn't implemented those ideas just yet. There seemed to be no topic that he couldn't excel at when he applied himself.

He was warm, kind, creative, funny, brilliant, and intellectually generous. I like to especially remember him with a mischievous grin, foreshadowing a comment which would inevitably be both hilarious and astute.

The sciences have lost a spark of insight in Dr. Martin Paczynski, and the world has lost a progressive and compassionate soul. I've lost that and more. Safe travels my friend.