Andrew Perfors, PhD

Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne

For his first science fair in elementary school, Dr. Andrew Perfors wanted to see how watering plants with different liquids would affect their growth. He decided to give one plant water, one beer, and one coffee. Over the course of his experiment, he was amazed to see the plant that was given coffee grew so much better than the rest, and wondered why we didn’t give all plants coffee (to which his father clarified “It’s because we want the coffee!”).

This early experience with science inspired Andrew. He loved the idea that if you had questions about how the world worked, you could actually test them and didn’t have to just take things on faith. Throughout his life, Andrew has continued to test out many different paths and ideas in order to better understand both himself and the world at large.

As an undergraduate at Stanford University, Andrew initially decided to pursue a degree in physics in order to explore the fundamental factors that govern the Universe. However, Andrew started to realize that while he loved the idea of physics and the overarching scientific insight it provided, he did not really enjoy the practical day-to-day experience of being a physicist. This realization led him to seek out a large variety of experiences and classes to figure out what he actually wanted to do. Eventually, he found his way to the lab of Dr. ​​Anne Fernald, who studies infant language acquisition. While there, he found that he really loved learning about how minds learn and reason. He, therefore, decided to switch his major to Symbolic Systems in order to continue exploring these areas. He followed up his undergraduate degree by staying at Stanford another year to earn a Master’s degree in Linguistics.

After receiving his Master’s degree, Andrew was fairly certain he still wanted to pursue science, but he “didn’t want to be one of those people who just did [science] because they didn’t know what else there was.” In order to explore other career paths, he decided to follow up on his interest in how people learn and traveled to Mozambique with the Peace Corps of America to teach. While he greatly enjoyed teaching, he found the experience of doing so in a foreign country very difficult and isolating and ended up leaving early. Despite this, he does not regret the experience because it helped him know that he truly wanted to pursue being a scientist. He started a PhD in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT shortly after, and he credits the clarity of purpose he gained from his time with the Peace Corps with helping him get through the tougher parts of his degree.

As a PhD student, Andrew worked in the lab of Dr. Joshua Tenenbaum. In a continuation of his earlier time studying language at Stanford, Andrew developed computer models to explain how language acquisition might work in the brain. There was a major debate in the field of linguistics about how people learn the complex structures of language, specifically about how much of the ability to acquire language had to be innate and how much could be learned just from exposure (“nature” versus “nurture”). Andrew’s work showed that even without prior knowledge, certain computer models can “learn” complex structures like language. While we don’t yet know everything about how human brains learn, models like Andrew’s help us figure out what potential mechanisms could explain language acquisition.

Through doing his PhD, Andrew realized that while he still loved science and education, he also valued having a good work-life balance. Taking this into account, as well as his and his partner’s location preferences, Andrew moved to Australia and started a job as a lecturer in psychology at the University of Adelaide. In 2017, he moved once again (but this time not quite so far) to the University of Melbourne, where he is now Professor and Director of the Complex Human Data Hub. His current research interests focus on the transfer of misinformation, something especially relevant to the modern world. More specifically, he wants to know how we make judgments about trustworthiness of others and how that affects what information we spread.

Aside from being a scientist, Andrew also strongly identifies as a parent. He makes his relationship with his kids very visible in his scientific life. He sees this as a way to acknowledge that all scientists have lives and families that matter to them outside of science, as well as a way to spread a bit of joy (“everyone can really enjoy a good anecdote about a kid saying something”). Andrew also used to be a big rugby player, and hopes to find the time to start participating in similar activities again. He recognizes that being a “jock” in science is often seen as rare, but wants people to know that it is completely possible to be into both athletics and academics. His main advice to future scientists is that “the main thing that determines if you belong in science is if you want to do science . . . people write themselves out of being in science for many reasons and almost none of them are real reasons.” 

“The main thing that determines if you belong in science is if you want to do science . . . people write themselves out of being in science for many reasons and almost none of them are real reasons”

Andrew recognizes that it can be daunting to enter the sciences when you feel as though there is no one else like you. From his own experience, he went through most of the academic system presenting as a woman, and now is one of the few openly trans men in his field. He says that while in hindsight he recognizes that he faced discrimination, he was not overly affected by it, crediting his being “too oblivious to notice it” in the moment. He has noticed that since coming out as trans a couple years ago, many other scientists have reached out to him and mentioned struggling with their queer identities, and he is happy to be able to serve as a role model for them.  Andrew hopes his openness about his experiences will serve as a beacon to other minoritized people interested in STEM—to show them that, no matter who they are, they too have a space there.

From his early days watering plants with coffee through his current work figuring out how humans learn, Andrew has always exemplified the truest spirit of being a scientist; both in his work and in his personal life, he has never been afraid to question existing paradigms in order to get at the truth. Perhaps more importantly, Andrew exemplifies the fact that good scientists can (and should) make space for their identities outside of science as well.

Andrew Perfors, PhD, is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne. Faculty profile

by Arnav Raha

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