In Memoriam

Lynn Adrienne Olzak
Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychology
1951 – 2016

Our friend and colleague Dr. Lynn Adrienne Olzak passed away on October 13, 2016. Lynn passed peacefully after a month-long struggle with intestinal failure and several surgeries. Lynn was born on November 23, 1951 in Chicago, Illinois but was always a Californian at heart. She obtained her Bachelor’s from UC Santa Barbara, her Master’s from San Jose State University, and her Ph.D. from UC Los Angeles. Fortunately, she was able to return to California to live and continue her research after her retirement from Miami until her passing. In addition to her husband of 41 years, Erwin H. Johnson, Lynn is survived by her two daughters, Kimberly and Michelle Johnson, and her sister, Prof. Susan M. Olzak.

Lynn joined us in 1998. During her time with us, she not only was an effective classroom teacher, but she also mentored the research of many undergraduate students and 3 doctoral students. Lynn’s work as an adviser for pre-medical students was especially valuable. This included a preliminary interview with each of the students ensuring their preparation for the full interview in which the student is probed with a set of questions assessing academic, professional, and personal qualifications. In addition, she evaluated a large number of dossiers prepared by the students. She also served students as the faculty adviser for Pre-Optometry club.

Lynn was also a productive researcher, and involved students on many of her publications and presentations. The university is proud of her receipt of NIH funding for 6 consecutive years. She was elected a fellow of the Optical Society of America in 2000. Her service contributions were notable. Not only did she serve the vision research community by working on organization and programming for conferences, but she also reviewed journal articles and grants and served as a consultant for Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Lynn also served on important departmental and university committees, such as the Departmental Review Board for Human Subjects Research, University Fiscal Priorities and Budget Planning committee and University Senate. In the days after her passing, condolences and memorials flooded CVNET, the online international listserv for vision science. Many remarked how much she would be missed and how much she had contributed to the field with her cigar/doughnut model, which explains how cells in the visual cortex (V1) code orientation and frequency characteristics of stimuli, as well as other groundbreaking work she completed with Jim Thomas and Tom Wickens.

Lynn’s impact in the field also extends to the connections she facilitated and the support and mentorship that she so freely gave to undergraduates, graduate students and colleagues. This is exemplified by remarks from students and colleagues:

From undergraduates 

“I am particularly impressed with her enthusiasm to work with students and how she gets students excited about their own work. Her enthusiasm for education is contagious.  She makes her students feel they are doing something important…  She has had a strong influence in encouraging me not only to pursue a career in optometry but to aim for the best schools.” 

“Each class I have had with you I have thoroughly enjoyed and I have become a better writer and a better student because of them. The effort I have had to put forth in your classes taught me just how much I could learn by providing the opportunity for myself. Your guidance as a teacher has become invaluable to me.  …[about the student’s senior honors project] I enjoyed every aspect of the research and I can’t thank you enough for your support and guidance.  I can’t thank you enough for making me realize that the first draft was pretty horrible and for making me do the work that was required. It was one of the best experiences in my four years at Miami and I wouldn’t want to share it with any other professor….You have gone above and beyond what most other professors would have done.”

Dr. Jordan Wagge

Lynn was my Ph.D. advisor from 2004 - 2009. I owe much to her professionally but also genuinely miss her as a friend and "academic mother." I've spent a great deal of time thinking about the ways she influenced my life, personal and academic, in the past several months. For 13 years, I hear her voice in my head when I do science, when I write, when I advise, and when I mentor. I hear her voice in my head, empowering me, when I know I need to speak up about something that needs to be spoken up about, or when I have to make an important decision at work. I still apply lessons daily that she taught me that far exceed the bounds of the classroom or lab -- especially when considering work/life balance. She taught me how to "laugh it off," and that's fitting -- we spent a lot of time laughing when I was her Ph.D. student. Everyone who worked with Lynn adored her. She was more than her career, for certain; her two phenomenal daughters, husband, family, and friends, all relayed story after story about her quirks (many of which I hadn't known or hadn't thought about in a long time), her passions (which extended well past the lab and classroom) and her victories as a woman in a field long dominated by men, where she worked tirelessly and earned respect and accolades.

Mr. Mingliang Gong (ABD)

Dr. Olzak was a very nice person. Before I came to Miami, I worried about how to get Oxford from the CVG airport. She offered me help and said that she would pick me up at CVG airport because she felt that it was too expensive to take a taxi and she wanted to save money for me. When we arrived at Oxford, she drove me around and showed me the campus and the town, told me the functions of different buildings and recommended me some good restaurants. This was my first impression of Oxford, and also gave me the first impression of my new advisor—a very nice and helpful person. At that time I felt that she was the right advisor that I wanted to work with. In the first few days, she also introduced me to some professors in the department and took me to the Nu Rho Psi picnic in the Peffer Park where I took my first photo in Oxford by a photographer who worked for The Miami Student. With her help, I felt that this new world was not that unfamiliar anymore.

Dr. Olzak’s research focused on spatial vision, which was quite different from my background. She was very encouraging and told me: “Don’t worry. It usually takes two years to really understand spatial vision stuff and I will help you!” Then she gave me a book to read and started to explain the content almost sentence by sentence during our weekly meeting. Such a patient advisor! However, there were still many places that I could not understand due to my weak background and poor English. With her consent, I recorded her explanations. These recordings are a treasure for me, as well as one of my memories of Dr. Olzak that I will keep forever. Dr. Olzak was a nice person and an excellent advisor, and will be sorely missed!

Dr. Vince Billock

Lynn and I became friends when we discovered that we both loved Mac & Joe's. She said she couldn't get anyone else to eat there with her. The vision stuff was just a bonus.

Lynn was one of the most social of the scientists I've known. Her friends were legion and cut across disciplinary boundaries. And she was good at getting people together, especially shy people. For example, at one conference Lynn started a dance school for socially inept vision researchers. She broke down the lessons into algorithms and heuristics to make dancing more intuitive. Also, Lynn introduced the eminent vision scientist Hugh Wilson to his future wife (Frances Wilkinson) and got them both to lecture at Miami.

The last time I was at the VSS meeting there were probably a half dozen people I didn't know who introduced themselves because Lynn had told them about our induced-premonition VR experiment. I'm sorry she won't get to try the final version when we stand it up. I'll be thinking of her when we do.

Dr. Jay Smart

Lynn and I joined the department together in 1998 and shared an office suite for the first 8 years of our Miami tenure. While we had very different theoretical perspectives, our shared love of perception in particular and research in general allowed for us to have many great conversations and share ideas and experiences that in many ways were very similar, as a woman doing research in a predominately male field, and myself as a member of an underrepresented group. Her insight and support definitely made my early years at Miami easier. When we moved into our current building while we no longer shared an office suite – we spent a lot of times in each other’s labs just talking about research or academic life and I always walked away feeling wiser. I am also grateful for opportunities to serve on student committees with Lynn as she always helped the students think harder and broader about their projects. Lynn’s passion for science, outgoing personality and depth of knowledge will be missed very much.

One of the core values of Miami is the idea of a teacher-scholar. Lynn through her work and mentorship is a clear example of how this ideal can be achieved. We are grateful for Lynn’s identity and accomplishments as a vision expert and her work to prepare students to serve the field professionally.

Respectfully submitted by L. James (Jay) Smart