UW News

September 27, 2007

Genius in our midst: Matsuoka wins coveted MacArthur

UW News

Yoky Matsuoka, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University, has been named one of this year’s MacArthur Fellows.

Matsuoka, whose research combines neuroscience and robotics to create more realistic prosthetics, is one of 24 people honored today by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The $500,000 no-strings-attached prizes are often referred to as the “genius” awards.

“It’s unbelievable,” Matsuoka said of the award. Recipients cannot apply for the honor and don’t even know they are nominated until notified that they have won. Matsuoka was at home last week when she got a call from an official with the foundation. “He told me, ‘Sit down, put your baby down. I’ve got some very surprising news,'” she recalled.

Matsuoka directs the UW’s Neurobotics Laboratory, a name combining “neuroscience” and “robotics.” Its research creates novel robots that can help disabled people or those with restricted mobility.

A major focus of Matsuoka’s work investigates how our central nervous system produces signals that control our limbs’ movements and then use that information to create lifelike robotic prosthetics. The goal is to help people with reduced mobility use robots that integrate seamlessly with their bodies’ motions, allowing an unprecedented degree of control.

Today’s most sophisticated prosthetics allow minimal movement: a pivot in the elbow, a twist in the wrist, and open-and-close clamping of the fingers.

“What I build is not even the next step, but many steps ahead of what is available today,” Matsuoka said.

One of her inventions is a lifelike robotic hand. Each bone was modeled on a human bone, and white strings that look like tendons run along each digit. In the current model, seven motors power the tendons’ movements of the index finger. Each motor is supposed to represent a muscle. When people eventually attach the prosthetic to their arm, the idea is that the same signals they once used to move a biological hand would work to control the electronic replica.

Robotics and rehabilitation are common threads in Matsuoka’s wide-ranging research pursuits. One project involves measuring the electric current along each muscle in the hand as a person reaches for and grasps an object. Another consists of a 6-foot robotic arm that lets patients do rehabilitation exercises while it tracks their progress. When the patient begins to veer slightly off course, a virtual-reality display warns them of the error. People can then make the correction and learn to move more smoothly.

“What’s different about Yoky is that she’s a mechanical engineer, neuroscientist, bioengineer, robotics expert and computer scientist, all in one,” said Matthew O’Donnell, dean of the UW’s College of Engineering. “She has the ability to see what is possible by combining all these disciplines.”

Matsuoka earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1993 and a doctorate in 1998 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both in electrical engineering and computer science. From 2001 to 2006 she held the position of assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University before moving to the UW. Previous honors include the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and the IEEE Early Career Award in Robotics and Automation.

The MacArthur grants are given each year to United States residents of any age and in any field who show “exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future.” The award is designed to give recipients the flexibility to pursue their creative activities in the absence of specific obligations or reporting requirements.

September has been a busy time for Matsuoka, who gave birth to a third child just one week before learning of the award. While still on maternity leave and absorbing the news, Matsuoka has begun to think about what she will do with the prize money.

“There seems to be a gap between what’s available to disabled people right now and what is possible with robotics,” Matsuoka said. “One way to do that may be to start a nonprofit that would fill that gap.”

Matsuoka isn’t the only UW-affiliated person to win a MacArthur this year. Mark Roth, an affiliate associate professor of biochemistry at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, was also honored. In April of 2005, he announced in the journal Science that he had achieved the first-ever “hibernation on demand,” or a state of metabolic suspension, in mice. The discovery offers hope of new treatment for trauma, stroke, cancer and other conditions where a temporary reduction in metabolism could provide time for physicians to address underlying problems. For more information about Roth, go to http://www.fhcrc.org/about/ne/news/2007/09/25/roth.html.