Who wouldn't welcome a call declaring him or her a genius? Especially if the title comes with a $500,000 grant, no strings attached? Two Seattle scientists join...
Who wouldn’t welcome a call declaring him or her a genius? Especially if the title comes with a $500,000 grant, no strings attached?
Two Seattle scientists join the rarefied ranks of MacArthur Fellows today, honored for their “creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions in the future.”
Mark Roth is a biologist for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, whose studies of suspended animation hold out hope of new treatments for trauma, heart attack or stroke.
Yoky Matsuoka combines robotics with the study of neurology at the University of Washington to devise prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by thoughts alone.
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This year’s class of fellows also includes 22 other “geniuses,” ranging from an expert in spider silk to a medieval historian and a blues musician.
Nominations come from a secret panel. Deliberations are private. Both Seattle winners say their calls came as a complete surprise.
The MacArthur Foundation official who notifies genius-award winners issues a standard warning when the unsuspecting recipients pick up the phone: “I’ve got shocking news,” he says. “If you’re holding anything fragile — like a baby — you might want to set it down.”
“He told me I was the very first one in 20 years who actually was holding a baby,” said the University of Washington robotics expert, who was nursing her 8-day-old son when the call came.
Matsuoka may also be one of the few jocks to receive the coveted — and intimidating — award.
“I in no way feel I am a genius,” said the former tennis fanatic, once ranked 21st in her native Japan.
But a love of athletics, coupled with insatiable curiosity, has led Matsuoka on a quest to develop artificial arms and hands as dexterous as the real thing, and controlled by the brain. To accomplish her goals, she works with doctors and patients, builds hardware, writes computer programs and probes brain structure.
“Most people in the field compartmentalize,” said Matt O’Donnell, UW dean of engineering. “It’s virtually unique to have somebody who does all the pieces.”
Matsuoka gave up her dreams of becoming a tennis pro after breaking her ankle for the third time. In search of an alternative career, she visited the robotics lab at the University of California, Berkeley, and announced she wanted to build a tennis-playing robot.
She soon realized that was a naive dream. But instead of giving up, she began delving into human anatomy and neurology to understand how impulses in the brain are translated into motion.
To that end, Matsuoka, 36, and her team built an anatomically correct robot hand, complete with joints, tendons and bumps on the bones. She and a collaborator also were able to wire a primitive robotic hand directly into a monkey’s brain, allowing the animal to control the limb with its thoughts. Lately, the team has been honing its knowledge with a single robotic finger, programmed to receive brain signals.
But it probably will be at least 30 years before brain-controlled robotic limbs are perfected. Matsuoka doesn’t want to wait that long to make a difference for people with brain damage or spinal-cord injuries, so she’s adapting robotics to improve physical therapy now.
One system helps stroke or accident victims regain muscle control by working with robots that move their limbs in a repetitive fashion. She’s also found a way to use the brain’s own signals to fool patients into exercising harder than they realize, speeding recovery.
Matsuoka hasn’t decided yet how to use the $500,000, no-strings-attached MacArthur grant, but she’s considering two options: launching a company to develop her ideas into useful products, or writing a book to encourage women to go into science and engineering.
In addition to a newborn, she also has twin 2-½-year-old daughters. Her husband is a computer vision specialist for Microsoft Research.
“A lot of women are scared off by engineering,” she says. “There’s this geekiness about it … and this fear you can’t have a family, too.”
Roth got the idea for his trailblazing work on suspended animation thanks to a decidedly unscientific pursuit: watching TV.
“The Mysterious Life of Caves,” which aired in 2002 on the PBS program, NOVA, explored a world teeming with toxic gases that knocked people unconscious. Would it be possible, Roth wondered, to deliberately dial down the human body into a state of deep metabolic freeze?
Such unorthodox creative spark is a Roth hallmark. Roth, a biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, won the genius grant for a body of biomedical research notable for innovation as well as a contrarian streak.
“Mark is an exceptionally creative and innovative scientist who has successfully pursued more original avenues of research than anyone I know,” said a statement by Dr. Mark Groudine, deputy director of the Hutchinson Center.
In 2005, Roth became the first scientist to put mice into a reversible metabolic hibernation, suppressing an animal’s oxygen use to reduce its breathing, core temperature and other cellular life to a near standstill.
If the same state could safely be induced in humans, Roth says, patients suffering from strokes, heart attacks, organ failure and trauma might get extra time to survive their ordeals.
Being warmblooded, humans generally do not have to ability to go into a metabolic torpor and come out of it.
But people over the world have emerged from clinical deaths. They included a female Norwegian skier who was rescued from icy waters in 1999 with no pulse and a body temperature nearly 42 degrees Fahrenheit below the normal of 98.6.
Purposely slowing down the human body attracted Roth, in part because most of his peers are drawn to dynamic matters — how the heart beats, how muscles move.
“It’s not a big area of biology to study things that stop. That’s kind of boring,” Roth says. “I like to study things that I don’t think are being pursued as much.”
Roth’s intellectual voraciousness shows in the gear shifts from his past research. Before he plunged into suspended animation, Roth studied how a certain protein can indicate the presence of lupus because most patients produce antibodies to it.
That work led to Roth winning federal approval in 2002 for a new diagnostic test for the autoimmune disease.
Roth lives in North Seattle and turns 50 next month.
The call from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation last week so dazed him that he still can’t recall the exact day. The foundation permitted him to leak the news to only a single soul; wisely, Roth chose his wife, Laurie, a writer.
Roth says he plans to take several months to mull his options for using the $500,000 grant, which is spread over five years.
He may resurrect one of his abandoned research topics. Or me may take a sabbatical to indulge in reading full time, essential background work for any new research.
Or, perhaps, Roth allows with a laugh, he may watch more television.
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491
Kyung M. Song: 206-464-2423