Neuroscientist will make the most of ‘genius grant’

Yoky Matsuoka had trouble finding a tennis partner who could compete with her, so she decided to build one. The 36-year-old UW professor originally came to the United States from Japan to pursue a career in tennis—at one time she was the No. 2 ranked collegiate player in California. When she became obsessed with building a robotic opponent that could react to her backhand just like a person would, she realized her true calling was neuroscience.

Now Matsuoka directs the UW’s Neurobiotics Laboratory, developing prosthetics that respond to signals from the brain. In September of last year, her work was recognized with a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. The call came just eight days after the birth of her third child.

MacArthur award recipients have no idea they have even been nominated. What was it like to receive that phone call?

It was so surreal. I just couldn’t believe it, because I’d heard of the award, but I didn’t think that it could ever apply to me. So I never even imagined receiving it. Before I realized that it was real, the phone conversation was over.

When they call you, they have a standard introduction that they give, right?

Yes. The director of the foundation says, “If you have anything fragile, like a baby, please put it down.” And I said, “You know what? I’m actually nursing my 8-day-old baby.” And he just started laughing. He’s been saying this, apparently, for 20 years, and no one has ever been holding a baby before.

How have you handled all these amazing life changes happening in such a short period of time?

Having my third child was already a dream come true. Getting the grant made it an extraordinary time in my life.

You’ve combined scientific fields including mechanical and biological engineering, robotics and neuroscience.

I think the way to the future is in between fields. We do research that uses robots to understand and assist neural control of movement for people who are disabled. And we improve on the robotic technology by learning from how the human brain works.

Your work focuses on the uses of prosthetic limbs. What do you hope to accomplish your research?

My ultimate goal is to give original motor function back to those people who’ve lost it. The best approach is to understand what the brain is capable of and use it to its full extent. For example, for those people whose hands are amputated, the only way to get the movement, intention and the full dexterity is to utilize the program that already exists in the brain.

You have complete freedom to choose how you use the MacArthur money, right?

It’s called a “no-strings-attached” grant, and it really is true. It’s amazing. There aren’t even annual reports that you have to submit. It just comes. In that first phone call, the director said, “This is likely the only phone call you will ever receive from us.”

How would you like to use the money?

My research is supposed to help people who are disabled, but it’s university research, which probably won’t help people for 20 years or so. With this award, what I’d like to do is start a non-profit where I can actually reach out to people who are injured and disabled, and find out what kind of engineering solutions I can build now to help them become more independent in their daily lives.

You’ve also said you’re interested in writing a book.

Yes. I am very interested in changing the scene in science and engineering to include more women. There are a lot of girls who feel that they’re really good at science but also feel that it’s difficult to get into it, whether because of social pressure or the geeky image of science. I’d like to write a book that reaches out to and girls and changes how they look at the world a little bit.