Hugh Herr

Revolutionizing Bionics

Hugh Herr creates bionic limbs that emulate the function of natural limbs. In 2011, TIME magazine named him the “Leader of the Bionic Age” for his revolutionary work in the emerging field of biomechatronics, an emerging field that marries human physiology with electromechanics.

Herr, who lost both of his legs below the knee to a climbing accident in 1982, has dedicated his career to the creation of technologies that push the possibilities of prosthetics. As co-director of the K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics, Herr seeks to develop neural and mechanical interfaces for human-machine communications; integrate these interfaces into novel bionic platforms; perform clinical trials to accelerate the deployment of bionic products by the private sector; and leverage novel and durable, but affordable, materials and manufacturing processes to ensure equitable access of the latest bionic technology to all impacted individuals, especially to those in developing countries.

Herr’s story has been told in the National Geographic film, Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr as well as the PBS documentary, Augmented.

Nidhi Seethapathi

Science in Motion

The computational models that Seethapathi builds in her lab aim to predict how humans will move under different conditions. If a person is placed in an unfamiliar environment and asked to navigate a course under time pressure, what path will they take? How will they move their limbs, and what forces will they exert? How will their movements change as they become more comfortable on the terrain?

Seethapathi uses the principles of robotics to build models that answer these questions, then tests them by placing real people in the same scenarios and monitoring their movements. Currently, most of these tests take place in her lab, where subjects are often limited to simple tasks like walking on a treadmill. As she expands her models to predict more complex movements, she will begin monitoring people’s activity in the real world, over longer time periods than laboratory experiments typically allow. Ultimately, Seethapathi hopes her findings will inform the way doctors, therapists, and engineers help patients regain control over their movements after an injury or due to a movement disorder.

Guangyu Robert Yang

Building Networks

Robert Yang is interested in building neural network and circuit models of brain functions. He has contributed to the modern use of recurrent neural networks as a modeling tool in neuroscience. His work has shed light on neural mechanisms for cognitive flexibility. The Yang lab focuses on building multi-scale, multi-system integrative models of higher cognitive functions.

Fan Wang

Sensing the World

The Wang lab studies the neural circuit basis of sensory perception. Wang is specifically interested in uncovering the neural circuits underlying: (1) Active touch sensation including the tactile processing stream and motor control of touch sensors on the face, (2) pain sensation including both sensory-discriminative and affective aspects of pain and (3) general anesthesia including the process of active pain-suppression. Wang uses a range of techniques to gain traction on these questions, including genetic, viral, electrophysiology, and in vivo imaging.

Ev Fedorenko

Building Language

Fedorenko seeks to understand the cognitive and neural mechanisms that underpin language. This quintessentially human ability allows us to both gain knowledge of the world and to share it with others. Building on Wernicke and Broca’s seminal work, Fedorenko has implicated specific brain regions, together comprising the language network, in linguistic processing. She uses a range of approaches, including behavioral analysis, brain imaging (fMRI, ERP, and MEG), genotyping, intracranial recording in patients, and study of neurodevelopmental disorders. Through these methods, Fedorenko is building a picture of the computations and representations that underlie language processing in the human brain.

Ila Fiete

Neural Coding and Dynamics

Ila Fiete builds theoretical models and tools that are elucidating computations performed by the brain as it interacts with the world. Her focus includes describing how plasticity and development shape networks to perform computation and how the brain represents and manipulates information. She works closely with collaborators to design experiments that allow analysis of how the brain solves complex tasks, such as spatial navigation. By combining theoretical insights with predictions and designs for experiment, Fiete aims to better understand how the brain constructs and uses memory for spatial and non-spatial reasoning, the mechanisms for error control in neural codes, and rules for synaptic plasticity that enable neural circuit organization. Through these avenues, she hopes to better understand the circuits underlying phenomena including short-term memory, integration, and inference, navigation, and reasoning in the brain.

H. Robert Horvitz

Learning from Worms

Bob Horvitz studies the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. Only 1 mm long and containing fewer than 1000 cells, C. elegans has been key to discovering fundamental biological mechanisms that are conserved across species. Horvitz has focused on the genetic control of animal development and behavior, and on the mechanisms that underlie neurodegenerative disease. By identifying mutations that affect C. elegans behavior, Horvitz has revealed much about the genetic control of many aspects of nervous system development and of brain function, including how neural circuits control specific behaviors and how behavior is modulated by experience and by the environment.


Josh McDermott

How We Hear

Josh McDermott is a perceptual scientist who studies sound and hearing. Operating at the intersection of psychology, neuroscience and engineering, McDermott has made groundbreaking discoveries about how people hear and interpret information from sound in order to make sense of the world around them. His long-term goals are to improve treatments for those whose hearing is impaired, and to enable the design of machine systems that mirror human abilities to interpret sound. In parallel, McDermott studies music perception. His lab studies the perceptual abilities that allow us to appreciate music, their basis in the brain, and their variation across cultures. As he explains it “music also provides great examples of many interesting phenomena in hearing, and as such, is a constant source of inspiration for basic hearing research.”

Rebecca Saxe

Mind Reading

Rebecca Saxe studies human social cognition, using a combination of behavioral testing and brain imaging technologies. She is best known for her work on brain regions specialized for abstract concepts such as “theory of mind” tasks that involve understanding the mental states of other people. While it was previously known that humans and animals have brain regions that are specialized for basic functions such as visual recognition and motor control, this was the first example of a brain region specialized for constructing abstract thoughts. Saxe continues to study this region and has found that it is involved when we make moral judgements about other people. She is also exploring its possible role in autism, where the ability to understand other people’s beliefs and motivations is often impaired. A major area of her work involves looking at how and when these specialized brain regions form in children.

Feng Zhang

Molecular Engineering

Feng Zhang develops tools that are broadly applicable to studying genetic diseases and developing diagnostics and therapeutics. These molecular engineering tools are useful for understanding nervous system function and diseases with genetic links such as autism spectrum disorder. Zhang pioneered the development of CRISPR-cas9 as a genome editing tool and its use in eukaryotic cells –including human cells– from a natural CRISPR immune system found in prokaryotes. He has substantially expanded this toolbox through discovery and harnessing of new CRISPRs. These new tools not only include DNA-targeting CRISPR systems, but also CRISPR systems that can target RNA. Through rational engineering he is improving specificity of CRISPR systems, and is expanding their window of opportunity. He has now engineered systems that can cleave within a specific, targeted nucleic acid sequence, and others that are designed to edit specific bases on the DNA or RNA target, and yet others that make epigenetic modifications. These tools, which he has made widely available, are accelerating research, particularly biomedical research, around the world.