Matt Thomson, assistant professor of computational biology and Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator, has been named one of the 2019 Packard Fellows in Science and Engineering. The fellowship, awarded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, provides each fellow $875,000 over five years for their research. Thomson is one of 22 early career researchers to receive the award this year.
Thomson studies self-organization and collective behavior in biology systems. He is in particular interested in active matter, structures that are made up of living things consuming energy, such as schools of fish or groups of cells acting together. For example, Thomson's group works with nanoscale protein filaments called microtubules that spontaneously organize themselves into moving shapes. Their goal is to program—akin to how conventional computers are programmed to execute mathematical functions—the protein filament system to construct devices that can execute physical programs in the same way that cells do. Thomson hopes to one day build devices made of protein components that can be programmed to move, exert force on their environment, and transport cargo.
A related research thrust is inspired by the human brain. Brains begin as a single cell and grow networks of interconnected neurons that can rewire themselves even after damage. Thomson and his group seek to draw upon these principles and mechanisms to develop more robust systems of neural networks, creating a kind of artificial intelligence that can learn by example and continually recalibrate itself.
"There's a lot of work in artificial intelligence on how to make neural networks better at doing computations, but there's less on how these devices can self-organize. We think developmental algorithms that build brains can be applied to software to make devices that 'grow' from a single computational cell," says Thomson.
Each year, the Packard Foundation invites 50 universities to nominate two faculty members for consideration. The Packard Fellowships Advisory Panel, a group of 12 scientists and engineers, evaluates the nominations and recommends fellows for approval by the Packard Foundation board of trustees. Caltech's Frances Arnold—Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry and Director of the Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center—is the chair of the advisory panel and a former Packard Fellow herself.
"This new class of fellows is about to embark on a journey to pursue their curiosity down unknown paths in ways that could lead to big discoveries," says Arnold. "I can't wait to see what direction the work of these brilliant scientists and engineers will take. Their efforts will add to this beautiful web of science that connects us all to a better understanding of the world around us."
Thomson is the 33rd researcher from Caltech to be named a Packard Fellow since the program's beginning in 1988. Recent fellows include Assistant Professor of Astronomy Mansi Kasliwal (MS '07, PhD '11) in 2018; Professor of Planetary Science Konstantin Batygin (MS '10, PhD '12) in 2017; Mikhail Shapiro, professor of chemical engineering and Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator in 2016; Professor of Physics David Hsieh in 2015; and Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering Andrew Thompson in 2014.
The full list of 2019 Packard Fellows can be found online.
Matt Thomson is an affiliated faculty member of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech.