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What Makes You So Smart, MacArthur Genius?

Noah Davis talks to Yoky Matsuoka about youth tennis, wanting to be an airhead, and what it's like to win a Genius Grant.
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Yoky Matsuoka. (Photo: ISU Tech)

Yoky Matsuoka. (Photo: ISU Tech)

All Yoky Matsuoka wanted to do growing up was to become a professional tennis player. She idolized John McEnroe and rose through the rankings to as high as 21st in her native Japan. But injuries derailed her career, and she moved to the United States at 16. While she could speak the language of math, Matsuoka worked hard to come off as an airhead, hoping to fit into the jock and cheerleader culture. Eventually, however, the future MacArthur Fellow shed that image—assisted by her advisor at MIT—earning a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science. She's a leader in the field of neurobotics, working as vice president of technology at Nest—a long way from the purposely ditzy tennis star.

You were an excellent youth tennis player. How focused on academics were you during that period?

Academically, I kept up by finding time in between things. The place to go for tennis in Japan was two-and-a-half hours away from school and then an hour-and-a-half back to my house. I was carrying a giant school bag, a tennis bag, and standing up, but I learned to do homework like that. It's kind of crazy. Schoolwork wasn't important to me in my head, which is very different to a lot people I meet who are in a similar situation now. But the academic thing was totally in the back of my mind. I just needed to do well enough. Tennis was all I thought about.

So being a professional tennis player was the only option?

Yeah, I really didn't imaging anything else.

When did those thoughts start to change?

"As a girl, I realized that if I was that girl who was good at math, I would get certain perceptions in who I was, and I didn't want to become that person. I wanted to be the ditzy, cute athlete. That's how I wanted people to perceive me, so I went for the airhead route even though that's not what I was truly doing. I was way into math."

I started to get injured when I was about 14. I was training for so many hours a day with so little sleep that I started to get stress fractures from the repetition. Every year I had a pretty serious injury that required a cast or crutches for a month or two. You can draw a line of my ranking. It went up and up and then a straight line down, then up, up, up again.

I've talked to a few people who grew up outside the U.S. for this column. They often mention how their early schooling prepared them for the American system. What did you get, academically, out of growing up in Japan?

Because the academic thing was not important to me, I didn't feel ahead or anything. I just didn't think about it. But when I moved to the U.S., the only language I could speak with other people was math. In high school, they placed me in the easiest class possible in almost everything, only because I couldn't communicate, except for math and physics. I could understand those enough to do pretty well. That gave people a little view into being able to understand who I was and what I could do. But I didn't say, “Wow, the Japanese system was so much more advanced that it prepared me.” I'm sure it did, but it was not something I consciously thought about.

Did you catch up to your peers in classes like English?

Even in Japan, I was always pretty good with math, physics, and science. That was my cup of tea. I was not so hot on social science or language. It didn't change anything but it accentuated it when I came to the U.S. because I could read “x+5=7” just fine. I couldn't read literature, but I could read that. I think that was a little bit of an accelerator.

Did the math get hard for you at any point?

When I moved to the U.S., I pretended to be an airhead. As I absorbed the American culture, I started to see the football/cheerleading culture everywhere in teenage life. As a girl, I realized that if I was that girl who was good at math, I would get certain perceptions in who I was, and I didn't want to become that person. I wanted to be the ditzy, cute athlete. That's how I wanted people to perceive me, so I went for the airhead route even though that's not what I was truly doing. I was way into math. I was having fun. It was easy for me for a long time, but on the surface I pretended to be as dumb as I could be. I didn't buy textbooks to show off that I didn't need textbooks and I didn't care.

Math was super easy all the way through college. I started out as a math major because I loved it so much. At some point, when math became less about puzzle and problem solving and more about proofs, I started to be less interested. I didn't care that much to prove things. It's not that it was hard; it just wasn't my interest. I realized that math major was not the right place. I wanted to keep doing the problem-solving bits of math. That's when I stumbled on to engineering.

Has engineering ever gotten difficult?

I never really think of things as hard. That's not the way I think. At Berkeley undergrad, I could pretend to be an airhead the entire time and get through it. I went to MIT for my Ph.D., and I got through my first year. My second year, my advisor pulled me on the side and said, “Look, I know you're trying to be an airhead, but you have to realize this in MIT. That's not how you advance, and you're going to come to a major roadblock very soon. You better think about this.” It's not that it was hard; I realized that my approach wasn't right to go further. I made a change in my attitude. At that point, he was right. There wasn't a lot of reward for acting stupid. I wasn't impressing boys with my ditzy-ness anymore.

When I went into engineering, I wanted to build a tennis buddy for myself. In grad school, I was on a team building a humanoid robot. Technically, I ran into the problem that the knowledge of artificial intelligence at that point was not good enough for me to build this tennis buddy that I was dreaming about. It's not like it became difficult, but I saw the forefront of A.I. at MIT, and it wasn't going to be enough for what I wanted to do. Halfway through my Ph.D. I changed my advisor to neuroscience, and I did computational neuroscience for my Ph.D. I wanted to understand more about how the human brain worked and come up with a model to port that information to A.I.

How is that going?

Once I became a professor, that was the mission. This is a 30-year or 100-year agenda. After I got out of grad school, I was no longer interested in building a tennis buddy for myself. I was much more interested and intrigued by what I learned in neuroscience, which is that there are a lot of people out there who have neurological disorders where some small thing makes the brain go wrong. It's so fascinating. And I realized I can combine my robotic background with my neuroscience knowledge to help those people. That's better than me building a tennis buddy for myself. That became a mission of my academia pursuit. I did that for almost a decade while I was a professor, working in neurobotics.

You're the only person I have talked to who has actually won a Genius Grant. What was the aftermath of that? Did it change anything in a substantive way?

I think it changes many things but at the same time it doesn't change anything. Many things change your life. Having kids does. Winning this award did. Different things open different doors. This thing opened many doors in a way that I'm sure I never would have thought about. It was a very positive experience overall. I'm so honored that I had an opportunity to receive this award and the opportunity to meet different people. I started to think about things in a different color, and that allowed me to have a different kind of chapter in my life than maybe I would have if I hadn't received it.

What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.