MATT GAIDICA, 28, NEUROSCIENCE
If Matt Gaidica had stayed the course, he wouldn’t be on this list of thinkers in the social sciences. That’s because he started out as an engineer.
Gaidica grew up in Detroit and went to Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, where he got a degree in electrical engineering with a focus on robotics. He was the president of the school’s entrepreneurship society, on the dean’s list, and was his class’s commencement speaker.
After college, he flung himself into start-ups, co-founding Landr, whose technology modified websites to fit mobile phones. By the time that company sold, Gaidica was living in Silicon Valley and at work on another start-up: Syllabuster, to give college students deeper insight into the courses they take. By the time Syllabuster received funding, Gaidica had grown tired of the Bay Area start-up scene. He packed up. While driving back to Michigan alone, he talked out his next steps, using dictation software to record his ideas.
Over the next year and a half, Gaidica wrote a book, Left: A History of the Hemispheres, which chronicles the origins and implications of asymmetrical features of the world around us and within our own bodies. “It took me around the world,” he says, “and I wrote it unadulterated, for one person: me.”
"There’s a pattern out there for everything. It’s not just luck, it’s not just randomness that everything in this world happens. It’s really just a matter of figuring out the pattern."
He self-published his book last April, around the same time he decided he wanted to devote his life to studying the brain.
Later in 2014, he joined a lab at the University of Michigan, where he’s getting his Ph.D. in neuroscience. “I work on Parkinson’s disease,” he says, “and try to find relationships between the spikes and ripples that neurons can produce, which can ultimately influence the development of therapies.”
So far at Michigan, Gaidica has built a laser system to modulate brain circuits—an optogenetics innovation to give Parkinson’s sufferers more bodily control. He’s designed 3-D-printed implants for recording deep brain activity. He’s done brain surgery on rodents, developed new motion-tracking algorithms and analysis tools, and has two patents pending. So it’s safe to say he hasn’t left engineering entirely behind.
In his free time, he stays fit. “I do something active every day: boxing, bouldering, running, jumping, lifting heavy objects,” he says.
Gaidica is also a polished public speaker, giving presentations with titles like “Why We Hate What We Love to Do: The Science Behind Our Changing Minds.” A 15-minute TEDx talk he gave in 2011 was called “Three Things: What Artificial Intelligence Can Teach Us About Ourselves.” He concluded that speech with this: “There’s a pattern out there for everything. It’s not just luck, it’s not just randomness that everything in this world happens. It’s really just a matter of figuring out the pattern.”
Perhaps because he’s a polymath, Gaidica is always seeking patterns. He’s been known to scribble ideas on mirrors, make little art installations, and build quirky contraptions. (“I find myself at Home Depot way too often,” he says.) Carl Sagan is his intellectual hero: “He had such a romantic, timeless, acute appreciation for science, history, even social policy,” he says.
Like Sagan, Gaidica is transfixed by the cosmos, so much so that he plans to apply for astronaut candidacy after he gets his doctorate. “I want to do science in space,” he says. “How do neurons work in zero gravity? I’m your guy.”
While still within the confines of our own atmosphere, however, he’s committed to incorporating his technical expertise into figuring out the human brain. “Neuroscience is still young,” he says, “and in need of wildly interdisciplinary thinkers and doers. The brain is this giant black box, and with only a few clues we are asked to address the mysteries of neurological diseases.”
We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.
A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).