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Ralph Etienne-Cummings

Electrical engineer, computer scientist and engineering professor Ralph Etienne-Cummings was born in August 20, 1967 in Mahe, Seychelles to Marguerita Etienne and Eddie Micock. His mother later married Herman Cummings, who formally adopted him. Etienne-Cummings first showed his aptitude for engineering when he fixed the reception on his short wave radio in order to listen to a soccer match. After attending a British boarding school, he moved to the United States with his family. Etienne-Cummings received his B.S. degree in physics from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1988. He went on to receive his M.S. in electrical engineering and his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 1990 and 1994, respectively.

Shortly after receiving his Ph.D., Etienne-Cummings took a position as an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University. In 1998, he moved to Maryland where he began teaching as an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University. From 2002 to 2004, Etienne-Cummings taught at the University of Maryland, College Park as an associate professor while also holding the position of director at the Institute of Neuromorphic Engineering. In January 2004, he was appointed Associate Director for Education and Outreach of the ERC on Computer Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology at Johns Hopkins University. In 2005, Etienne-Cummings received a secondary appointment in computer science at Johns Hopkins University and in 2008, he became a professor of electrical and computer engineering. While at Johns Hopkins University, Etienne-Cummings sponsored a number of diversity and mentoring programs including serving as co-chair of the Diversity Committee and mentor of the school's Robotics Club. In addition to teaching, Etienne-Cummings served as a consultant engineer for several technology firms including Nova Sensors, Inc., Innovative Wireless Technologies, Singular Computing, Panasonic N. American & Corporation, Avago Technologies, Micron Technologies and others. His research interests include systems and algorithms for biologically inspired and low-power processing, biomorphic robots, applied neuroscience, neural prosthetics, and computer integrated surgical systems and technologies. He holds seven patents and has mentored over thirty-five students at the graduate level.

Etienne-Cummings has served as a visiting scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and as a visiting African scholar at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He received the National Science Foundation's CAREER Award in 1996 and the Young Investigators Program Award from the Office of Naval Research in 2000. In 2006, Science Spectrum awarded him its Trailblazer Award for Top Minorities in Science and in 2007, Etienne-Cummings was named a Kavli Frontiers in Science Fellow by the National Academies of Science. He has also won best paper awards in high impact technical Journals and Conferences. In 2012, he was elected Fellow of the IEEE for contribution in “Neuromorphic Sensory-Motor Circuits and Systems”. He is married to Shatima Etienne-Cummings, a patent attorney.

Ralph Etienne-Cummings was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on June 28, 2012.

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Lincoln University

University of Pennsylvania

Seychelles College

Anse Etoile School

St. Augustine's College

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Fall, Spring

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Favorite Food

Chicken Curry

Short Description

Electrical engineer, computer scientist, and engineering professor Ralph Etienne-Cummings (1967 - ) is a neuromorphic engineering expert developing biomorphic robots and neural prosthetics.


Southern Illinois University

Johns Hopkins University

University of Maryland, College Park

University of Cape Town

Institute of Neuromorphic Engineering

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Timing Pairs

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Ralph Etienne-Cummings' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his mother's growing up in the Seychelles

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about the people and the history of the Seychelles

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings describes the architecture, weather, and government of the Seychelles

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his mother's education and career aspirations

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings describes his relationship with his biological father

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his step-father

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings describes his biological father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his likeness to his parents

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his adopted father, Herman Cummings

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings describes the sights, sounds and smells of growing up

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about race relations in the Seychelles

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his early education

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his early interest in science

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his grades and his favorite teacher, Madame Moutia

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about living and studying in the United Kingdom

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his involvement in track and field in the United Kingdom

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about graduating from high school

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about life in New Orleans

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his decision to attend Lincoln University

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings describes his experience at Lincoln University and his exposure to African American culture

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings describes personal computers and resources at Lincoln University

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about the faculty and notable graduates of Lincoln University

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings discusses his physics research at Lincoln University

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his activities and honors at Lincoln University

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his doctoral research

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings describes how he met his wife and her work at GTE

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his work at Southern Illinois University

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his work at the Institute of Neuromorphic Engineering

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about the National Science Foundation's Career Award

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings discusses his research at Johns Hopkins University

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his research on computer controlled locomotion in animals

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings discusses technology controlled by neural impulses

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his honors and awards

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings describes a typical day in his lab

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his students' work

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings discusses his current research on overt attention

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings shares his personal ambition

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his hopes for the future of robotics

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about reactions to his work

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings describes the one change he would have made to his career path

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings shares his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his family

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about the Seychelles Islands

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his time in South Africa and Australia

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Ralph Etienne-Cummings describes his photographs







Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about living and studying in the United Kingdom
Ralph Etienne-Cummings talks about his research on computer controlled locomotion in animals
So, okay, so in seventh grade, you moved to Britain?$$After seventh grade.$$After seventh grade.$$Yeah, that's when my, so, yeah, so that time, you know, it was becoming, you know, again, I was, like I'm saying, my mother was always keen on trying to get her children the best education she could. And it became obvious that I was not learning maybe as much as I should have, and I was, you know, I mean I was in a place where I was the star student, but, you know, I wasn't making any progress because, you know, the material was not up to what I was able to keep up with, put it that way. So at that time, they decided that, okay, they were gonna send me to school in the U.K. And what happened there was essentially I had to actually learn new material. So I, so I spent some time just kind of going through books to take their entrances exams to go to the school in the U.K. [United Kingdom]. These days there's, you know, I mean there was all these common, what's called common entrance exams.$$Was U.K. a culture shock?$$Yeah, but so here's the thing that's kind of interesting about, about folks from the Seychelles. I mean we spend, you know, I like to say we spend half of our lives trying to get off the island and the other half trying to get back, right. So you're always like excited about going, you know, abroad and going to different countries. So, yes, I was really keen to go to, you know, to the U.K., but then, of course, it was a big difference from what I'm used to. I mean it was cold, it was drafty (laughter), it was, you know, complete different set of rules, and, you know, less ability to just kind of do your own thing. But at the same time, I needed that structure, I think. I think I was becoming maybe too unruly for my own good (laughter) at that time.$$Okay, so you prepped first in the summer, I guess, before your eighth grade (unclear) (simultaneous).$$Yeah, I mean like you said, well, I work actually, so this was interesting because there was a teacher there at the Anse Etoile School, that was an Irish fellow that they had, you know, imported to teach in the new school system they had just constructed. So he had, and he was a math teacher, I remember. So he, basically, I worked with him a lot, you know, and just, you know, I would do problems in, you know, in this Algebra book or whatever book it was. And he would, he would correct them for me and would teach me new things and so on. So it was not so much that it was over the summer, it was more during the school year. But I just didn't do the same curriculum that other people were doing. I just, you know, I had my own set of books that was a little bit more advanced that I was following. Essentially, that's what it came down to. So it's personalized teaching, you know. It doesn't get any better than that (laughter).$$Okay, now what was the name of your first school in Britain?$$The name was St. Augustine's College.$$Okay, and where, where in Britain?$$So this is in Kent, England.$$In Kent, okay.$$Yeah, that's the county, but, yeah, Westgate is the town, but I don't know if it matters.$$Okay. All right. So now, was St. Augustine's better equipped than the school you had in Seychelles?$$Oh, absolutely, I mean definitely. I mean it was a modern school, you know, for all intents and purposes with, you know, with a science lab and computers, whatever that meant at that time, right? It was, you know, you're talking 1980, so computers were, you know, single machines, you know, and not so advanced as we have today. But, yeah, I mean and they were geared towards teaching children to get ready to go university or to go into the work force, right. So it was a very different modality of operation. And then at the end, the English system, and--which was I guess the same in the Seychelles system too, is that you are working towards these exams, called "O" levels and "A" levels, right, and these are national, or international exams that you work towards. And then you get graded against international students. So that's what we were working for. So the curriculum was very strongly geared towards making sure that you can perform well in these exams.$Okay, now, the, we have an illustration here of a cat with, who's wired up. And is this, this is a schematic of an experiment showing locomotion stimulated by a central pattern generator chip.$$Right.$$Okay, so can you explain this to you?$$Sure. So that's much later, so that's, I guess it's later, but it's a continuation of that same evolution of though, okay. So in the sense that we wanted to understand how does one control legged locomotion, right. So you can make that platform be a, a robotic platform, mechanical. And then you use a, you know, a model of what the spinal cord does, you know, in addition to the brain and everything, right. And you implement that on the robot and the robot can navigate the environment. All right, but more importantly, or at least more importantly, from a human perspective, you know, what happens if that robot was actually a person, all right? And a person that would need such control would be a person with spinal cord injuries, for example, right? So, let's say you are, you know, your spinal cord is severed. The lower part of your body it turns out is fine. The problem is that you cannot control it. You cannot get a signal from your brain to it. So what we wanted to understand there is how do you reactivate the lower part of the body, okay, in such a way that you can get somebody with spinal injuries to walk again, okay. So, so that's the, that kind of, that's the, that's the long-term goal. But you cannot go to human experiments directly. What we tend to do is we tend to look at different animal models that are as close, you know, to the extent that they can be close, to human as you can, as you can find, okay, and also, allow you to do the experiment, right. I mean I guess I could have, we could have done it in monkeys, but monkeys are really hard, okay. So, so cats is a very good model of the human locomotion. So what you see there is an example of, the first example, in fact, of a part of a spinal cord being implemented in a microchip, and then that being used to restore locomotion, restore walking in a paralyzed cat. This, you know, which the next transition of that is, can we do the same thing in a paralyzed human?$$So you could do it in a cat?$$Yeah, yeah. Yeah, with a cat, we've done it in a cat many times.$$Okay.$$The hard part is actually making the cat walk for a long time. You know, in terms of the--there are different ways that you can stimulate the nervous system of the cat to get 'em to walk, and some of them are, makes a cat tired fast. Some of them does not. And lately we've been, made a big breakthrough in getting--and when I say lately, I mean last November, where we had a cat walking for kilometers. The humans were getting tired before the cats were getting tired, you know, and this is all, you know, electrical.$$But is the cat controlling its own walking or is--$$No, no, we are. And this is, this is controlled in the sense that it's on a, it's on a tread, not a treadmill but a walkway. The cat is not free to move around yet 'cause that would require another leap in the technology.$$But is the--I'm sorry, I don't want to interrupt you, but I was just thinking. Is the cat deciding to walk itself or--$$No, no, no, no, it still--$$--are you all stimulating--$$We are stimulating him to walk. But, but the other thing about it is that the cat is actually fully, he's paralyzed only in the sense that he's anesthetized. He's not actually, physically paralyzed, right. So the cat is asleep, right?$$Oh.$$Okay, for these experiments, but we are about to embark on some experiments now that where the cat will be, you know, paralyzed too.$$That's what I was thinking at first that somehow you all found a good cat, paralyzed it and then (laughter)--$$No, no, we try--$$--made it walk.$$Right, no, we try to avoid that as much as possible for all these reasons, right. There are ethical reasons, you know.$$Yeah, ASPCA and all that.$$Yeah.$$But the cat is anesthetized, is actually asleep--$$Right.$$--but he's walking in spite of himself because you all are making him walk?$$Yes, we're able to stimulate his spinal cord in a particular way using, you know, chips that work the similar way as the spinal cord so that the cat then can put, left one leg, put it down, put the other one down and walk down the walkway as often as we want it to do.$$I was just thinking if you could make something that would stimulate a sleeping student to study--$$(Laughter). Yeah, well, I think that would seriously have ethical issues (laughter).$$--to study in spite of himself. But that's interesting, so--$$Yeah, so, so the biggest thing there is that, you know, ultimately, this technology can transfer to helping people with spinal cord injuries. And another aspect of the work that we do is also trying to decode the intent of the person, right. So when you put electrodes in the brain and that will read your mind, if you will, right. And because if you can do that, then you can link the thought process to the stimulation and then you can have the person control the entire thing, right. So that's kind of, you know, the evolution of the work.$$Okay, so that is feasible too because, I was thinking at one point, well, if you had, if a human had paralyzed legs and they wanted to walk, and they had the chip installed, and all that, they would be able to use a remote control instead of the (unclear) (simultaneous)--$$Yeah, exactly. That's the first step. That's a zero (unclear) step as well. You know, pun not intended, but that's the first, you know$$Step, yeah.$$(Laughter) --step in the thing, well, yeah, exactly. You push the button forward, and that would get you to go forward. You turn it to the left, and your leg would turn. So, yeah, that's what we're trying to do first. And then the next thing is, instead of you pushing a button, you just think it, and you go. And we have done that, we have done the thinking part for moving prosthetic limbs, arms, where you can decode the intent of a person to grab a, you know, a glass and, you know, and drink out of it and so on.