Alumni Profile: Malcolm MacIver

Malcolm MacIver turned the experience he gained doing interdisciplinary research at the Beckman Institute into positions as a faculty member and up and coming researcher at Northwestern University.

Malcolm MacIver
Malcolm MacIver

Malcolm MacIver’s path from inquisitive undergraduate student taking philosophy and computer science courses to a Ph.D. in neuroscience to engineering professor may seem circuitous, but makes perfect sense to anyone familiar with interdisciplinary research and the Beckman Institute.

Although his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois was in neuroscience and his research focus is on biological intelligence through the study of weakly electric fish, MacIver has faculty appointments at Northwestern in two engineering departments (Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering). He says his time at Beckman led directly to his current position.

“I have no degrees in engineering but because it is so interdisciplinary at Beckman and I got to do so many interesting engineering type projects, I got trained sufficiently so that I was eligible for a postdoc at Caltech,” he said. “That really paved the way to a career that combines science and engineering in a very fun way.”

Combining science, engineering, and fun seems like a perfect description of MacIver’s career as a young faculty member/researcher. He has a deep-seated belief in communicating science to a broader audience, and has done so not only through traditional forms such as talks and media interviews, but also through his art installations, and his work in TV and movies.

MacIver is a scientific consultant on the TV show Caprica (which is gaining a cult following on the Syfy cable channel), a gig he got after serving as a consultant on Tron Legacy, a sequel to the 1982 film, Tron. One of MacIver’s art installations under development is an “orchestra” of fish tanks that are “played” by taking advantage of the different frequencies discharged by different species of Amazonian electric fish.

“What drives a lot of this is a real desire to bring science out of the lab,” MacIver said. “We live in a society where I think there is a lot of room for improvement of our understanding of science and technology. I’m really motivated to transmit these ideas that have lived in academia in some cases for decades and still haven’t really permeated the culture. Through communicating the ideas in cultural ways, via entertainment or through art, we can really improve the overall scientific and technological zeitgeist.”

MacIver studied under Beckman researcher Mark Nelson while at Illinois, taking Nelson’s work with weakly electric fish as a model organism for understanding neutral mechanism and sensory acquisition (, and adding his own layers. MacIver has created a mechanical electric fish that imitates how its biological counterpart moves in water and, to a central point of the research’s aims, how the fish utilizes its unique sensory capabilities.

Weakly electric fish image
Weakly electric fish image rendered by Malcolm MacIver, Mark Nelson, and Ben Grosser.

“We want to relate the sensory data to its movement pattern,” he said. “The system essentially generates a weak electric field around the body of the robot and then there are sensors embedded on the body of the robot that pick up distortions in that electric field caused by the objects. That’s how the electric fish senses.

“We’re in the process now of combining movement control with sensory acquisition in the robot and testing various approaches in how to do that in a way that emulates how the fish does it so that we can get insight into the information processing principles and the movement principles that the fish is using.”

MacIver’s academic journey is based on what he calls his single-minded pursuit of a set of questions he first started asking in undergraduate school and during an internship in his native Canada. He was taking philosophy of mind and computer science courses that sometimes overlapped, especially around areas MacIver found intriguing, such as mechanisms of reasoning, and the nature of cognition, computation, and digital systems.

“They were simultaneously in my philosophy and my computer science classes, and I got more and more intrigued in trying to understand the nature of intelligence,” MacIver said. “As time went on, I realized philosophy wasn’t going to lead me to the answers that I sought so I needed to do something that was more in touch with experimental science.”

MacIver tried a double Ph.D. program at Indiana in cognitive science and philosophy, but realized the questions he was asking revolved around understanding the brain. That was when he took a look at the neuroscience program at Illinois and Nelson’s Electrosensory Signal Processing Lab at Beckman.

“I was really convinced after talking to him that this was a really exciting program and a beautiful combination of techniques that would let me pursue my strengths in computer science while at the same time getting trained up in neuroscience,” MacIver said.

MacIver writes on his Web site that the unifying theme of his current research is the multidisciplinary analysis of animal intelligence using three approaches: mechanics/robotics, neuroethology, and computational modeling. The goals are to build understanding of the body’s control system, how the body contributes to adaptive behavior, and, as he writes, constructing neuromechanical simulations in order to “gain insight into the fundamental principles underlying the immense success of animal life.”

It is an expanding research line that had its genesis at the Beckman Institute.

“So much of this is thanks to Mark Nelson for having a fantastic, dynamic research group,” MacIver said. “He trained me on many different things and let me explore the many different options I had at the Beckman.”

This article is part of the Spring 2010 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.