Ralph Etienne-Cummings

Credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University


Inspiration from communications

For Ralph Etienne-Cummings, his appointment as Julian S. Smith Professor in the Whiting School's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering is "a big deal." It's fitting, as electrical engineer Julian Sinclair Smith, Engr '52, '56 (MSE)— the professorship's namesake and a Baltimore native—formed what would eventually become Sinclair Broadcast Group, one of the largest telecommunications companies in the country.

Communications is what initially drew Etienne-Cummings to engineering, until, as he quips, he was "coopted by the neuroscience people." The professorship's two prior recipients, Fred Jelinek and Hynek Hermansky, were giants in the field of speech and natural language processing, and their work was influential in the development of ChatGPT.

"It's amazing that I have had the opportunity to step into [Jelinek's and Hermansky's] shoes. It's an honor I can't adequately articulate," he says. "I'm coming about it in a different way, from the perspective of what can we do to build machines that will be more humanlike in the way they process information."

Etienne-Cummings has spent the past three decades pioneering the research and development of biologically inspired computation systems and mobile robotics, including prosthetics that interface with the human body to restore functionality after injury or disease. His recent work has also advanced the understanding of how to use biological signals to control robots, and he's currently developing an implantable device to mitigate spinal cord injuries; a wearable physiological sensor to track the health of cardiac patients after admission; and ultrasonic imaging systems and actuated catheters, a new robotic catheter concept that can be used for infertility treatment, among other minimally invasive robotic surgery applications.

Etienne-Cummings has also integrated students into his research and innovative work since arriving at Hopkins in 1998.

"I love interacting with students. I love understanding how the brain works and thinking about how to build better-engineered systems that are more inspired by our brains and our bodies. It keeps me going," he says. "I taught a sophomore course [in the spring of 2023], Intro to Integrated Circuits, where students design a mobile-phone camera from scratch on a microchip. I want to grow the pipeline and make sure that at Hopkins and beyond, there are folks in the chip design and integrated circuits area." This is a critical area of need for our country.

In leading his lab, the Computational Sensory-Motor Systems Laboratory, Etienne-Cummings partners with undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, and, occasionally, high school students to build more humanlike machines. He thinks of his lab as a kind of vertical integration, with the more tenured students supervising those who are newer to the field.