Noah Cowan’s cutting-edge research in mechanics and multisensory control in animals and machines – the neuromechanics of motion – is at the nexus of neuroscience and engineering. His innovations in biologically inspired robotics systems and discoveries in understanding how the nervous system controls motor behavior are advancing the fields of robotics and basic neuroscience and may ultimately impact neuroprosthetics development and physical rehabilitation.
A professor of mechanical engineering, Cowan founded and directs Johns Hopkins University’s Locomotion in Mechanical and Biological Systems (LIMBS) Laboratory to further the study of neuromechanics, locomotion, control theory, system identification, and medical robotics. Cowan and his team of LIMBS researchers have made important basic discoveries about how the brain, often subconsciously, navigates our world and controls our bodies with precision and grace. LIMBS is part of JHU’s Laboratory for Computational Sensing and Robotics, for which Cowan served as Deputy Director from 2013 to 2018.
Cowan’s team is known for research using exotic creatures such as the electric knife fish, a unique animal that cuts through the water like a knife’s edge while using electricity to navigate its murky surroundings, hide from predators, and catch prey – much like bats use sonar in the dark. His team is applying its understanding of locomotion in animals to build new algorithms and robotic devices.
Cowan, who was selected for a prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) award in 2010, holds secondary appointments in JHU’s departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science. He is the co-holder of two patents for medical devices, and a third patent is pending.
Among his many awards are the James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award in Complex Systems (2012) and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award (2009). At Johns Hopkins, Cowan has been recognized with back-to-back Discovery Awards in 2015 and 2016, the William H. Huggins Award for Excellence in Teaching (2004), and the Dunn Family Award for “an extraordinarily positive impact upon the lives of undergraduate students” (2014). At the 2006 Intelligent Robots and Systems Conference, he was a finalist for Best Paper. Cowan is deeply passionate about fostering a love of STEM among young people across the Maryland region. For more than a decade, he has served as a faculty mentor to high school students in his LIMBS lab for the Baltimore City Public School’s Baltimore Ingenuity Project and Garrison Forest School’s Women in Science and Engineering Program (WISE). In 2013, he was a team leader for the STEM Achievement in Baltimore Elementary Schools (SABES) and a judge for the 20th Annual Undergraduate and Graduate Research Symposium at Morgan State University.
Cowan is a frequent keynote speaker at numerous, noted conferences around the world including 2015’s International Conference on Advanced Robotics in Istanbul, Turkey, and at the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology, Southeast Regional Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia that same year. In 2013, he co-presented a “Tandem Talk” at the International Symposium on Adaptive Motion of Animals and Machines in Darmstadt, Germany. He has served as Scientific Advisor to the International Consortium on Biomimetic Technology for Vibrissal Active Touch (BIOTACT) and as General Co-Chair for the 15th International Conference on Climbing and Walking Robots (CLAWAR) in 2012 and on the conference committee for Living Machines (2012, 2013), among several others.
A senior IEEE member, Cowan is also a member of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology and Society for Neuroscience. He publishes widely in both scientific and engineering journals, including Nature, Current Biology, IEEE Transactions on Robotics, International Journal of Robotics Research, Journal of Experimental Biology, and many others. Since 2013, Cowan, a frequent NSF panelist, has been a member of the NSF College of Reviewers and served on an NIH Study Section in 2017, and reviews for journals across disciplines.
He received a BS in Electrical Engineering from Ohio State University (1995) and an MS (1997) and a PhD (2001) in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. After completing his graduate studies, Cowan completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley before joining the Hopkins faculty.