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Dr. Michelle (Misha) Mahowald (1963–1996) was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a girl, she used the name Misha as a nom-de-plume in her diary, but later adopted it as her official name. After graduating high school, she attended the California Institute of Technology, graduating with a degree in biology in 1985. She continued at Caltech as a PhD student under the supervision of Professor Carver Mead, a specialist in computer science. For her thesis, Mahowald created her own project by combining the fields of biology, computer science, and electrical engineering, to produce the 'silicon retina.'

The silicon retina used analog electrical circuits to mimic the biological functions of rod cells and cone cells in the retina of the eye. The invention was not only highly original and potentially useful as a device for restoring sight to the blind, but it was also one of the most eclectic feats of electrical and biological engineering of the time. This remarkable example of engineering earned Mahowald a well-deserved reputation as one of the most famous female engineers of her age. She was awarded a doctorate in computational neuroscience in 1992, and her invention of the silicon retina and the silicon neuron earned her articles in the prestigious scientific journals Scientific American and Nature, as well as four patents and the Clauser Prize for her dissertation. A revised version of her dissertation[2] was subsequently published in book form.[1]

Mahowald then re-located to the University of Oxford for one year to do a post-doctoral fellowship with eminent neuroscientists Kevan Martin and Rodney Douglas. After the completion of this project, Mahowald moved to Zurich, Switzerland to help found the Institute of Neuroinformatics (Institut für Neuroinformatik), a research institution whose mission is to discover the key principles by which brains work and to implement these in artificial systems that interact intelligently with the real world[2].

Like many creative geniuses, Mahowald was a complicated individual, haunted by conflicting emotions. While drawn passionately to science itself, she did not find a career in science welcoming to women. She felt out of place with, and often misunderstood by the mostly male student body at Caltech, and outnumbered by the predominantly male faculty there and elsewhere. Also, she found that the profession of scientist was one which drew her farther and farther away from her family and home environment, and she was not happy in either Oxford or Zurich. In 1996 she was made a member of the Women in Technology International (WITI) 'Hall of Fame'[3]. Tragically, Mahowald died in Zurich later that same year at the age of 33. However, she should be remembered not only as a pioneer in the field of electrical engineering, but also as a pioneering woman in field where women have not always felt welcomed.



  1. ^ Mahowald, M: "An Analog VLSI System for Stereoscopic Vision", Kluwer Academic press, 1994 [1]
  2. ^ Home page of the Institute of Neuroinformatics
  3. ^ Dr. Misha Mahowald page in the WITI Hall of fame


The following is a list of Misha Mahowald's scientific publications from 1989 onwards. Her name continued to appear on publications after her death in recognition of the strong contributions she had made to those works while still alive.



  • R. Hahnloser, R. Sarpeshkar, M. Mahowald, R.J. Douglas and S. Seung: "Digital selection and analog amplification co-exist in an electronic circuit inspired by neocortex", Nature, 405: 947-951, 2000


  • R.J. Douglas, C. Koch, M.A. Mahowald and K.A.C. Martin: "Recurrent excitation in neocortical circuits", Cerebral Cortex, Plenum Press, 1999
  • R.J. Douglas, M.A. Mahowald and A.M. Whatley: "Strutture di Comunicazione Nei Sistemi Analogici Neuromorfi [Communications Infrastructure for Neuromorphic Analog Systems]", Frontiere della Vita, 3: 549-560, D.J. Amit and G. Parisi (Eds.), Enciclopedia Italiana, 1999
  • R. Hahnloser, R. Douglas, M. Mahowald and K. Hepp: "Feedback interactions between neuronal pointers and maps for attentional processing", Nature Neuroscience, 2: 746--752, 1999
  • P. Häfliger and M. Mahowald: "Weight vector normalization in an analog VLSI artificial neuron using a backpropagating action potential", Learning in silicon, G. Cauwenbergh (Ed.), Kluwer Academics, 1999
  • P. Häfliger and M. Mahowald: "Spike based normalizing hebbian learning in an analog VLSI artificial neuron", Analog Integrated Circuits and Signal Processing, 18:(2/3) 133-140, Feb, 1999


  • P. Häfliger and M. Mahowald: "Weight vector normalization in an analog VLSI artificial neuron using a backpropagating action potential", Neuromorphic Systems, Engineering Silicon from Neurobiology:16, 191-196, L.S. Smith and A.Hamilton (Eds.), World Scientific, 1998
  • C. Rasche, R. Douglas and M. Mahowald, "Characterization of a Pyramidal Silicon Neuron", Neuromorphic Systems: Engineering Silicon from Neurobiology:14, 169-177, L.S. Smith and A. Hamilton (Eds.), World Scientific, 1998


  • R. Douglas and M. Mahowald: "Design and fabrication of analog VLSI neurons", Methods in Neuronal Modelling: From Synapses to Networks, C. Koch and I. Segev (Eds.), MIT press, 1996
  • R.J. Douglas, M.A. Mahowald and K.A.C. Martin: "Microarchitecture of Neocortical Columns", Brain theory - biological basis and computational principles, 75-95, A. Aertsen and V. Braitenberg (Eds.), Elsevier Science, 1996
  • R.J. Douglas, M.A. Mahowald and K.A.C. Martin: "Neuroinformatics as explanatory neuroscience", Neuroimage, 4: 25-28, 1996
  • R.J. Douglas, M.A. Mahowald, K.A.C. Martin and K.J. Stratford: "The role of synapses in cortical computation", Journal of Neurocytology, 25: 893-911, 1996
  • P. Häfliger, M. Mahowald and L. Watts: "A spike based learning neuron in analog VLSI", Advances in neural information processing systems, 9: 692-698, 1996


  • R. Douglas and M. Mahowald: "A Constructor set for Silicon Neurons", An Introduction to Neural and Electronic Networks:14 277-296, S.F. Zornetzer, J.L. Davis, C. Lau and T. McKenna (Eds.), Academic Press, 1995
  • R. Douglas and M. Mahowald: "Silicon Neurons", The Handbook of Brain Theory and Neural Networks 282-289, M. Arbib (Ed.), MIT Press, 1995
  • R. Douglas, M. Mahowald and C. Mead: "Neuromorphic Analog VLSI", Annual Review of Neuroscience, 18: 255-281, 1995
  • R.J. Douglas, C. Koch, M. Mahowald, K.A.C. Martin and H.H. Suarez: "Recurrent Excitation in Neocortical Circuits", Science, 269: 981-985, 1995


  • R.J. Douglas, M.A. Mahowald and K.A.C. Martin, "Hybrid analog-digital architectures for neuromorphic systems", Neural Networks, 1994 IEEE World Congress on Computational Intelligence, 3: 1848-1853, IEEE, 1994


  • M. Mahowald and T. Delbrück: "Cooperative stereo matching using static and dynamic image features", Analog VLSI Implementation of Neural Systems, 213-238, C. Mead and M. Ismail (Eds.), Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989 [3].


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