By Michael Reardon
It’s no surprise that James J. Collins ’87 admires innovators as disparate as the late maverick scientist and Nobel Prize winner, Richard Feynman, and Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney feature animation chief creative officer, John Lasseter.
The word “innovator” is just as easily applied to Collins. By the time he reached his early 30s, he was already being hailed as one of the most creative biomedical researchers in the country.
Technology Review once selected Collins as one of its 100 young innovators who will shape the future of technology. In 2005, he was named one of Scientific American’s 50 outstanding leaders in science and technology.
Since 1990, Collins has been a professor in the biomedical engineering department at Boston University. His current research interests involve synthetic biology, systems biology and the development of noise-based sensory prosthetics.
Holy Cross was the first place to recognize Collins’ brilliance. As an undergraduate, he was a Presidential Service Award winner, Fenwick Scholar and Dana Scholar. In 2000, he received the Sanctae Crucis Award, the College’s highest non-degree recognition awarded to alumni, for his outstanding professional accomplishments.
Collins, who is co-director of BU’s Center for BioDynamics, has been called the embodiment of the university’s dedication to excellence in research and education. He has received a number of awards and honors over the years, including a MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship, and Boston University’s highest teaching honor, the Metcalf Cup and Prize.
Collins especially treasures the Metcalf Cup and Prize, since that award comes from nominations submitted by students.
“I put a lot of energy into my teaching, and Holy Cross influenced the way I teach,” he says. “When I made the commitment to teach, I thought back on the way the professors I had at Holy Cross kept students interested and excited.”
The class valedictorian was graduated summa cum laude from Holy Cross with a degree in physics—and went on to become a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. Collins originally intended to study electrical engineering as an undergraduate but chose Holy Cross over other top schools such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One reason was that he found the atmosphere at Holy Cross to be in stark contrast to some of the other campuses he visited.
“People at Holy Cross were walking around smiling and enjoying themselves,” Collins comments. “I fell in love with the place. I wanted to work hard and get a strong education, but I also wanted to enjoy myself. I wanted to get a broad experience, and I felt I could get that at Holy Cross.”
Collins’ research has led to a solution to the problem of the tendency of the elderly to lose their balance—which can be traced back to a loss of feeling in the feet, often related to diabetes, a stroke or simply old age. Balance is partly due to the sensation of pressure on the soles of the feet received by the brain. Collins has found a way to increase the sensitivity of the sole through his work on noise-based sensory prosthetics and, as a result, has developed a vibrating gel insole that steadies equilibrium.
“As a student at Holy Cross, you are encouraged to use your talents to make a difference in the community,” Collins explains. “That’s very unique, and it has really stuck with me.”
What activities were you involved in at Holy Cross?
I was a member of the track and cross country teams and a class officer. I also wrote and drew cartoons for the school newspaper; taught CCD; served as editor of a science literary magazine; and hosted a radio talk show.
Who was your best friend at Holy Cross—and do you still keep in touch with him or her?
My wife, Mary, was my best friend, and, yes, we keep in touch every day—we’ve been married since 1990. We also made a number of great friends through track and cross country that we still keep in touch with.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I’m slow to adopt new technologies. I don’t like change. I just recently got a cell phone for the first time.
Who has been the most influential person in your life?
My wife, Mary. She’s incredibly smart, hard working—and is the nicest person I know. She reaches out to people on the sidelines and pulls them in. She’s a lot of fun. She’s a Harvard Medical School professor and a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital—and she still has lots of time for family and friends.
What is your favorite movie, book or television show?
I like anything that is engaging and fun—and that you can watch with kids, such as Toy Story. It’s a marvelous story about redemption, friendship and loyalty. (Toy Story Director) John Lasseter is such a marvelous storyteller.
Birthplace: New York City, June 26, 1965
Current Residence: Newton, Mass.
Wife, Mary McNaughton Collins, M.D., ’87; children, Katie, 7, and Danny, 5
Further Education: Ph.D. in medical engineering, University of Oxford; Rhodes Scholar, from 1987-1990
Profession: Professor, biomedical engineering, Boston University
Board affiliations: Co-founder and chair of the scientific advisory board (SAB) of Cellicon Biotechnologies, Inc. and Afferent Corp.; member of the SAB of Mannkind Corp. and Codon Devices