Catherine G. Wolf

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Catherine G. Wolf
Catherine Wolf at computer.jpg
When Wolf raises her eyebrows, the black band around her forehead rises, and triggers her switch.
Born 25 May 1947 (1947-05-25) (age 70)
Washington, D.C., United States
Residence New York
Nationality American
Alma mater Tufts University, Brown University
Known for Human-computer interaction, ALS research
Awards Tufts University Distinguished Service Award
Scientific career
Fields Psychology, Computer science
Institutions IBM
Doctoral advisor Peter D. Eimas

Catherine Gody Wolf (born May 25, 1947) is an American psychologist and expert in human-computer interaction. She is the author of more than 100 research articles and holds six patents in the areas of human-computer interaction, artificial intelligence, and collaboration.[1] Wolf is known for her work at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, where she was a 19-year staff researcher.[2]

In the late 1990s, Wolf was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Despite a rapid physical deterioration, Wolf is still able to communicate with the world via electronic sensory equipment, including a sophisticated brain-computer interface.[3] Remarkably, with almost no voluntary physical functions remaining, she has published novel research into the fine-scale abilities of ALS patients.[4]


Wolf completed her undergraduate degree at Tufts University, where she majored in psychology. In 1967 she met her future husband, Joel Wolf, then a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both continued on to graduate school at Brown University, where Catherine focused her research on the way that children perceive speech.[5] After Brown, Wolf completed additional postgraduate work at MIT before entering the workforce as a full-time researcher.[6]


Wolf's career has focused on human-computer interaction. In 1977, she joined Bell Labs, where she became a human factors manager. Eight years later, she began her tenure as a research psychologist at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center, IBM's research headquarters. During her time at IBM, Wolf was particularly interested in learning how people interact with software in the workplace. In response to behaviors she observed, she designed and tested new interface systems in which speech and handwritten words could be converted to digital information. Among other technologies, Wolf worked on a system known as the Conversation Machine, which was the precursor of today's phone banking systems: users could access their accounts by conversing with an automated voice system.[2] She also published papers on the sharing of information in the workplace and search in the context of technical support.[7]

In all, Wolf holds title to six patents and more than 100 research articles. In 1997, she was diagnosed with ALS, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease, which eventually prevented her from performing her normal work duties. Wolf went on long-term disability leave in 2004[2] and officially retired from IBM in 2012. Even after losing almost all muscle function, however, Wolf has still contributed to research on human-computer interaction. In recent years, she has been working with the Wadsworth Center, part of the New York State Department of Health, as a tester of various systems. In 2009, Wolf also published a research article extending a scale commonly used to assess the progression of ALS (known as the ALSFRS-R) to more finely assess the abilities of people with advanced ALS. This paper added significantly to the understanding of what ALS patients might be capable of even after most of their muscle function has been lost.[4]

Living with ALS[edit]

Wolf first felt symptoms of ALS in 1996, when her foot wouldn't flex properly. She was positively diagnosed with ALS a year later.[8]

In 2001, Wolf decided to have a tracheotomy, a surgical procedure that permanently attached a breathing tube in her neck, allowing her to breathe without the use of her nose or mouth.

Wolf eventually lost the use of all of her muscles except a few in her face and eyes. To communicate, she currently uses a computer system which translates movement of her eyebrows into text. She is adept at communicating in this way, even if though she can only "type" out one or two words a minute. She writes poetry,[9] sends emails, conducts occasional interviews,[10] and writes articles for such outlets as Neurology Now. [11][12] She is even able to stay active on Facebook.[2][13]

Since the loss of her muscle control, Wolf has also become an expert on brain-computer interface (BCI) systems,[14] and has helped other researchers learn more about how such systems can work. She is aware that she will one day lose the ability to communicate with her eyebrows, so she's been working with scientists so that she can use an EEG-based interface system herself when that day comes. EEG (electroencephalography) measures voltage fluctuations along the scalp that result from neuron activity in the brain. With such a setup in place, Wolf hopes to be able to communicate words simply by focusing her thoughts on one letter at a time. So far, Wolf has provided researchers with important feedback about BCI's, since they don't work flawlessly yet.[3]


Wolf is married to Joel Wolf, a mathematician at IBM's TJ Watson Research Center. They have two daughters, Laura and Erika, and several grandchildren.[2]

On April 26, 2003, Wolf was honored with a Distinguished Service Award from her alma mater, Tufts University, for "the ideal of citizenship and public service." [15]


  1. ^ Weinstock, Maia (March 24, 2010). "Channeling Ada: Catherine Wolf, Master Communicator". Annals of Spacetime. Retrieved October 15, 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Schwartzapfel, Beth (March–April 2009). "I Will Be Heard!". Brown Alumni Magazine. Retrieved October 15, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b "Wiring the Brain". American Museum of Natural History. Retrieved October 15, 2012. 
  4. ^ a b Wicks, P.; Massagli, M.P.; Wolf, C.; Heywood, J. (March 2009). "Measuring function in advanced ALS: validation of ALSFRS-EX extension items". European Journal of Neurology. 16 (1): 353–359. doi:10.1111/j.1468-1331.2008.02434.x. 
  5. ^ Wolf, Catherine G. (1973). "The perception of stop constants by children". Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 16 (2): 318–331. doi:10.1016/0022-0965(73)90170-7. 
  6. ^ "DSpace@MIT : Speech Communication". Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved November 19, 2012. 
  7. ^ "Catherine G Wolf - ACM author profile page". Association for Computing Machinery. December 15, 2005. Retrieved November 19, 2012. 
  8. ^ Lerner, Jane (5 August 2008). "Computer opens door to communication for woman with ALS". The Journal News. Retrieved 19 November 2012. 
  9. ^ "Poetry by Guest Blogger Dr. Cathy Wolf". Prize4Life. 22 February 2010. Retrieved 19 November 2012. 
  10. ^ Baldwin, Brooke (5 February 2010). "Writing emails with her mind". The Situation Room. CNN. 
  11. ^ Fuchs, Marek (28 August 2005), "COUNTY LINES: A Thing or Two to Say Before Dying", The New York Times, retrieved 19 November 2012 
  12. ^ "Search Results : "Catherine Wolf"". Neurology Now. Retrieved 19 November 2012. 
  13. ^ "Cathy Wolf - Facebook". Retrieved 19 November 2012. 
  14. ^ "Wave of the Future". Neurology Now. American Academy of Neurology. 3 (6): 41–42. November–December 2007. doi:10.1097/01.nnn.0000300616.68347.d3. Retrieved 19 November 2012. 
  15. ^ "Distinguished Service Awards recipients announced". Tufts University Alumni. 31 January 2003. Retrieved 19 November 2012. 

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