Archive for the 'faculty' Category

Nov 30 2017

Schoolhouse Rock and Fighting Cancer

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(This post was authored by Dr. Doug Talbert.)

I have a student who occasionally wears a “Schoolhouse Rock” shirt evoking some nostalgia for the short, educational cartoons that were shown on television when I was a child. The catchphrase for Schoolhouse Rock was “Knowledge is Power,” and even though it has been a long time since those were regularly aired, the truth of that catchphrase still resonates with me today, and as a data scientist, my job is to unlock the power of knowledge that is hidden inside data. In fact, Yann LeCun, Director of AI Research at Facebook, once said, “Most of the knowledge in the world in the future is going to be extracted by machines and will reside in machines.”

shirts_schoolhouserock (Dr. Talbert - Data Science Month)

A group of TTU computer science students and I are trying to enable machines to extract knowledge from medical data and turn that knowledge into power in the fight against cancer. We have partnered with researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Medical University of South Carolina to seek knowledge that will improve our understanding of cancer-related disease processes, enable more informed decisions regarding prevention and treatment, and possibly assist in the development of new prevention and treatment options.

This complex problem presents many challenges to both data scientists and clinicians. The relevant data includes electronic health records, clinical reports written in natural language, and genetic data containing sequences of thousands of genes. Our work will involve using data science to transform that data into something the computer can manipulate, to link related data together, to identify meaningful patterns, and, ultimately, to translate those patterns into knowledge that can help us prevent and treat cancer more effectively.

So far, I have focused mostly on the medical goals of our project – a better understanding of cancer and improved cancer prevention and treatment. We also hope to advance the state of knowledge in data science/machine learning. Our machine learning goals have been inspired by recent advances that seek to equip computers with more human-like learning capabilities – an ability to learn continuously, an ability to autonomously apply knowledge learned in one context to improve learning in another context, and an ability to self-direct learning.

The development of such an advanced learning system in an area as complex as cancer research will only become a reality through many small steps over a long period of time. Like the system we plan to build, we’ll learn as we go, and, hopefully, along the way, we’ll turn data into power that helps us beat cancer.

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Nov 10 2017

Doing Data Science before it was Data Science

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(This post was authored by Dr. Bill Eberle)

When I tell people I worked on Star Wars, I generally get that look of “What?”, “Really?”, or “You’re too short for a storm trooper.” I then have to explain to them that it was actually called the Star Wars Defense Initiative – a national defense system created during the Reagan years to protect our country from a potential Russian nuclear strike.  It was fun working on the project.  I got to work in what is called a Tempest building – a building so thick that signals cannot get in or out.  I was using high-end graphical work stations, and programming fairly complex mathematical equations.  I even got to meet senior military personnel, whom I would then demo simulations of the defense system.  Unfortunately, I never got to meet Admiral Ackbar.

Stars Wars_Eberle Blog

While all of this work was satisfying, I was not getting to use any of what I had learned over the last several years while I earned my Masters’ degree in Computer Science with a concentration in Artificial Intelligence. Fortunately, an opportunity presented itself. A local division of a major telecommunications company was starting a new project, and was looking to hire software engineers on a project involving marketing data.  While, at that time, I didn’t see the A.I. in what was being advertised, something intrigued me about the opportunity.  So I applied.

I got a call a couple of weeks later to meet with the hiring manager. While we talked about the project, I realized that the general problem they were trying to solve was handling lots of data (nobody called it “big data” back then) and creating tools that would provide knowledge to their users – or, today, we would call it data science.  I then proposed to him some ideas out of artificial intelligence that could be used to analyze the data and present information in a way that would be easy to use and understand by their customers.  I think that sold him, because he called me back the next week and asked when I could start.

I then got to spend the next three years doing data science! I was involved in everything from natural language processing, to data warehousing, to complex SQL querying of the data, to visualization of the data.  My MS thesis had been in natural language processing, so I used that expertise to create software that allowed marketing people to ask the system queries, in English – like how many people are married, drive a BMW, have a dog, and 2.5 kids – and in turn it would generate SQL queries to the data warehouse.  Results were then translated back into English (or into a table, if they preferred), making it very easy for them to understand the results.  And all of this was done on a very big data warehouse, which, at that time, was actually the largest data warehouse in the world.

In the end, it was all about creating software that made it easier for users to understand their data.

I may not have been able to destroy the Death Star, but it was still lots of fun.


Next Time: Doing Fraud Detection

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Feb 02 2017

You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water. – Rabindranath Tagore

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(This post was authored by Dr. Ambareen Siraj)

For me, the sea to cross has been changing at various stages of my life – but my determination has not.

When I came to this great country which has been my home for 20 years, the sea was graduate school at Mississippi State. I came from a different country (Bangladesh), different language (Bengali), different undergraduate degree (Applied Physics and Electronics), and with a family (husband Sheikh Ghafoor and a 2 year old son). Why did I move to CS from Physics? Well, I worked with computers during my undergraduate thesis; I guess my “bossy” personality loved the fact that you can tell a machine exactly what to do, and it will do it! Well, as we all know now, computers of today can think ahead of men!fulltextlogo[2]

Back to my story of growing up. My first semester at graduate school, I worked for an insect researcher in Agricultural Research and analyzed insects with software after my classes. My husband would keep our toddler busy with trees and flags flying high in the park while I did my study chores. Later, I started working as a Teaching Assistant and graded C++ data structures programs to pay for grad school.  After sometime, I took the first class ever offered in Computer Security in Mississippi State (it was the same case with many schools back then) by one of the pioneers in CyberSecurity Education, Dr. Rayford Vaughn. I was hooked!  There was no looking back. I found what I loved, and I started working in the field as a Research Assistant for Dr. Vaughn. The best lesson that I learned from him was the power of a “pat on the back”.

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Nov 30 2016

Opening unexpected doors

Published by under alumnus,faculty

I have learned an important truth that I like to share with students considering a career in computer science – that a career in computer science can mean a career in almost anything. Computers are everywhere and a part of everything, so there are probably careers that combine computer science with almost any other interest or passion that you have. This is important to me for two reasons – first, because I think far too few students really understand how much of the interesting work in the world today is occurring at the intersection of computer science and some other field (science, engineering, medicine, pharmacology, insurance, manufacturing, and even the humanities) and second, because my life has been profoundly shaped by the accidental discovery of a just such a passion that I continue to combine with computer science.


Photo by Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

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Nov 16 2016

I was guilty of blinking text.

Published by under alumnus,faculty

I have worked in a library for nearly 19 years but I’m not a librarian.  I began working at the Putnam County library doing typical library stuff – shelving books, checking books in, checking them out, helping with random questions, and learning how to “deal” with every personality (and mental disease) known to man.  Once my supervisor found out I was working on my Computer Science degree she allowed me to work on the library’s website.  My first website was so very hideous!  It was all about how many new cool things I could do!  I created it in Microsoft FrontPage (discontinued WYSIWYG HTML editor) which allowed me to easily apply over 1000 different background images, moving Gifs, blinking text, fancy trailing pointer movement, and neon colors.  Ok – so I am exaggerating a little (but really….it was bad).

April Crockett at the Putnam County Library

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Nov 14 2016

On the Importance of Establishing a Mindset and Culture for the Department

Published by under chair,faculty

A mindset identifies our attitudes towards how we perceive the world and the situations that we encounter within it. Indeed, a mindset defines the culture of a community and can often foreign to outsiders or new members. For instance, take the example of the difference between a western mindset and an eastern mindset. A western mindset emphasizes the individual while the eastern mindset emphasizes the group. This is best illustrated by the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympic games when it was reported that while it appeared that a beautiful young girl was singing the song “Ode to the motherland” that she was merely lip-syncing to the voice of another girl that was off stage [1]. While many in the Western world were appalled at this practice, claiming that it was demeaning to both girls, others in the Eastern world claimed that the song was performed in this way for the good of the nation. The differing mindsets defined the interpretation of the performance of the song just as our mindset defines our interpretation of how we approach social situations within interpersonal, small group, and large group interactions. In relativist terms, the appropriateness of the lip-syncing practice was culturally determined.

Academic departments are constantly faced with micro and macro clashes between culture that are rooted in the mindset by which the members of the community have either learned via observation and socialization, or have brought into the environment by way of their own external experiences and expectations. According to Seidman, a characteristic that distinguishes the nature of an organizational culture is communication – specifically, how information is created, communicated, and used [2]. Unfortunately, very rarely do we ever formalize the ways in which we create, communicate, and use that information. Instead, we expect that faculty, staff, and students will learn the norms through interactions with others – first as novices but eventually as full members of the community.

Growth/Fixed Mindset from Dweck [3]. Image from CSU Health Network [].

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