The Work of Dr. Guttag

By Indira Nouduri

John GuttagWith the ease and availability of technology, we are surrounded by an overwhelming amount of data at our fingertips.  As a result, we can ask an even more overwhelming number of questions regarding this data than ever before. Although the scientific method (forming a hypothesis and collecting empirical data to prove or disprove that statement) is still a respected model of research inquiry, some investigators are finding it more productive to move away from this model and ask questions like “what is the trend in a given situation?” or “what is the correlation between attribute A and attribute B in a given situation?”

One of the leading researchers who popularized this new approach is Dr. John V. Guttag, Ph.D. He is the former Head of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at MIT, a Fellowship recipient of the Association of Computing Machinery, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Some of his most notable projects deal with applications of computer science to medicine,  investigating trends and correlations of causation. His past research includes chronic seizure detection using EEG data through non-invasive electrodes as well as studying the incidence of death within 90 days in patients with non-ST elevated acute coronary syndrome.

What is unique about Dr. Guttag’s research projects is that they use traditional engineering tools to gather data about medicine while, at the same time, addressing broader themes that a traditional scientific method approach might completely overlook. The unconventional approach of finding trends within the data outside of the investigative question sets Dr. Guttag apart and illustrates how this new approach of moving beyond the scientific method can prove to be more applicable to the questions and problems of today.

medicine and thermometerRather than having to do a separate experiment and collect new data to investigate a correlation between variables in a new situation, a study becomes applicable to more than just one investigative question by collecting a comprehensive set of data and then looking for trends and relationships within it. This creative approach has proved especially productive in medicine where patient records are meticulously kept but often unutilized. In one of Dr. Guttag’s corporate Continuing Medical Education (CME) talks, he mentions how databases of medical records can become the new platform for conducting research. By harnessing the power of Big Data tools, Dr. Guttag believes that valuable correlations can be drawn from historical patient information to better serve current patients undergoing similar procedures. Best of all, since all the data are readily available, this entire investigation can be carried out at a fraction of the cost of a new research study.

Dr. Guttag’s journey to MIT began with a background in Liberal Arts. He earned an A.B. in English and an M.S. in Applied Mathematics from Brown University, followed by a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Toronto. Many scholars today seem to agree that focusing exclusively on STEM is not enough anymore. Adding in an “A” for “Arts” (and thus changing STEM to STEAM) is critical to develop skills to harness the power of one’s imagination to solve problems. This change symbolizes the importance of the human attributes to scientific inquiry that separate us from machines. Mechanical processes are valued for their accuracy, predictability, timeliness and generally cost-effective results.  But we should not forget that purely mechanical processes completely ignore the human aspects of research and problem-solving — creativity, making multidisciplinary links, utilizing the past to improve upon the present, and so much more.

The future will present challenges that are too big to be solved simply by automated analysis of accurate and detailed historical data.  If Dr. Guttag had not made the “artistic” leap to envision that a tiny electrode could work as a EEG sensor, it seems unlikely that he would have ever discovered that seizure activity is present in the brain more than 7 seconds before any physical signs of seizure are evident.  This type of “out of the box” thinking is innately human and the capacity for it exists in all of us. Those with a background in liberal arts and humanities often have the training to tap into it and harness the “steam” of their imaginations.