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.



i-Trek Volunteer David

By Adriana Hammond

David Hill is a member of the co-founding i-Trek Team. As a volunteer, he finds time to contribute to i-Trek as well as pursue a PhD in Media Arts and Sciences. Find out more about David and his contributions to i-Trek. 

1. What drives your passion for STEM?

My passion for STEM is mostly driven by a love of mathematics and problem solving. As a child, math class was always my 4th favorite time of the school day. It followed closely behind dismissal, lunch, and recess. As I grew older, I began to gain a better understanding of how the principles I learned in class could be applied to solving common problems, which kept me motivated throughout grade school and bled over into other STEM subjects. The love of problem solving carried through to college and drove my choice of major and other pursuits as an undergraduate leading up to a graduate education.

2. Tell me about your background? What are some things most people would be surprised to know about you?

Prior to MIT, I attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA, where I majored in physics. Research was a major part of my undergraduate experience. Throughout college, I conducted research on nano-scale optics for EUV Lasers, working under a professor at Morehouse and collaborating with engineers from Colorado State University. I had zero experience working in my current field prior to coming to MIT, so I loaded up on relevant courses to best prepare myself for the switch in focus before graduating.

3. I would love to know a little about your research at the MIT Media Lab.

My current research focuses on the development of technology to assist in or augment human locomotion. My lab, MIT Media Lab's Biomechatronics Group, is known mostly as a prosthesis and exoskeleton lab, using principles and techniques from robotics to build devices that closely mimic the behavior of biological legs. More specifically, the goal of my project is to build models / simulations of walking that can replicate human gait dynamics, which will be used to govern the behavior of prosthetic devices.

4. We met when you were teaching a Saturday session for i-Trek in the schools. What did you enjoy most about teaching?

The most enjoyable part about teaching is when the students have that "Aha" moment, the moment when it all clicks. That moment signifies not only that the students get the concept, but also that they see the value in it. Too often in STEM, concepts are thrown out at students without them receiving any information about applications or interesting ties to their daily lives. This causes them to miss the value. Any time you can get a student genuinely excited about some concept you feel uplifted as a teacher. Since I am inexperienced as a teacher, those "Aha" moments are not a guarantee for me, but when I do see them it makes it all worthwhile. The Saturday i-Trek sessions have truly been highlights in my teaching career, as the students seemed genuinely excited by the topics we taught.

5. Where do you see yourself taking your education regarding your career?

I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the MIT Media Lab. Upon graduation, I would like to apply the knowledge I have gained in industry, building technology to assist elite athletes in training or rehabilitation.

6.Is there anything about your education that you feel impacted you on a more personal/ intellectual level? (career isn't everything!)

Since arriving at MIT, I have come to understand how access to resources impacts the quality of education and how wide of a gap there is between those with access and those with limited access. This gap is one of the root causes behind the general lack of socioeconomic and racial diversity in STEM and higher education and it has driven my desire to contribute to organizations like i-Trek.

i-Trek would like to thank David and all of its volunteers for their contributions to the mission and cause.

The United States Should Lead in STEM Education

By Tim Wright

student in front of schoolThere was a time when our country was the world leader in technological innovation. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, it represented a technological victory for the United States over the Soviet Union and served as a crucial step in humanity’s exploration of the Universe. During the space race, there was interest and dedication from students and scientists in technological advancement. Now, with the changing politics and new generation, students simply are not as interested in science, technology and math as they were in the past. Technological innovations and ingenuity are declining in America. Other countries are catching up, and many have surpassed America in all quantifiable areas. There are many reasons that this decline is detrimental.

Unemployment would decrease if the job seekers in our country took advantage of the vast opportunities in the areas of science and technology. According to America Desperately Needs more STEM Students. Here’s How to Get Them,” published in Forbes Magazine, 50 percent of the economic expansion in the U.S. is in the fields of science and engineering, yet only five percent of the workforce is employed in those fields. The result is a much smaller field of competition for science and engineering jobs, and a more competition for other jobs. If more high school graduates chose majors in science, engineering, technology and math, they may have an easier time finding a job after college.

Part of the problem is that the changing demographics in the country show a correlation with the decreasing interest in science and math among high school students. According to the Forbes article, right now, 43 percent of students are of non-white ethnicity. However, of the Bachelors degrees awarded in the science and math fields, only 15 percent are given to minorities. The fact of the matter is, our population is changing and as a country we are still figuring out how to handle the change. In order to maintain our status and rank in the world, we need to take action to ensure that the same quality of education and opportunities are awarded to minorities and women to address the lack of diversity in STEM.

According to the United States Department of Education, President Barack Obama is aware of the problem, and has set a goal of helping American students, “Move from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math.” He has called on schools to recruit and train 100 thousand new STEM teachers. He formed the Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM) to direct resources toward those goals, but ultimately it will be up to us. The government can only do so much to create interest in science and math and cannot tell us how to live our lives. Hopefully i-Trek and its mission to bridge the gap in STEM diversity is a step in the right direction.

Op Ed

By Lindsay Garten

The Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA test, is administered to 15 year-old students around the world every three years to test their ability in math, science and reading. Although many might be led to believe that students in United States would do well on these tests, that simply is not the case.

Although the United States spends $15,171 per pupil, well above the OECD average of $9,131, one would not suspect this after looking at its PISA scores. In addition to spending the most per pupil, the U.S. also spends 7.3 percent of its GDP on education, while other OECD countries spend an average of 6.3 percent. In terms of higher education though, the United States leads the world with eight out of the top 10 best Universities. So it would only make sense for arguably the most powerful country in the world to do well on this test.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the OECD average on the mathematics section of the 2012 PISA exam, was 494 points, with the top scoring country, Shanghai-China, achieving a score of 613 points. Other top countries included Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Chinese Taipei and South Korea, with scores of 573, 561, 560 and 554 respectively. The United States however, scored a low 481, which means it ranks as the 36th best country. The results for the science literacy section of the test were similar, with the United States scoring 497, four points below the OECD average, coming in at 28th place.

So why does the country with this highest GDP per capita, that spends the most on education, and has some of best university’s in the world, do poorly on the PISA exam?

Jack Buckley, commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics, told the Washington Post in a 2013 article, that the United States’ diversity and high child poverty rate are contributing factors to the underperformance of students in the United States.

So what are some of the other factors? According to Anna Maria Chavez, the CEO of Girl Scouts USA, in a Huffington Post op-ed, there needs to be more of an emphasis on STEM education, especially among women.

“Younger girls express high levels of interest in STEM, but that interest tapers off as girls reach the middle school and early high school years, and girls are often discouraged by society, both actively and passively, from pursuing their interest in these fields,” she wrote in her op-ed. “By nurturing and encouraging girls' early interest in STEM and making it fun for them, we can keep them engaged, help them perform better in school and ultimately, encourage them to pursue careers in STEM fields.”

To further bolster Chavez’s point, in 37 out of 65 countries and economies, boys scored higher than girls, with girls outperforming boys in: Jordan, Qatar, Thailand, Malaysia and Iceland.

This should be a clear wake-up call to the United States that something has to change. Maybe it’s encouraging more women to get into STEM fields, better training for our teachers, or even further educational reform. We desperately need more people in science and technology jobs, as our climate is changing and the world becomes increasingly globalized. Something has to change and we need to jump on it before its too late.