Half-a-Million Dollar Man

Arizona engineering professor teaching computers to diagnose diseases

While folks worldwide struggle to grasp the new realities of coping with the coronavirus pandemic, some of our core industries and learning pools are needed more than ever.

University of Arizona electrical and computer engineering assistant professor Gregory Ditzlerhas received a five-year, $500,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award to support his machine learning research. The CAREER award is the NSF’s most prestigious award in support of exceptional early-career faculty.

“This is about establishing my career moving forward – not just about five years, but how I see things progressing over the next 10 years,” Ditzler told Emily Dieckman of the UANews’ College of Engineering. “I can use this opportunity to shape my entire career.”

Ditzler specializes in mathematical models and algorithms that computers use to recognize patterns and identify relevant features.

While Ditzler’s work isn’t specifically targeted at the novel coronavirus, it could come in handy. For example, it’s already been used on models for cancer patients; diagnosing patterns in those that have cancer versus those that don’t. Over time, the computer learns to recognize which features are indicative of the disease and which aren’t relevant.

“Our goal is to develop a mathematical model the computer can use so if we give it a new item it has never seen before, the machine can infer whether that individual has cancer,” Ditzler said. “Machine learning is such a hot topic right now because it’s integrated into everything we use in our daily lives – from the computers we use to create Word documents to the cell phones we use to make phone calls, take photos and text.”

His project also addresses the problem of machine learning in nonstationary environments. While researchers can develop algorithms that recognize security threats, new forms of threats come up all the time. So, it’s critical that these systems be able to learn continuously.

For the educational and community outreach component of the NSF CAREER award, Ditzler is using low-cost robotics to engage Tucson middle school students in science and engineering. He hopes to reach students at an age when many are first starting to think about their career paths.

“This is an opportunity to sit down with students and have them participate in programming and explain that things like autonomous cars are being driven by machine learning and artificial intelligence,” Ditzler said.

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