NSF recognizes ASU professor for providing new ways to look at the world

ASU professor Ross Maciejewski teaching a class

Ross Maciejewski uses his curious mind and extraordinary computer skills to create a new way to see the world, from a 3-D view of a traumatic spine injury to a simulation of water in the desert, to a new way for police to visualize crime statistics or officials to predict disease outbreaks.

An assistant professor of computer science in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, Maciejewski recently received the prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Career Development (CAREER) Award, which provides $450,000 for his research and outreach efforts.

“Ross’ work is on the cutting edge of visual analytics, and he is contributing to significant advances,” said Dave White, associate professor in ASU’s School of Community Resources and Development.

The CAREER Award is a vote of confidence from Maciejewski’s community and the greater engineering community, according to David Frakes, an associate professor in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering and the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, both in the Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“There are few awards that can mean more than the CAREER Award,” Frakes said. “It’s a clear message from his community that Ross’ work is very much valued and that they see a strong likelihood that his contributions will continue to grow and be meaningful to society.”

Promising beginnings

Maciejewski grew up in Owensville, Missouri, where he showed an early interest in computers.

“I like video games, and did a lot of programming and graphics, playing around with computing languages,” Maciejewski said.

Maciejewski took the most difficult math and science classes available in a small-town high school: calculus, physics, chemistry and anatomy. At the University of Missouri in Columbia, he graduated cum laude with three bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering, computer engineering and computer science.

At Purdue University, where he earned his master’s in electrical and computer engineering and his doctorate in computer engineering, he focused on research in haptics, the use of virtual objects in computer simulation, and visual analytics of data.

One of his first visualization projects was analysis of disease spread among livestock, which he presented at a world expo.

His doctoral dissertation was on “syndromic surveillance,” analyzing data from hospital emergency departments. Maciejewski gathered information on patients before they were diagnosed and combined it with social media conversations about symptoms to help predict disease outbreak and pinpoint how quickly and where it is spreading.

Maciejewski said his research is more applied than pure computer science.

“It deals with real-world problems,” Maciejewski said. “I want to help people make better decisions with data, to understand the input. It’s about knowledge acquisition.”

After finishing his doctorate, Maciejewski became a visiting associate professor at Purdue, continuing his research as a member of Visual Analytics for Command, Control, and Interoperability Environments (VACCINE), a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence.

Continuing innovation

In August 2011, he joined ASU, where he teaches introduction to undergraduate research and runs ASU’s Visual Analytics and Data Exploration Research (VADER) Lab, which uses visualization and analysis to look at things like economic geography, public health modeling and simulation, decision-making, non-photorealistic rendering and volumetric rendering.

“I’m able to work across disciplines, including geography, social sciences and biology,” he said. “At ASU, transdisciplinary work is the environmental norm.”

He continues to work on better, faster visualization of huge amounts of data from multiple sources over time and space, mapping crime reports to allow better allocation of resources, or to provide information to first responders.

“Often, the first information coming out of an incident like a school shooting, hurricane or disease outbreak is coming through people posting on social media,” he said. “It’s information from the people on the ground.”

Maciejewski said there is an unending supply of data, but the challenge is figuring out what to look at. You can analyze the data to note anomalies, but it has to happen quickly to be of use in a developing situation.

So Maciejewski is creating faster visual representations that are easier to understand on either desktop computers or mobile devices.

In five years, Maciejewski said, he would like to see a way to link different data sets and present the results in a way that helps decision-makers with policy analysis so they can use the information to improve the way they do their jobs.

He cites the UPS delivery research that found the biggest delays for trucks were while they waited to make left turns. The company charted delivery routes that used mostly right turns and saved time and money spent on fuel.

More to come

Maciejewski is also is working with ASU’s Foresight Initiative, which received $20 million from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to look at ways to anticipate and mitigate national security risks associated with climate change, like shortages of water, food and energy, and how they could contribute to political unrest.

He also collaborates with the National Science Foundation’s ASU Decision Center for a Desert City, which studies water management decisions in the face of growing climatic uncertainty in central Arizona.

White, who directs the center, said Maciejewski is refining a Web-based user interface and visualization for a water simulation model.

Frakes said he and Maciejewski work on medical imaging visualization projects together.

“We combine imaging from different methods, like CT (Computed Tomography) or MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging),” Frakes said. “For example, when there is a traumatic spinal injury, CT scanning will show the bones clearly, while the MRI will show the edema, or swelling of the damaged tissue. Putting those together helps the doctor see where the bones and swelling are at the same time.”

Frakes said Maciejewski is first and foremost a hard worker. “You can do interesting work with lots of people, but not everyone will stay up with you until three in the morning to get a grant in or get a paper done,” he said.

Frakes also appreciates Maciejewski’s commitment to students. “It’s clear that a big part of his mission is to help students grow through his mentoring,” he said.

In addition to teaching undergraduate research, Maciejewski currently has six graduate students, three undergraduates and one post-doctoral student working in the lab. He has also continued his relationship with Purdue and SURF, the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which will send two or three students from Morgan State and Jackson State will be to ASU this summer.

Huan Liu, a professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, said Maciejewski is a great mentor to Liu’s students, too.

“Two of my doctoral students took his course on visual analytics,” Liu said. “After the course, they produced a software system TweetXplorer that can help people visually analyze high volumes of tweets, which received high citations and praise, and serves a key foundation in a widely accessed book, ‘Twitter Data Analytics.’ It would not be possible without his superb knowledge of visual analytics and expert guidance.”