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Ross Maciejewski: Providing new ways to look at the world

Ross Maciejewski recently received the prestigious NSF CAREER Award for his research in visual analytics. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter.

Ross Maciejewski recently received the prestigious NSF CAREER Award for his research in visual analytics. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter.

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.

Maciejewski, 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, recently received the prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Career Development, or 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 significance lies in the development of new methods and tools to link big-data analytics with meaningful and compelling visualizations to provide insights for decision making.”

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.”

Frakes said he is impressed by the breadth of Maciejewski’s work.

“The skill sets he has translate to applications in so many interesting projects,” Frakes said. “I think Ross is still figuring out all the places where he can plug his skills in and have an impact. I know there will be surprising and interesting things to come.”

Maciejewski grew up in Owensville, Missouri, a small town about 80 miles west of St. Louis. His father ran a plumbing, heating and air conditioning company with about 15-20 employees. On weekends, Maciejewski would take plumbing calls.

He loved to work on computers, so his father enrolled both of them in computer classes at a community college about half an hour away.

“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.

“They overlapped a lot,” he said, modestly.

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.

“People don’t think farmers have a lot of data,” he said. “But they do. They have data on each animal, but they also have data on all the workers on the farm and who entered what building and when. The problem is that people don’t have time to look at the data.”

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.

“It can help predict the number of people who would be coming into the emergency department,” he said. “We used statistics, machine learning and visualization. We look at how things were changing over space and time.”

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.

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’re collecting data as you drive with your cell phone,” he said. “It’s recording where you stopped, what you tweeted. And with this space-time behavior, we can develop modes of insight, forecasting and prediction.”

You can analyze the data to note anomalies, but it has to happen quickly to be of use in a developing situation.

“And there’s so much data, how do you figure out what’s important without missing anything? You need to eliminate false positives. It’s not always the boy who cried wolf.

“You have to incorporate a human in the loop to see visually what’s happening and modify the process. You have think about it in a decision-making process and give information back to modify the algorithm.”

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.

Maciejewski 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.

“Despite Ross’ status as a rising young star in his field, he is humble and unassuming,” White said. “You can usually expect Ross to come to meetings in a superhero T-shirt and listen intently before offering his insightful thoughts.”

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 he and Maciejewski have complementary skills.

“I work on pre-processing and configuring the images for view, and he actually has these creative ways of presenting them to allow them to be seen more effectively.”

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,” Frakes said. “Ross is always there. He puts in the hours. He shows up.”

Frakes also said he appreciates Maciejewski’s commitment to students.

“He spends a lot of time with his students,” Frakes said. “It’s clear that a big part of his mission is to help students grow through his mentoring.

“He’s very hands-on, gives them challenging projects, but doesn’t leave them on their own trying to figure out the next step. He makes sure the students’ time is well-spent keeping them on the right track.”

In addition to teaching undergraduate research, Maciejewski currently has six graduate students, three undergraduates and one post-doctoral student working in the lab. He also has 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.

“It’s important to give undergraduates an opportunity to do research to find out if they like it and to develop independent thinking,” Maciejewski said.

Huan Liu, a professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, one of the Fulton Schools of 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.”

Liu said Maciejewski is a great colleague who is always available from early morning to late evening, and called him a “model ASU citizen.”

“He is always there to offer his help, service and time to so many activities from E2 camps, to recruitment committees, to student admission, to undergraduate student guidance,” Liu said. “He proactively and selflessly offers his precious time to help improve our school and ASU in countless ways.”

This summer, Maciejewski took his new wife, Corrie Whisner, an ASU assistant professor in nutrition, to E2 and joked with the students that it was their honeymoon. They had married on a Saturday in July, flew home on Sunday and went back to work on Monday.

“She was not too amused,” he said, laughing.

It’s more likely they will go overseas. They regularly travel to places like Peru, Iceland and London.

When Maciejewski is not working, he likes to read fiction, including anything that won a Pulitzer Prize or science fiction. Right now, he’s broken his own habits, picking up the non-fiction book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” a book by Daniel Kahneman, renowned psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, who explores how we think.

He also likes to watch movies and television, and has a fat, orange tabby cat, Frodo, who knows how to use the toilet.

“I like to think he’s smart, but he does a lot of stupid things,” Maciejewski said. “He sticks his claws into light sockets. I had to install baby guards.”

Media Contact:
Judy Nichols, judith.nichols@asu.edu
(480) 965-9248
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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