Vijay Balasubramanian Discusses Theoretical Physics in Quanta Magazine

Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor Vijay Balasubramanian at Penn’s BioPond.

In an interview with Quanta Magazine, Vijay Balasubramanian discusses his work as a theoretical physicist, noting his study of the foundations of physics and the fundamentals of space and time. He speaks of the importance of interdisciplinary study and about how literature and the humanities can contextualize scientific exploration in the study of physics, computer science, and neuroscience.

Balasubramanian is Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Penn School of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Read “Pondering the Bits That Build Space-Time and Brains” in Quanta Magazine.

Kevin Johnson Discusses the Future of the Electronic Health Record

Kevin B. Johnson, M.D., Ph.D.

Kevin B. Johnson, M.D., M.S., was featured in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s “Envisioning Our Future for Children” speaker series, discussing “the evolution of the EHR and its future directions.” An electronic health record, or EHR, is a digital record of a patient’s chart, recording health information and data, coordinating orders, tracking results, and providing patient support. Johnson “predicts a new wave of transformation in digital health technologies that could make rapid progress” in several areas of medicine, including reducing cost and improving patience outcomes. Johnson is Vice President for Applied Informatics at the University of Pennsylvania Health System and the David L. Cohen University Professor with appointments in Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Informatics and Computer and Information Science and secondary appointments in the Annenberg School for Communication, Pediatrics, and Bioengineering.

Read “What Will It Take to Make EHR a Partner Instead of a Burden?” in the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Research Horizons blog. View Johnson’s seminar talk on the Envisioning Our Future website.

Penn Bioengineering Student Laila Barakat Norford Named Goldwater Scholar

Laila Barakat Norford (Class of 2023)

Five University of Pennsylvania undergraduates have received 2022 Goldwater Scholarships, including Laila Barakat Norford, a third year Bioengineering major from Wayne, Pennsylvania. Goldwater Scholarships are awarded to sophomores or juniors planning research careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering.

She is among the 417 students named 2022 Goldwater Scholars from the 1,242 students nominated by 433 academic institutions in the United States, according to the Barry Goldwater Scholarship & Excellence in Education Foundation. Each scholarship provides as much as $7,500 each year for as many as two years of undergraduate study.

Penn has produced 23 Goldwater Scholars in the past seven years and a total of 55 since Congress established the scholarship in 1986.

Laila Barakat Norford is majoring in bioengineering with minors in computer science and bioethics in Penn Engineering. As a Rachleff Scholar, Norford has been engaged in systems biology research since her first year. Her current research uses machine learning to predict cell types in intestinal organoids from live-cell images, enabling the mechanisms of development and disease to be characterized in detail. At Penn, she is an Orientation Peer Advisor, a volunteer with Advancing Women in Engineering and the Penn Society of Women Engineers, and a teaching assistant for introductory computer science. She is secretary of the Penn Band, plays the clarinet, and is a member of the Band’s Fanfare Honor Society for service and leadership. Norford registers voters with Penn Leads the Vote and canvasses for state government candidates. She is also involved in Penn’s LGBTQ+ community as a member of PennAces. Norford plans to pursue a Ph.D. in computational biology, aspiring to build computational tools to address understudied diseases and health disparities.

The students applied for the Goldwater Scholarship with assistance from Penn’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships.

Read about all five 2022 Penn Goldwater Scholars in Penn Today.

Konrad Kording Appointed Co-Director the CIFAR Learning in Machines & Brains Program

Konrad Kording, PhD (Photo by Eric Sucar)

Konrad Kording, Nathan Francis Mossell University Professor in Bioengineering, Neuroscience, and Computer and Information Sciences, was appointed the Co-Director of the CIFAR Program in Learning in Machines & Brains. The appointment will start April 1, 2022.

CIFAR is a global research organization that convenes extraordinary minds to address the most important questions facing science and humanity. CIFAR was founded in 1982 and now includes over 400 interdisciplinary fellows and scholars, representing over 130 institutions and 22 countries. CIFAR supports research at all levels of development in areas ranging from Artificial Intelligence and child and brain development, to astrophysics and quantum computing. The program in Learning in Machines & Brains brings together international scientists to examine “how artificial neural networks could be inspired by the human brain, and developing the powerful technique of deep learning.” Scientists, industry experts, and policymakers in the program are working to understand the computational and mathematical principles behind learning, whether in brains or in machines, in order to understand human intelligence and improve the engineering of machine learning. As Co-Director, Kording will oversee the collective intellectual development of the LMB program which includes over 30 Fellows, Advisors, and Global Scholars. The program is also co-directed by Yoshua Benigo, the Canada CIFAR AI Chair and Professor in Computer Science and Operations Research at Université de Montréal.

Kording, a Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) Professor, was previously named an associate fellow of CIFAR in 2017. Kording’s groundbreaking interdisciplinary research uses data science to advance a broad range of topics that include understanding brain function, improving personalized medicine, collaborating with clinicians to diagnose diseases based on mobile phone data and even understanding the careers of professors. Across many areas of biomedical research, his group analyzes large datasets to test new models and thus get closer to an understanding of complex problems in bioengineering, neuroscience and beyond.

Visit Kording’s lab website and CIFAR profile page to learn more about his work in neuroscience, data science, and deep learning.

PIK Professor Kevin Johnson named University Professor

Johnson, who has appointments in the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and a secondary appointment in the Annenberg School for Communication, will become the David L. Cohen University Professor.

Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Kevin Johnson, a pediatrician who has pioneered the use of clinical information systems and artificial intelligence to improve medical research and patient care, has received a named University professorship.

Kevin Johnson, a Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor whose work as a physician-scientist has led to medical information technologies that improve patient safety, has been named the David L. Cohen University Professor. The announcement was made today by President Amy Gutmann.

“David Cohen’s extraordinary leadership at the University and Penn Medicine, and longtime dedication to Philadelphia, has without a doubt shaped the booming campus, health system, and city we so much enjoy today,” says Gutmann. “His dedication is mirrored by the extraordinarily influential, innovative, and committed Dr. Kevin Johnson, whose university professorship will now bear Ambassador Cohen’s name.”

Johnson joined Penn this year from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. A board-certified pediatrician and leading medical informaticist, he holds faculty appointments in the Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Informatics in the Perelman School of Medicine and the Department of Computer and Information Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. He is also vice president for applied informatics at the University of Pennsylvania Health System and has secondary faculty appointments in the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics and in the Annenberg School for Communication.

Cohen has served for two decades on Penn’s Board of Trustees and recently concluded a 12-year term as chair. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate last month as United States Ambassador to Canada, bringing to the role decades of experience as a senior executive at Comcast Corp., chair of the Ballard Spahr law firm, chief of staff to Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, trustee chair at Penn, and major player in a number of other business, civic, political, and philanthropic venues.

In addition to serving as a Trustee, Cohen is a Penn alum, having graduated from what is now the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law in 1981. His wife and son also attended the Law School. Cohen’s leadership in the University has been credited with helping guide the growth and advancement of both the University and Health System, in close partnership with both President Gutmann and her predecessor, Judith Rodin.

“It’s an honor to hold a professorship named after Mr. Cohen,” Johnson says. “Throughout his career, he has provided inspired leadership across Penn and our city and region. He is a passionate believer in uniting the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to tackle complex challenges and strengthen communities. Those who know me know that I’ve played a similar role as a pediatrician who works with technology, and who uses digital media to communicate to lay audiences about both. His passion for this city and our University’s educational mission are inspiring.”

N.B.: Johnson also holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Bioengineering. Read his full appointment announcement here.

Penn Researchers Show ‘Encrypted’ Peptides Could be Wellspring of Natural Antibiotics

by Melissa Pappas

César de la Fuente, Ph.D.

While biologists and chemists race to develop new antibiotics to combat constantly mutating bacteria, predicted to lead to 10 million deaths by 2050, engineers are approaching the problem through a different lens: finding naturally occurring antibiotics in the human genome.

The billions of base pairs in the genome are essentially one long string of code that contains the instructions for making all of the molecules the body needs. The most basic of these molecules are amino acids, the building blocks for peptides, which in turn combine to form proteins. However, there is still much to learn about how — and where — a particular set of instructions are encoded.

Now, bringing a computer science approach to a life science problem, an interdisciplinary team of Penn researchers have used a carefully designed algorithm to discover a new suite of antimicrobial peptides, hiding deep within this code.

The study, published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, was led by César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Microbiology, Psychiatry, and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, spanning both Penn Engineering and Penn Medicine, and his postdocs Marcelo Torres and Marcelo Melo. Collaborators Orlando Crescenzi and Eugenio Notomista of the University of Naples Federico II also contributed to this work.

“The human body is a treasure trove of information, a biological dataset. By using the right tools, we can mine for answers to some of the most challenging questions,” says de la Fuente. “We use the word ‘encrypted’ to describe the antimicrobial peptides we found because they are hidden within larger proteins that seem to have no connection to the immune system, the area where we expect to find this function.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Using Big Data to Measure Emotional Well-being in the Wake of George Floyd’s Murder

by Melissa Pappas

George Floyd’s murder had an undeniable emotional impact on people around the world, as evidenced by this memorial mural in Berlin, but quantifying that impact is challenging. Researchers from Penn Engineering and Stanford have used a computational approach on U.S. survey data to break down this emotional toll along racial and geographic lines. Their results show a significantly larger amount of self-reported anger and sadness among Black Americans than their White counterparts. (Photo: Leonhard Lenz)

The murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by a White police officer, affected the mental well-being of many Americans. The effects were multifaceted as it was an act of police brutality and example of systemic racism that occurred during the uncertainty of a global pandemic, creating an even more complex dynamic and emotional response.

Because poor mental health can lead to a myriad of additional ailments, including poor physical health, inability to hold a job and an overall decrease in quality of life, it is important to understand how certain events affect it. This is especially critical when the emotional burden of these events  falls most on demographics affected by systemic racism. However, unlike physical health, mental health is challenging to characterize and measure, and thus, population-level data on mental health has been limited.

To better understand patterns of mental health on a population scale, Penn Engineers Lyle H. Ungar, Professor of Computer and Information Science (CIS), and Sharath Chandra Guntuku, Research Assistant Professor in CIS, take a computational approach to this challenge. Drawing on large-scale surveys as well as language analysis in social media through their work with the World Well-Being Project, they have developed visualizations of these patterns across the U.S.

Their latest study involves tracking changes in emotional and mental health following George Floyd’s murder. Combining polling data from the U.S. Census and Gallup, Guntuku, Ungar and colleagues have shown that Floyd’s murder spiked a wave of unprecedented sadness and anger across the U.S. population, the largest since relevant data began being recorded in 2009.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

N.B. Lyle Ungar is also a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

The Pioneering Career of Norman Badler

by Ebonee Johnson

The retiring CIS professor chats about his recent ACM SIGGRAPH election and his expansive computer graphics path.

Norman Badler, Ph.D. (Image credit: Penn CIS)

Norman Badler’s election into the 2021 ACM SIGGRAPH Academy Class is right on time. After nearly five decades of teaching and trailblazing in the Penn community, the Rachleff Family Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences retired at the end of the spring semester.

When he arrived at the University in 1974, CIS itself was only about 2 years old, and there was virtually no computer graphics focus or program at all. Badler had no intention to teach it.

“At that time, I was actually a computer vision researcher, but I was also working a little bit in natural language,” says Badler. “So I was literally brought in to fit between the chair, Aravind Joshi, who was a natural language person, and the computer vision person. It wasn’t until about three or four years after I came here that I switched over to computer graphics. Mostly because there was a vacuum and a need and an excitement.”

Several years after completing his dissertation in computer vision and forming a career path to head in that direction, Badler “started getting serious about computer graphics.” An organization that was getting its start around the same time as his Penn career would play a major role: ACM SIGGRAPH (the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques).

Read the full story in the CIS Blog.

N.B.: Badler was a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Bioengineering Contributes to “New COVID-19 Testing Technology at Penn”

César de la Fuente, Ph.D., a Presidential Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, Microbiology, and Bioengineering, is leading a team to develop an electrode that can be easily printed at low cost to provide COVID-19 test results from your smart phone.

A recent Penn Medicine blog post surveys the efforts across Penn and the Perelman School of Medicine to develop novel says to detect SARS-CoV-2 and features several Department of Bioengineering faculty and Graduate Group members, including César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, Microbiology, and Bioengineering; Arupa Ganguly, Professor in Genetics; A.T. Charlie Johnson, Rebecca W. Bushnell Professor in Physics and Astronomy; Lyle Ungar, Professor in Computer and Information Science; and Ping Wang, Associate Professor in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

Read “We’ll Need More than Vaccines to Vanquish the Virus: New COVID-19 Testing Technology at Penn” by Melissa Moody in Penn Medicine News.

Kevin Johnson Appointed Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor

Ron Ozio

Kevin Johnson, Penn’s 27th Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor.

Kevin Johnson has been named the University of Pennsylvania’s 27th Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor.

The announcement was made by Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett.

A pioneer of medical information technologies to improve patient safety, Johnson will hold joint appointments in the Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Informatics in the Perelman School of Medicine and the Department of Computer and Information Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, with secondary appointments in the Annenberg School for Communication and in the Department of Bioengineering. He will also serve as vice president for applied informatics in the University of Pennsylvania Health System and professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“Kevin Johnson is a gifted physician-scientist,” Gutmann said, “who has harnessed and aligned the power of medicine, engineering, and technology to improve the health of individuals and communities. He has championed the development and implementation of clinical information systems and artificial intelligence to drive medical research, encouraged the effective use of technology at the bedside, and empowered patients to use new tools to better understand how medications and supplements may affect their health. He is a board-certified pediatrician, and his commitment to patient health and welfare knows no age limits. In so many different settings, Kevin’s work is driving progress in patient care and improving our health care system. He is a perfect fit for Penn, where our goal is to create a maximally inclusive and integrated academic community to spur unprecedented global impact.”

Johnson is currently the Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, where he has taught since 2002. He is a world-renowned innovator in developing clinical information systems that improve best practices in patient safety and compliance with medical practice guidelines, especially the use of computer-based documentation systems and other digital technologies. His research bridges biomedical informatics, bioengineering, and computer science. As senior vice president for health information technology at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center from 2014 to 2019, he led the development of clinical systems that enabled doctors to make better treatment and care decisions for individual patients, in part by alerting patients as to how medications or supplements might affect their body chemistry, as well as new systems to integrate artificial intelligence into patient care workflows and to unify and simplify all the Medical Center’s clinical and administrative systems.

The author of more than 150 publications, books, or book chapters, Johnson has held numerous leadership positions in the American Medical Informatics Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, leads the American Board of Pediatrics Informatics Advisory Committee, directs the Board of Scientific Counselors of the National Library of Medicine, and is a member of the NIH Council of Councils. He has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine (Institute of Medicine), American College of Medical Informatics, and Academic Pediatric Society and has received awards from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Academy of Pediatrics, among many others.

“Kevin Johnson exemplifies our most profound Penn values,” Pritchett said. “He is a brilliant innovator committed to bringing together disciplines across traditional boundaries. Yet he always does so in the service of helping others, finding technological solutions that can make a tangible impact on improving people’s lives. He will be an extraordinary colleague, teacher and mentor across multiple areas of our campus in the years to come.”

Johnson earned an M.D. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, an M.S. in medical informatics from Stanford University, and a B.S. with honors in biology from Dickinson College. He became the first Black chief resident in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins in 1992, and was a faculty member in both pediatrics and biomedical information sciences at Johns Hopkins until 2002.

The Penn Integrates Knowledge program was launched by Gutmann in 2005 as a University-wide initiative to recruit exceptional faculty members whose research and teaching exemplify the integration of knowledge across disciplines and who are appointed in at least two Schools at Penn.

Originally posted in Penn Today.