Prodding Technology to Do Better

Julian Goldman, MD, keynote speaker at the NJIT President's Forum, challenging technologists to eliminate medical errors.

Julian Goldman, M.D., grabbed the attention of his audience at the inaugural NJIT President’s Forum with a startling statistic: despite impressive, technology-fueled advances in health care in recent years, medical errors at hospitals are the third leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease and cancer.

“Technologies to reduce error and improve efficiency are difficult to implement,” observed Goldman, the medical director of biomedical engineering for Boston-based Partners HealthCare, director of the multi-institutional Program on Medical Device Interoperability and the forum’s keynote speaker.

“Tens of thousands of alarms go off each day in the hospital, leading to alarm fatigue,” he said, noting that the vast majority require no intervention at all.  A “smarter monitor” that suppresses non-emergency alerts runs the risk, however, of solving one problem while potentially creating another: the risk of missing a life-or-death event.  “In fact, it’s incredibly complicated.”

For the up-and-coming technologists at his talk, therein lay a challenge that some in the audience, including a number of pre-med students, biomedical engineers and computer scientists from the Albert Dorman Honors College, will likely devote their careers to solving.  As Goldman put it, “While we live in a world of connectivity, we need to learn how to navigate from the Internet of Things to the Medical Internet of Things.”

To a student’s question about where societal responsibility lies, he replied: “With all of us.”

Goldman’s talk was a fitting debut for the President’s Forum, described by Vincent DeCaprio ’72, co-vice chair of the Board of Trustees and a supporter of the lecture series, as focused not just on technology itself,  “but on how the world is affected by technology.”

NJIT’s mission “is to educate technologists to impact society in a positive way,” said DeCaprio, a prominent biomedical engineer himself, who called his alma mater a hub for global dialogue and collaboration that enriches the curriculum.

In the afternoon, at the fourth annual Faculty Research Showcase, the university’s 18 newest members introduced themselves to the wider NJIT community with brief talks on their research backgrounds and current scholarship, including nearly two dozen problem-focused projects supported by faculty seed grants from NJIT. Topics ranged from artificial intelligence in robotic manufacturing, to improvements to the reliability and security of mobile devices, to the role of human interactions and relationships in accounting practices, to the impact of the Sun’s massive explosions on space weather.

 “I am so pleased - and proud - to present the work of our new faculty to the wider NJIT community, including friends of the university and our external partners in academia and industry. Each one of these newcomers is working on an important scientific or societal problem," said Atam Dhawan, vice provost for research, in organizing the event.

Matthew Adams and Matthew Bandelt, new faculty members in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, described their roles in rethinking the material building blocks of civilization – the asphalt, concrete and steel that compose our roads, bridges and tunnels – in response to the acute stress placed on the country’s infrastructure by booming urban populations, severe weather linked to climate volatility and years of disinvestment.

Informally dubbed Matt2 by their colleagues, the two have joined forces to devise new tests to predict how next-generation materials will meet the challenges of extreme weather and the grinding wear-and-tear of 21st century life.  Adams focuses on the link between the chemistry of concrete and its long-term durability and resiliency. “I’ll put samples through 300 freezing and thawing cycles in a matter of weeks,” he notes. Bandelt concentrates on how building materials respond to physical stress or “the damage a hurricane might cause.” He adds, “The new forms of fiber and recycled materials we put into concrete can affect both its internal chemistry and its physical structure and we need to know how it will perform.” Some of the fundamental questions they are pursuing: how do we create infrastructure capable of surviving a catastrophic event, how do we expeditiously replace it if it fails, and, more generally, how do we design and sustainably construct it with materials that are both cheaper and more durable.

Biomedical engineer Xiaobo Li develops mathematical techniques to evaluate the structural and functional organization in the human brain to better understand the biological underpinnings of cognitive disorders. She is currently focusing on the neural networks linked to attention deficit disorder in children with traumatic brain injuries. “Patients do not always have a clear biological diagnosis based on objective criteria. Our goal is to provide predictive disease markers based on the person’s medical history, neuro-imaging, behavior and clinical data so that caregivers can develop individualized strategies for treatment and interventions." Li brings an interdisciplinary perspective to her work. “I began academic life as an engineer working on computer-based geometrical modeling,” she notes. “My advisor suggested I look at the most complex real object – the human brain – because of the multi-dimensional, geometric properties inherent in folding. We can link the folds of the brain cortices to functions,” she says, adding, “As it turns out, I am really interested in medical science and I like the challenge.”

Michael Lee, an information systems specialist who focuses on human-computer interaction, has invented a clever application to bridge the digital divide: a multi-level game called Gidget (helpgidget.org) that teaches people of all ages and cultures how to program by solving debugging puzzles. To measure their progress, the program weaves testing into the story as the player helps Gidget solve problems. “We’ve spent several years identifying features that keep people engaged and eliminating those that don’t – if a game isn’t entertaining, the people who play it will think programming isn’t exciting,” Lee says, adding that it also isn’t judgmental. Gidget never blames the users for mistakes and responds to errors with a sad face and the acknowledgment, “I don’t understand.” Correct answers prompt: “You helped me succeed.” To date, thousands of people have played the game – from youngsters in rural parts of the U.S., to girls at summer camps, to adults and children all over the world. Lee received a National Science Foundation grant to work with international collaborators to examine the effectiveness of Gidget in different cultures. He notes, “Programming is an increasingly important 21st century skill throughout the world and researching new ways to effectively engage and measurably teach people online is an important field of work with many exciting opportunities that can affect educators, researchers, industry employers and policy makers.”

School of Management newcomer Ming Fang explores the behavioral aspect of accounting, upending some conventional notions of the field. “We traditionally view the accounting practices of firms as governed by a rigid set of rules, but in fact the human factor plays an important role,” Fang notes. She analyzes data on executives, directors and regulators worldwide, including their education, employment history, social networks, political affiliation, cultural background, charitable work, club memberships and more.  “Tapping into the data, we have revealed how the social networks of top executives impact the quality of financial reporting and even shape tax evasion strategies, how the technology background of managers influences corporate innovation and how political partisanship can affect SEC enforcement in cases involving accounting fraud and corporate litigation.” What has unlocked her field of study, she says, “is big data – we now have access to masses of data and have the capability to analyze them.”   

Following their talks, students, faculty and guests of the university took the opportunity to question them further at a poster exhibition and networking session, including displays of interdisciplinary research projects funded by NJIT faculty seed grants, in the Campus Center Gallery.

"By introducing our new faculty to potential collaborators and supporting their novel, interdisciplinary research with faculty seed grants, we hope to accelerate their progress,” Dhawan noted.  “As they succeed, their work will make a tangible difference in the community.”

Tracey Regan

tregan@njit.edu