Two NJIT Researchers are Awarded for Research Excellence

Written by: Tracey Regan,
Biomedical engineer Tara Alvarez receiving the Excellence in Research Prize and Medal from the Board of Overseers.

Tara Alvarez, a professor of biomedical engineering who studies the links between visual disorders and the brain and develops novel devices to identify and treat them, was awarded NJIT’s Excellence in Research Prize and Medal from the Board of Overseers at a ceremony on campus last night. Yehoshua Perl, a computer science professor who brings order and accuracy to massive databases of medical information, received the board’s Excellence in Research Lifetime Achievement Award.

With a multidisciplinary team of engineers, computer scientists, artists and clinicians, Alvarez is currently developing instruments to detect and treat the eye motor disorder known as convergence insufficiency (CI), in which the muscles that control eye movements do not coordinate to focus on near objects. Because each eye sees images separately, the person experiences double and blurred vision, headaches and difficulty concentrating. The impact on cognition and learning can be severe, particularly in children.

The disorder is also one of the primary symptoms of concussion, and Alvarez is working with five major children’s hospitals around the country to test her devices, which are potentially powerful diagnostic tools. She hopes that one day they will help coaches and trainers on the field, for example, decide if it is safe to return a shaken-up player to the game. Follow-on blows can be devastating in the near- and long-term.

As Alvarez explains, “The visual neural circuit composes a lot of space in the brain, and is thus easily damaged by a concussion. In terms of cognitive load, if someone is expending significantly more energy acquiring visual information, then less energy is available for thinking.” 

Her diagnostic machine integrates two devices – a functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) imaging machine and a video-based eye-tracking system – that together detect how changes in brain activity following an injury, including a mild concussion, correspond with changes in eye movements. Strapped to the head, the fNIRS machine uses light beams to measure blood oxygen levels – indicators of neural activity – in different regions of the brain. An ocular device Alvarez has created, known as a Vision and Neural Assessment Equipment system, measures eye movements and accommodation – the ability to see images clearly, which are promising biomarkers for neurological functions such as visual attention and memory.

Once she determined how to test for CI, she put together a team of students and clinicians to help her develop a virtual reality-enhanced therapeutic device, played as a computer game, to treat it. “Therapies (for CI) have not evolved much since the 70s, and while they’re very good, they’re incredibly boring,” she noted. By making them fun, she added, “we hope people will want to do them.”

Reflecting on her career, she said, “If you really work hard and have a passion for what you love, you can make your dreams come true. And not because I say so, because I’m doing it.”

Much of that passion clearly comes from collaboration. In her remarks last night, Alvarez lavished gratitude and affection on her diverse partners. Of her NJIT colleague Bharat Biswal, a pioneer in exploring the neuronal activity of the brain at rest, she noted, “Bharat taught me everything I know about imaging.”

Yehoshua Perl

Perl was unable to attend the ceremony last night, and so it was up to his longtime co-workers and friends to speak for him. And they did, elegantly, calling him a towering figure in the field of biomedical ontology – a branch of medical informatics that enables the acquisition, storage and retrieval of information – as well as a cherished mentor and friend.

Many biomedical terminologies are measured in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of terms, including drug names and their chemical ingredients, symptoms, diagnoses, body parts, medical procedures, medical devices, infectious agents and accidents, among others. These terminologies are hard to understand and contain inconsistencies. Understanding them and finding inconsistencies with textual representations is difficult, and it is therefore useful to use graphical representations.

Without a sophisticated approach, visualizing these networks on a computer screen can lead to failure. As biomedical terminologies are increasingly used in applications such as electronic health records, ensuring that terminologies are free of inconsistencies helps ensure accuracy.

James Geller, a professor of computer science who co-directs NJIT’s Structural Analysis of Biomedical Ontologies Center with Perl, noted that in an age of increasing reliance on computers, his longtime collaborator and friend made sure “the underlying information is correct.”

“This research, funded by NIH, has a very important impact – it saves lives,” added Cristian Borcea, chair of the computer science department, who accepted the award for him (below, right, with Atam Dhawan, associate provost for research).

Perl was also a seminal figure on campus.

Geller called him “the driving force behind the creation of the College of Computing.” President Joel Bloom praised him as “emblematic of the spirit of innovation at our university.”

John W. Seazholtz ’59, chair of the Board of Overseers, lauded the NJIT researchers for their drive to “improve quality of life” and “benefit individuals in profound ways.”

 

Atam Dhawan and Cristian Borcea