Imaging with Brent Seales - Podcast Transcript


Alicia: Welcome to the Research Podcast. I’m Alicia Gregory, Director of Research Communications at the University of Kentucky. Brent Seales is the chair of the computer science department at the UK College of Engineering. His research is advancing surgeons’ sight as they operate and unwrapping the secrets of antiquities that can’t be physically opened. But he says it all started with a hang glider.


Brent Seales: Actually going way back, I consider my attempt to build a hang glider to be my first effort in research. Hang gliders were the thing in the 70's. I actually wrote a letter to a distributor in my area, and he was really kind. He wrote me back a letter, and said if you want to come up and look, I'd be happy to show you what we have. I was eleven, and he wrote me that letter. I decided to build one on my own, because I didn't have the money at eleven to buy a hang glider. And, it was a failed project, but I learned a ton about what was happening, and what it meant to fly. That was probably, I would say, my first effort at researching something, and then trying to implement something. 


Alicia: What finally motivated you to pursue a career in research? 


Brent Seales: As a graduate student, I was fascinated with computing, and what could be done with computing. For me, it was a completely blank slate, in a world where a lot of things were already settled. So, I think it was the unknown potential for how I could contribute. That was really what spurred me as a graduate student to go forward with research, rather than stop at that point and take a job in industry.


Alicia: So, you work on digital imaging in two very different directions. There's the medical side of it, and then there's the cultural heritage side of it. Talk a little bit about the medical side first. 


Brent Seales: You know, medicine's been a completely transformed through imaging. Folks won Nobel Prizes actually for magnetic resonance imaging, as recently as the 60's and 70's. Computed tomography with x-ray, another great example of the transformation of medicine using imaging.  So, as an imaging specialist, it was a very natural way for me to be involved in an application area that affects a lot of people. 

The surgical environment, in specific, is now driven largely by imaging. The operative field is hidden, and can only be seen through cameras, so it’s a very rich environment for computation to play a role in helping a surgical team do better in a very constrained environment. And, you know, the outcomes for patients are much better if you can do a minimally invasive intervention as opposed to one, you know, that... that has to involve a lot more opening and cutting. And so, the imaging is really the key there, and that's the place where I can contribute.

Alicia: Let's talk a little about how you got involved in digital preservation of antiquities. 


Brent Seales: Yeah. In the mid 90's there was a huge push, because of the internet's emergence, for us to make libraries digital. And at the time, libraries meant things that were in books. But, it quickly became apparent there's a lot of knowledge and information out there that's not in books. It's actually in an object of art, or in a manuscript. How do you make those things digital? I didn't want to spend time just imaging books. I wanted to move quickly towards things that were much more fragile, mysterious, unknown, located in the nooks and crannies of museums and libraries. By the late 90's, I was working at the British Museum, the British library, with some really interesting parts of their collection. 

Alicia: Let's talk a little bit about how you got involved in the digital unwrapping of the scrolls project, which is a large part of what you've done recently. 

Brent Seales: 
Sure, a book is easy to digitize, because all the pages are flat, um... but when you look at damaged material, nothing is easy. Everything is incredibly wrinkled, wrapped, damaged, and so we started to imagine a way that we might be able to take the most badly damaged things and completely unwrap them. Using only the imaging, not any kind of physical process. So, really the progression in thinking came from the most easy things to the... the things that were completely marginal. Where people would think, you can't do anything. And, it was that problem where we settled and then started to discover that we're... there were many really interesting things in that category. The Herculean Scrolls, discovered items from the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, things in St. Catherine's Monastery, in the Sinai in Egypt. All those things began to capture my imagination. 


Alicia: What findings are you most excited about in terms of your current research? 

Brent Seales: I would say that we've shown through our framework that there is a pathway, to take a completely unknown and damaged text, and then to produce, as a finding, what it contains.More and more, I'm convinced that being able to produce and then deliver to the scholarly community, that engine for discovery is probably going to be one of my biggest findings.


Alicia: Let's talk a little bit about the year you spent at Google in Paris.

Brent Seales: The year at Google was fantastic, because of the inspiration that comes from being around people who are swinging for the fence, to use a metaphor, taking a moon shot, are willing to think about trying to work on a problem that everyone else thinks might be impossible. I really needed that at that point in my career, because we had come up against some really tough obstacles, and I wanted to just start thinking about those problems in a different way. So, think about it, you know, I was at Google, a company that's known for amazing employees, taking risks, and I was in Paris, which is one of the most beautiful cities of the world, and happens to be focused on antiquities. Those things together were a dynamic, dynamite combination.


Alicia: So, what has come out of that in terms of your research?

Brent Seales: I made some amazing colleagues and friends who helped instruct me on new approaches that might be really valuable. I received the kind of inspiration that comes from, you know, that change in thinking. And, I was able to bring some of that back to the University of Kentucky, to the students who are here. And, having the students follow on in that inspiration has been a huge boost to what I've been able to do. Because, honestly, we can't really get much done in a University setting without having really talented students willing to work with us on our work.


Alicia: Let's talk a little bit more about how your research has informed the way you train students. 

Brent Seales:  So, I would say that I've gotten a lot better at sensing what a student really wants to work on, not just what they can work on, and then trying to match that up with things that align for me in what will drive a research project forward. You really can't underestimate the value of someone's fit, in terms of their role. Because that's where you get the extra inspiration and push; from someone who's really excited about what they're doing. 

Alicia: What has been some of the most fulfilling moments in your research career? 


Brent Seales: You know, I've had a few moments in that have been really been banner, signature moments. Every time I have a student graduate, we take that photo and I see the joy, you know. I mean, that's a moment that I love. This last fall, we had a student return to the University of Kentucky, who graduated in the mid 90's, and he received an honorary PhD. That was the first time that I'd had former student receive an honorary PhD. So, Matt Cutts, who graduated in ’95, came back, and I stood by him when he received that honor, and it was a tremendous, tremendous moment for me in my career.

But, I'll have to say, in terms of breakthroughs and research results, the moment that I received an email from Israel, telling me that we had discovered a text in a scroll that was 1500 years old. I received that result by email. That's a moment that I don't think I'll be able to replicate in my career. It was fantastic. 


Alicia: What do you like best about working here? 


Brent Seales: What I love about the University of Kentucky is the fact that it is a land-grant university that’s connected with all of the disciplines that can make the diversity a powerful component in doing research. So, there's an agricultural extension, there's a medical school, there's a great pharmacy program, but we also have all of the liberal arts, with music and with design, and with media and with communications and education. Computer science, of course, touches all of those things. So, if you're a computer scientist, you know, I think that being at the University of Kentucky is one of the most productive places you could be.


Alicia: Why is having that breath and that diversity important for students, who maybe show up here not really knowing what their niche is? 


Brent Seales: Well, you know, the world is a really big and diverse place that is expanding all the time, in terms of opportunity. And technology, with engineering at the center of that, I think is creating a lot of those opportunities. But for students, you know, they go through a process of discovery. With such a large number of opportunities at the University of Kentucky, there's space for a student to really discover who they are, what their talents are, and then to find the direction that they really need to be going while they’re here. I think having that space, is a key part of being at the University of Kentucky. 


Alicia: Thanks, Brent and thank you for listening to the Research Podcast. Join us next time to find out more about research at the University of Kentucky and visit site our site;