Closer to a Cure: Rajaram Anantharaman

Rajaram Anantharaman is a Ph.D. student who was recruited through the Provost’s Strategic Funding Initiative to conduct research in the area of Big Data and Analytics. The selection process is very rigorous, and only the best applicants are considered. Raj started working with convolution neural networks and their application to oral diseases this spring. He envisions a future where detecting oral cancer may, “be as routine as drawing blood to detect other diseases.”

What do you hope to accomplish with your research?
The incidence of oral cancer worldwide is around 500,000 new cases every year, accounting for approximately 3% of all malignancies, thus creating a significant worldwide health problem (Johnson, 2011). Oral cancer has a tendency to be detected at a late stage which is detrimental to the patients because of its high mortality and morbidity rates. Early detection of oral cancer is therefore important to reduce the burden of this devastating disease (Messadi, 2013). My research deals with using computer vision and big data to detect oral precancerous conditions in its earliest stages. The hope is that my research will culminate in a solution that health workers can use to detect oral disease, get verified answers from the accompanying oral health knowledge base, and get patients referred to a dentist or oral surgeon for further diagnosis.
What got you interested in this topic?
I took a preliminary class in computer vision from Dr. Lee and it piqued my interest. We studied how we can train a convolution neural network to identify and classify images. Having worked at Cerner and other places in healthcare IT for over a decade, my natural inclination was to find relevant applications of this emerging technology to combat a health problem. Cancer is a terrible disease and there are millions of doctors, researchers, and other health workers already trying diligently to find a cure. My grandmother died of this terrible disease. While a great deal of biomedical research is happening in oral cancer, there is an opportunity to use computer vision, big data, and other computer technologies to help advance the cause.


Why did you choose UMKC?
My research requires help from different disciplines including computer science, medical informatics, and oral sciences. UMKC has all of the necessary resources for researchers like me who are trying to bring together different disciplines. UMKC’s programs are intrinsically designed to make this kind of collaboration happen.


What faculty are you working with?
I am primarily working with Dr. Yugyung Lee in the department of Computer Science. Apart from Dr. Lee, I am being advised by several other faculty members including Dr. Melanie Simmer-Beck from the department of Dental Public Health, Dr. Arif Ahmed from the department of Public Affairs and Dr. Mary Gerkovich from the department of Biomedical Informatics.


What do you hope to discover? 
I hope to discover if it is really possible for an A.I. trained computer vision program to detect and classify oral diseases with any degree of confidence. We share a vision with IBM research (IBM Blog Research, 2016) who is doing similar research work in the area of melanoma. Our vision is that taking pictures to diagnose oral cancer and/or other soft tissue oral diseases might one day be as routine as drawing blood to detect other diseases.


1)       Johnson NW, Warnakulasuriya S, Gupta PC, et al. Global oral health inequalities in incidence and outcomes for oral cancer: causes and solutions. Adv Dent Res. 2011;23 2:237–246.
2)      Messadi, D. V. (2013). Diagnostic aids for detection of oral precancerous conditions. International Journal of Oral Science5(2), 59–65.
3)       “Identifying skin cancer with computer vision.” IBM Blog Research, IBM Corporation, 14 Nov. 2016, Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.

UMKC Big Beam Team Wins Big at Nationals!

Over the summer, The UMKC Big Beam Team secured 10th place nationally with 52 points at the 2017 PCI Big Beam Competition. It was a very close competition. Only 9 points separated UMKC and the first place team.
Team member Scott Jackson, enjoyed his experience at the competition. “The award means a lot to the team. It feels good that we were recognized for the work that was put in. Student organizations can provide completely different experiences than the classroom can. This competition was a good way for me to learn more about an area that I am interested in.” Team member Akash Iwalekar said the competition helped him with problem solving skills. “Being able to experience the whole process of designing a big beam followed by constructing it, and testing it, gave me the chance to witness problems and learn what kind of approach was best to solve them and get the desired results.”
The team is very happy with their results and would like to thank the alumni who gave a generous donation that made their testing and participation possible. The students would also like to thank UMKC SCE and their faculty advisor Dr. Ganesh Thiagarajan.

Alumni Q+A: Vickie Johnson

Full Name: Vickie Johnson
Job Title: Program Supplier Quality Engineer
Employer: Raytheon Missile Systems
Graduation Year: 1987
Degree: BS Electrical Engineering
Current City: Tucson, AZ
Hometown: Carthage, MS
What initially attracted you to UMKC? 
After getting married during my junior year in college, we moved from Mississippi to Kansas City to find work.  I found work at Bendix as a lab technologist and immediately started the process of getting back into school. UMKC’s engineering school was very accessible and the engineering program was exactly what I needed. UMKC personnel made it very easy for me to get back into school. Everyone was so helpful, including my employer.

What is something that you wish was available to you as a student that current students at UMKC have access to? 
As a student who worked full time, I would often wish that I could join study groups. A semi-formal program for establishing study groups would be very helpful to all students but especially for non-traditional students. Today’s technology and social media makes it easier but safety for students is a concern, so it would be great if UMKC could lead and develop this type of program.
What drew you to Engineering?
Coming from a small town in Mississippi, I had no idea what an engineer was, but I loved math.  A math professor at Jackson State University told me about the Pre-engineering program which I joined.  This program was to study for two years at Jackson State and transfer to an engineering school to complete the remaining three years. Once I began taking electrical engineering courses, I was hooked.   
How has the field of engineering changed since you started working?
It’s changed tremendously. With the advent of powerful processors and the exponential computer technology, it has changed immeasurably.  I started with programming on cards using FORTRAN and a huge computer that filled a room. Imagine that!  Speaking of imagination – not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the world of engineering as it is today! Knowledge is all around us.  The challenge will be to harness and use this knowledge appropriately and at the right time.  Ethics and morality have become much more important than when I started working as an engineer. As well as a lot more things, i.e. environmental protection, information classifications, how you write and say things, just to name a few. Most of the things impacting the field of engineering have nothing to do with the actual ‘art’ of engineering. Therefore, today’s students must do a balancing act to take it all in.  Programs to help today’s engineering students cope with stress are much needed in today’s engineering environments.
What advice do you have for students entering the field?
I would advise them to stay in school about two to three years longer after achieving their Bachelor’s degree.  Study for and achieve an engineering Master’s degree as well as a minor is an area that impacts engineering (psychology, ethics, human resources, environmental health, math, etc.) or even a juris doctorate degree.  Because once you hit the working world, the career trajectory may not bend easily around additional schooling plans.  Do this while you are young and have the time and the energy.  And remember these things: 1) treat everyone fairly – no matter who they are, 2) always be honest, 3) be firm – but kind, 4) ‘change’ is a constant, so get used to it & learn to love it and, 5) never mistreat or take advantage of anyone because karma is real.  And always remember to enjoy the journey!