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Allen Tannenbaum

Romeil Sandhu with his dog June. Photo courtesy of Romeil Sandhu

By Daniel Dunaief

Romeil Sandhu has had a busy year.

Last fall, the U.S. Air Force awarded him a $450,000 three-year grant, called the Young Investigator Research Program. At the beginning of this year, Sandhu won a $500,000 National Science Foundation Career Award.

The assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Stony Brook University is working in several directions on basic research that could help with everything from network security to autonomous cars.

The awards are a “tremendous accomplishment,” Allen Tannenbaum, a distinguished professor of computer science and applied mathematics/statistics at SBU, explained in an email. Sandhu won the career award on his “first try, which is very unusual. The Air Force award is a very high honor for a young researcher.”

Tannenbaum was Sandhu’s doctoral thesis adviser at Georgia Tech. Tannenbaum recruited Sandhu to join Stony Brook University and described Sandhu’s work as going in a “very promising direction.”

The Air Force funding is a new direction in which Sandhu is developing a theory around how to incorporate user input in three-dimensional autonomous systems that rely on two-dimensional imaging information.

An example of this, Sandhu explained, is where a soldier might make judgments maneuvering a vehicle around potentially deadly situations. His work involves translating three-dimensional interactive feedback controls based on two-dimensional imaging systems.

“When you take a video of a car, it’s in two dimensions,” he explained. The computer link between the collected images and the reality relies on geometric properties.

With most autonomous computer systems, a human is involved in the process, to prepare for what is called the “unknown unknown.” That is a term used to describe situations in which there is no way to predict all possible events.

Through his Air Force work, Sandhu ideally would like to seek greater autonomy for some of these self-directed systems. Removing human input entirely, however, generates a risk that may be too great. That is the case in cancer treatment as well as the systems used to protect soldiers. The work he is doing with the Air Force explores how to fuse human and computer-assisted decision making.

The NSF award, meanwhile, will use the confluence of geometry and control to explore vulnerability in time-varying networks. Sandhu is tackling problems in social systems, communication systems and cancer biology and biomedical informatics.

“We can devise this idea of a network, which is the same way with cancer and proteins,” he said. One protein sends a signal to another, causing a cascade of reactions that often promote cancer.

Sandhu is interested in how microfluctuations can pave the way to larger disruptions. In the social setting, such information may infect individuals or groups and such dynamics may allow it to influence macroscopic audiences.

“The prevailing idea is that there exist several changes that pave the way to a larger catastrophic failure,” he explained in an email. 

The grant is designed to exploit everything that can be modeled as a part of a network, to understand their vulnerability. Viral information and trending stories, Sandhu said, might have one dynamic, while conspiracy theories might have another. He would like to see how such information gains traction and spreads.

The way people interact occurs through multiple networks. Sandhu is studying how models can exploit real-world behavior. Geometry, he suggests, can begin to assist on more complex modeling problems that are time varying and multilayered.

When he describes how he studies systems such as cancer, he likens the process to a waterbed. A drug or therapy may knock out a specific gene, which could limit cancer’s growth. When that gene changes, however, it creates a wave along the bed, enabling another potential genetic process to occur. While it has a more precise definition in control, it is akin to sitting on a waterbed in suppressing one sequence only to give rise to another.

Sandhu, who arrived at Stony Brook University in 2016, grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, and then spent over a decade going to school in Georgia, where he earned his doctorate at Georgia Tech.

In some ways, Sandhu’s Huntsville background, which includes lettering in high school soccer for four years as a center midfielder, is similar to one of the challenges in perception he studies through his work. 

“Think of me as one person in a network,” he said. “In a lot of the research we look at, we want to know how microfluctuations such as myself give way to a larger perception.”

Sandhu explained that the general perception of Huntsville and Alabama is different from his experience.

Most people are surprised that Huntsville has the second largest research park in the nation, at Cummings Research Park. Huntsville also has numerous aerospace companies.

The city generally ranks highly as one of the more educated in the country, he said. This is due in large part to the tech community that supports the government. The town is largely influenced by NASA and the surrounding military aerospace community, which Sandhu believes impacted his worldview, career path and research initiatives.

Indeed, one of the goals Sandhu has for his NSF grant is to help educate the high school students of people serving in the military. He said he appreciated the military families who were such an integral part of his upbringing.

Sandhu has two doctoral students and two master’s students in his lab. He also plans to participate in the Simons Summer Research Program at SBU where he will add a high school student. He is excited about the next phase of his research.

“The best part is the challenges that lie ahead,” he explained in an email. “Whether it is targeted therapy and cancer research, social computing and/or interactive computing, we are just beginning to understand very complex issues. Our hope is that we can make a contribution.”

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Professor Allen Tannenbaum. Photo from Stony Brook University

It’s a dangerous enemy that often turns deadly. Worse than its potentially lethal nature, however, cancer has an ability to work around any roadblocks scientists and doctors put in its path, rendering some solutions that bring hope ineffective.

Researchers around the world are eagerly searching for ways to stay one, two or three moves ahead of cancer, anticipating how the many forms of this disease take medicine’s best shot and then go back to the business of jeopardizing human health.

Allen Tannenbaum, a professor of computer science and applied mathematics and statistics at Stony Brook University, has added a field called graph theory to some of the tools he knows well from his work in medical imaging and computer vision.

A normal, healthy cell is like a factory, with genes sending signals through proteins, enzymes and catalysts, moving reactions forward or stopping them, and the genetic machinery indicating when and how hard the parts should work.

Cancer, however, is like a hostile takeover of that factory, producing the factory equivalent of M16s that damage the cell and the individual instead of baby toys, Tannebaum suggested.

By analyzing how proteins or transcription networks interact, Tannenbaum and his colleagues can develop a model for the so-called curvature of interactions.

Looking at the interactions among parts of the genetic factory, Tannenbaum can determine and quantify the parts of the cell that are following cancer commands, rather than doing their original task.

Curvature isn’t so much a bending of a physical space as it is a change in the way the different proteins or transcription factors function in the discrete networks Tannenbaum uses in cancer and biology.

“The parts are not doing their job the same way,” Tannenbaum said. “We can look and see graphically how different things compare.” He and his collaborators recently published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

Using mathematical formulas to define a range of interactions, Tannenbaum can determine how quickly a cancer or normal cell can return to its original state after a disturbance. This ability is called its robustness.

The study “brings to light a new way to understand and quantify the ability of cancer cells to adapt and develop resistance,” explained Tryphon T. Georgiou, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Minnesota, who has known Tannenbaum for over 30 years and collaborated on this study. “It also provides ways to identify potential targets for
drug development.”

Tannenbaum studied cells from six different tumor types and supplemented the study with networks that contain about 500 cancer-related genes from the Cosmic Cancer Gene Census.

In treatments for cancers, including sarcomas, researchers and doctors sometimes try to pull the plug on cancer’s energy network. This method can slow cancer down, but cancer often resumes its harmful operations.

Using models of cancer on a computer, Tannenbaum and the five graduate students and four postdoctoral fellows can run virtual experiments. He can hand off his results to biologists, who can then run tests. Once those scientists collect data, they can offer information back to Tannenbaum.

“This is a team effort,” said Tannenbaum, who works with scientists at Memorial Sloan Kettering, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Georgiou described Tannenbaum as a “brilliant scholar” and a “mathematician with unparalleled creativity,” who has been a “pioneer in many fields,” including computer vision. Indeed, a computer vision program could assist nurses in the intensive care unit on different shifts assess the level of pain from someone who might not otherwise be able to communicate it.

Georgiou called Tannenbaum’s work on cancer a “mission” and said Tannenbaum is “absolutely determined to use his remarkable skills as a mathematician and as a scientist” to defeat it.

Tannenbaum, who recently took his grandchild to a Mets win at CitiField, said coming to Stony Brook in 2013 was a homecoming, bringing him closer to his native Queens. He cited two famous graduates from Far Rockaway High School: the physicist Richard Feynman, who helped develop the atomic bomb, and Bernie Madoff.

He and his wife Rina, who is a professor in materials science and engineering at Stony Brook, live in Long Island City.

Tannenbaum hopes to continue to build on his work applying math to solving cancer.

“There’s a lot of mathematical play left and then testing the predictions in a biological/medical setting,” he said.