UAB Magazine Online Features
Artificial Conversations Spark Insights into the Evolution of Ideas
By Matt Windsor
Top: Philosopher Marshall Abrams is designing a digital simulation of the flow of ideas among individuals that leads to cultural change.
Above: a representation of the neural networks inside one "person" in the simulation.
In a small office in UAB’s Humanities Building, philosopher Marshall Abrams, Ph.D., is hosting a heated debate about the origins of life. The nine participants share their opinions rapid-fire, completing several hundred conversations every minute. Nevertheless, not a word is spoken; all the action is happening on Abrams’s computer screen. Welcome to philosophy’s digital era.
Abrams is building a computer-based simulation of cultural change, the flow of ideas among individuals that exerts a powerful shaping force on a society’s guiding values. “Meteorologists want to understand the local changes that affect large-scale weather patterns,” Abrams says. “Social scientists want to do the same thing with cultural change. But just like the weather, it is very subtle and complicated. I’m trying to see what a digital model can add.”
Talk Amongst Yourselves
Researchers study the process of cultural change largely through surveys and by tracking books, speeches, films, blog posts, and other recorded artifacts of our collective thought processes. But Abrams, inspired by a growing number of simulations in social science fields, is taking a different approach. Building on software developed by Canadian philosopher Paul Thagard, Abrams has designed a system that lets individual software “agents” talk amongst themselves, sharing their opinions and then responding to the ideas of others by changing their own views.
Rodney Nowakowski Adds Optometry Dean to a Long and Colorful Resume
By Grant Martin
UAB School of Optometry are likely to know Rodney Nowakowski, O.D., Ph.D., as their dean, since Nowakowski was named the school’s fifth dean in early 2011.Current and future students of the
To others, Nowakowski may always be remembered as a teacher, considering his more than 35 years as a UABSO faculty member. But throughout those same years, there are also those who knew Nowakowski primarily as their optometrist, a student, a geneticist, a musician, or an airplane pilot. And when Nowakowski casually mentions his earlier stints as a lifeguard, a soldier, and an instructor of ballroom dancing, one may legitimately wonder if there ever has been a dean with a resumé quite so colorful.
“I’m the archetypical jack of all trades, master of none,” Nowakowski jokes. “I just have a passion for learning new things.” That passion may have been evident earlier in Nowakowski’s life, but there was a brief period when he was a college dropout working as a lifeguard on South Florida beaches with precious little on his resume that would suggest he could one day be dean of the most prestigious optometry school in the world.
Innovative Ideas on Preventing and Treating Kidney Stones
By Matt Windsor
The pain has been described as a knife in the back, a body blow, and “the closest thing a man will come to experiencing childbirth.” Whatever the analogy, kidney stones are enormously painful. They often leave victims writhing on the ground.
“They can be excruciating,” says Dean Assimos, M.D., the new chair of the UAB Department of Urology. He speaks from personal experience, having survived two stones himself. And if you live in the South, you’re more likely to know just what he’s talking about.
“The Southeast is the Stone Belt of America,” says Assimos, an internationally renowned expert who specializes in the removal of large stones and preventive measures to avert stone formation. His research group is currently investigating the preventive powers of fish oil supplements and a common gut bacterium. The investigators are also trying to unravel the reasons why stones develop in the first place.
Diet, the hot climate, and genetic factors may be the driving forces behind the high levels of stone formation in the South, Assimos explains. (See "Preventing Stones.") “However, the prevalence of kidney stone formation is also increasing across the country,” he says.
The number of Americans with kidney stones has almost doubled since 1994, according to a study presented at the American Urological Association meeting in May 2012. Researchers speculate that rising obesity rates are a key factor. Whatever the cause, more cases of kidney stones create a burden on the medical system, Assimos says, because treating them usually results in significant health-care expenditures.
Health Informatics Advances Research and Health Care
By Tara Hulen
What if a cure for cancer already exists, but it is buried on a hard drive in a research lab?
Every year, drug companies test untold thousands of new compounds, clinicians turn up intriguing clues from patient tests, and investigators reveal novel targets to attack disease. “But that data needs to be analyzed, and the quantity of it is overwhelming,” says Jonas Almeida, Ph.D., director of UAB’s new Division of Informatics. The division was formed in 2011 to develop new methods to extract meaning from research findings—and give clinicians access to new tools for care.
In July 2012, the UAB team launched a first-of-its-kind medical app known as ImageJS. The program runs in an ordinary Internet browser, which means that it can be used anywhere and won’t be blocked by hospital security software. "We created a new kind of computational tool that promises to make patient data more useful where it's collected,” Almeida says. (Learn more about ImageJS in this story from UAB News and download a copy in the Google Chrome Web Store.)
In its first iteration, ImageJS allows pathologists to drag laboratory slides into the browser to get a quick analysis of cancer cell growth. New modules are already in the works that let the software tackle other tasks, and Almeida says he hopes clinicians will adapt the code to expand its capabilities still further. The lessons learned developing this app have since inspired an ongoing initiative in the Division of Informatics for data mining of the Cancer Genome Atlas, he adds. This NIH public repository of patient and tumor data has generated over 300,000 data files, a number that doubles approximately every seven months.