A Conversation with George Verghese

  1. George Verghese was named a 2011 MacVicar Faculty Fellow for his dedication to teaching as EECS Education Officer from 2004 through 2009 and for his participation in the new undergraduate curriculum development. He is cited for
    George Verghese was named a 2011 MacVicar Faculty Fellow for his dedication to teaching as EECS Education Officer from 2004 through 2009 and for his participation in the new undergraduate curriculum development. He is cited for "finding ways to explain complex and challenging material in a clear manner."
  2. Thomas Heldt (Research Scientist in George Verghese's group) and Manon Ranger (visiting doctoral student in nursing) puzzle over a paper with George.
    Thomas Heldt (Research Scientist in George Verghese's group) and Manon Ranger (visiting doctoral student in nursing) puzzle over a paper with George.
  3. George Verghese and Thomas Heldt examining waveforms on a bedside monitor.
    George Verghese and Thomas Heldt examining waveforms on a bedside monitor.
  4. Manon Ranger and Faisal Kashif (postdoc in George Verghese's group) explain what the monitor indicates.
    Manon Ranger and Faisal Kashif (postdoc in George Verghese's group) explain what the monitor indicates.

Q. First, congratulations on being named one of four MacVicar Faculty Fellows this year, in recognition of your outstanding undergraduate teaching, mentoring and educational innovation at MIT. What does or will this honor mean for you in terms of your work – as professor and researcher – over your ten-year tenure as MacVicar Fellow?

George Verghese: “Thank you! Several of the superb teachers whom I’ve learned and drawn inspiration from over my years at MIT (and this includes faculty outside EECS whom I’ve had the opportunity to observe in action) are or have been MacVicar Fellows, so it means a lot to me to join this group. One thing the award implies for me is that I will have to look for ways to really earn it, over the coming ten years!

Whether as MacVicar Fellow or not, what’s true about MIT — and EECS in particular — is that there are countless opportunities to engage with colleagues and students in conversations and activities related to teaching, mentoring and educational innovation, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In particular, I’ve worked closely over many years now with Prof. Alan Oppenheim (a former MacVicar Fellow!) on 6.011, our undergraduate signals, systems and inference class.

The recent rethinking of the EECS undergraduate and MEng curricula, and the subsequent launch of the revised programs, have opened up many new possibilities, not just for students but for faculty too. An inviting opportunity for faculty is to participate in teaching one of our new undergraduate subjects. Last fall I taught recitation sections in 6.02 for the first time. This is our introduction to digital communication systems, taken mostly by beginning sophomores (and, like 6.01, now required of all undergraduates in the department). Having to understand the computer networks part of the class well enough to help the students through it forced me to stretch into areas that were new to me. I also particularly enjoyed the experience of interacting with students who were just getting started in the department.

Being a MacVicar Fellow provides the context for having this kind of conversation and interaction with colleagues across the Institute, and I welcome that.”

Q. You are noted over the past several years for your significant shift in research focus from applications in power systems and power electronics to applications in biomedicine, now heading the Computational Physiology and Clinical Inference Group in the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE). Could you describe this shift – how it has been possible (and a natural outgrowth) from your earlier research interests and accomplishments? And has this shift influenced your teaching as well?

George Verghese: “You’re right, my research focus has shifted, starting a couple of years before the big push on energy began at MIT. This transition sort of crept up on me, though I’ve always been interested in medicine (especially with many in my immediate and extended family being physicians). I started by serving on the doctoral thesis committees of students in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Division (HST), who were working with dynamic models and system identification in the setting of human physiology and pathophysiology. Growing interactions with Prof. Roger Mark and his students led me to collaborations on research proposals. A former student of Roger’s, Dr. Thomas Heldt, then joined my research group as a postdoc and subsequently Research Scientist, and that’s when the transition began in earnest.

Our research springs from the observation that although a wealth of high-resolution multi-channel data is collected from patients in critical care settings, most of it flashes by on the bedside monitors and then disappears, unused or under-used. The clinical staff sees only a small fraction of the data, and typically only when they’re at the bedside. What’s badly needed is to have a computer at bedside that has some knowledge of physiology, in the form of mechanistic dynamic models and associated inference algorithms, to transform this flood of data into information that is more helpful and relevant to the clinical staff. I think of this as bedside informatics, operating at the seconds-to-minutes timescale.

At some level, this is not so different from the sorts of challenges faced in dealing with a large interconnected power system. However, what’s been most interesting to me is learning the specifics of human physiology, a subsystem at a time. We started with cardiovascular dynamics, but are now dealing with cerebrovascular and respiratory physiology as well, for example. I’m particularly excited currently about a novel approach we’ve developed (in Dr. Faisal Kashif’s doctoral thesis) to noninvasive estimation of intracranial pressure, a key vital sign in neuromonitoring.

MIT and Boston are great places to do biomedical research in. A third of the faculty in EECS have a life sciences thrust in their research. And the hospitals across the river are filled with research-minded clinicians eager to work with MIT people on real and significant problems. There’s no time in my 32 years on the faculty that I’ve enjoyed my research as much as I am now. I already find myself injecting biomedical examples into my 6.011 lectures, and I hope at some point to do teaching that is more fully centered on the use of physiological models in clinical inference.”

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