A Mindful Future
Originally Posted on: September 18th, 2017
By Mikael Mulugeta
In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill spewed more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.
At the time, Ananya Sen Gupta was working as a postdoctoral researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Cape Cod, Mass. Trained as an electrical engineer, she saw an opportunity to put her skills to work. She began working with marine chemist Christopher Reddy, who was sampling data from the plume of the spill, to perform computational analysis of the data. Shifting into her new role as a data scientist, Sen Gupta developed a computational approach to fingerprint oil spills, which involved finding patterns in the field data using algorithms she had developed. Her work at WHOI, which focused on marine pollution, attracted the attention of the leaders of the University of Iowa Water Sustainability Initiative (WSI).
Sen Gupta came to the UI as an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; she joined the WSI in the fall of 2013. The University of Iowa established the WSI in 2009 to advance research, education, and outreach activities regarding the stewardship and responsible management of water resources. Hailing from various disciplines, the nine WSI faculty members combine their expertise to identify key challenges on a local, regional, and global scale regarding the availability, quality, reuse, and health impacts of water resources and their relationship to a changing climate. Sen Gupta also became a faculty affiliate of IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering in 2013.
While her pattern recognition work started with fingerprinting oil spills, Sen Gupta has since applied this computational approach to other water-related problems. Within the WSI, Sen Gupta focuses on using algorithms to understand how toxins and pathogens in the environment relate to each other.
Sen Gupta is collaborating with fellow WSI member Kelly Baker, who studies waterborne pathogens, particularly in developing countries. Baker, an assistant professor in the UI Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, shared data she had collected in Kenya with Sen Gupta, who is using algorithms to search for patterns of association between diarrheal pathogens.
The algorithms Sen Gupta builds can process large amounts of field data much faster than human experts can. Additionally, they help her agnostically interpret the data, which means letting the algorithm discover patterns and knowledge hidden in the data, rather than the researcher looking for specific patterns or trying to confirm a specific hypothesis.
“While model-based research is great and very necessary, the challenge with that approach is that you may lead the question if you’re already framing what to study,” says Sen Gupta.
Sen Gupta also works with Keri Hornbuckle, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and IIHR faculty affiliate who studies polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the environment. PCBs, which are manufactured organic chemicals, can be harmful to human health and are well-known air pollutants. Hornbuckle has deployed passive air samplers in several Chicago suburbs to test for PCBs and is analyzing the data using Sen Gupta’s algorithms.
“What motivates me as a data scientist and engineer is my investment in environmental pollution,” says Sen Gupta. “It boils down to the fact that we have one planet and I care about the legacy that we’ll leave our children. So what can I, as a data scientist, do to contribute towards a healthier, more mindful future?”
Raised in Kolkata, India, Sen Gupta moved to the United States in 1999. She earned a bachelor’s degree in electronics and telecommunications engineering from Jadavpur University in 1998, and master’s and PhD degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2001 and 2006.