We do a lot of signal processing in engineering. Why can't we apply that to biological phenomena?

An electrical engineer, a biologist, a computer scientist and a mathematician walk into a room ... At least, that's the scenario Professor of Electrical Engineering Maurice Aburdene P'98, P'00 would like to create. After a career of working on computer communication networks, digital compression and other more classic challenges in electrical engineering, Aburdene is bringing a fresh perspective to teasing apart the hidden messages in our own DNA.

"We do a lot of signal processing in engineering," Aburdene says. "Why can't we apply that to biological phenomena?"

Signal processing is essentially concerned with sorting information from noise, so he figures the same approaches might help discover new meaning in or new methods for sifting through the huge numbers of DNA sequences that biologists are recording every day.

To get started, Aburdene sat in on an upper-level undergraduate/graduate molecular biology course taught by his colleague, Professor of Biology Mitch Chernin. The immersion in the language of genes, proteins, exons and introns not only gave Aburdene a solid introduction, but also improved his own teaching. "One day in class I counted something like 32 words I wasn't familiar with," he says. Chernin helped him through the vocabulary, making Aburdene extra conscientious to prevent his own students from getting lost in the complicated language of genetics.

To tap the full power of an interdisciplinary approach, Aburdene hopes to recruit students, faculty and even alumni from diverse backgrounds to start brainstorming together. He also plans to offer, in the near future, a new course on signal processing and medical imaging. By combining a classic engineering field with one of its well-known medical applications, he hopes to attract students from a diversity of majors to stimulate creative class discussions.

Posted Oct. 28, 2010