Faculty & Staff Spotlight: Mark Albert, University of North Texas

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Mark Albert


Mark Albert, Ph.D. arrived at UNT three years ago and gave up tenure at Loyola University Chicago to start his Biomedical AI Lab right here. His lab focuses on machine learning for wearable devices to provide clinically useful measures of mobility, such as wearable airbag belts to mitigate falls in people prone to falling and using wearables to track the activities of toddlers to relate to long-term obesity. Considering his degrees in computational neuroscience, it's hardly a quantum leap to fathom why an imaginative late 1980s, early 90s TV series remains his favorite or why this husband to a fellow UNT professor and father of three calls a little-known Nobel Prize-winning scientist his inspirational hero. 


What is your favorite aspect about your job?
What is possible with AI (Artificial Intelligence) nowadays is just amazing, and here I get a front-row seat to be at the convergence of core AI advances, related neuroscience (based on my former computational neuroscientist background) and extensive applications. Students in many of our classes have assignments leveraging off-the-shelf tools that were Ph.D. dissertations 10 years ago. And many of my lab’s projects are not just theoretically interesting, but also have the goal of impacting human health and well-being. Exciting, fun and useful -- can’t beat that in a job.

What led you to pursue your field of expertise?
I’ll mention the wearables work to help patients, though I’ve had phases as a computational chemist and computational neuroscientist that have their own stories. I joined the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University as a post-doc. I was in a computational lab, but in that hospital you see patients on a daily basis. One day, I was talking about my startup experience in mobile app development, and my machine learning experience in my Ph.D., and realized how that could be leveraged to help the kind of patients we would see every day. With mobile devices, we could more conveniently, continuously and objectively measure patient progress in response to therapies. All these years later, I’m still an adjunct assistant professor in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine applying more advanced techniques but under the same theme.

You recently used your expertise to help a former student who uses a wheelchair and is unable to speak due to cerebral palsy. Can you describe the communications issue she was having and how you went about creating a solution for her?
Hannah Thompson is one of the sweetest and kindest people you’ll meet. She’s quick to smile and laugh. However, due to cerebral palsy, she uses a wheelchair, is unable to speak and has enough dystonia in her arms to make it hard to type on her special tablet to communicate. She heard about my rehabilitation work and reached out to me to improve her experience using a table to communicate. Pretty quickly, it became clear that instead of hunting and pecking for the right key combinations, she’d benefit from being able to more naturally communicate with gestures. There are a number of sign language recognition systems, but she’s not capable of sign language, so we reasoned she needs a tailored solution. The work I’m involved in now is to create a system that can speak when a particular gesture is made, but more importantly, we’re working out the science to allow it to efficiently learn the movement patterns that are unique to an individual. This is a game-changer for people like Hannah, who struggle to even press a key. I still communicate with her, letting her know whenever progress is made on the effort -- but always making it clear this is research and will take a long time before it’s ready for regular use.

What is your proudest work moment? 
I really enjoyed my Ph.D. thesis work. Long story short, I used computational neuroscience to show that neural activity prior to eye opening creates patterns that “train the brain.” It’s a form of “innate learning” that leverages the same learning mechanism that is known to happen from visual experience right after you open your eyes for the first time. My work showed not only that those patterns of neural activity are the right ones for training the visual system, but you can derive what those patterns should look like from the ground up. Also, the role of spontaneous activity does not end once the eyes open -- it’s something that continues into adulthood and appears to help with generalization. Exciting stuff and hard to balance that with some of the more direct applications I’m involved in.

What is your proudest non-work moment? 
A few days ago, my three kids, 6, 5 and 1, were sitting on our small couch playing together. They sure are a lot of work, but when you see that, it’s wonderful. I know that’s cliche. I ran marathons back in the day, etc., etc… but quite seriously, when they’re playing together, laughing and not beating each other up, you really feel like you did good with your life.

What is a fact about you that may surprise your colleagues?
My wife, Ting Xiao, Ph.D., discovered a particle! She’s faculty in the College of Information at UNT, so not a stranger. I just think that’s the coolest thing, I mean how many people can say that? I’d put “I discovered Zc0(3900)” on a T-shirt, but she’s so modest I only found out a year or so after we were dating. Not just that, she has more citations, a bigger h-index -- many of the baseball stats of science are better for her. It isn’t surprising for those who know both of us, but sometimes if I get a student that seems overly impressed when I jump to my Google scholar page to find a paper, I jump over to hers for some more perspective.

It’s a Wonderful Life without a doubt. It’s cliche and cheesy, but I aspire to live a life like George Bailey’s. I know if my Clarence ever came, it wouldn’t be as dramatic, but we all eventually know students and colleagues that just wouldn’t have the same experience without us. Also, the reality is that many of the impacts we make may never be attributed to us, but that’s not the point -- even the smallest steps to helping people can be profound when taken together over time.
TV show?:
Quantum Leap -- “Striving to put right what once went wrong…” A scientist and renaissance man who knows martial arts helps people in new situations every day. I never really picked up martial arts, but I did watch that show at an impressionable age, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it affected my general approach to life -- helping people by being a nerd.
I’m trying to learn Mandarin. My 5- and 6-year-old daughters speak better than I do and laugh with my mother-in-law and father-in-law when I speak, but I can still read better than they can!… well, maybe just for another year. Little sponges, those kids!
Inspirational hero?: Norman Borlaug. Not a household name, but his science saved millions of lives -- worth a Google search. I feel like we need more TV shows that celebrate such contributions. MDs are rightfully in dramas helping people in need, but there are a lot of people who anticipate problems and fix them before anyone finds out what could have happened without their effort. Good science does that a lot -- just not as made-for-TV, I guess.