President's Report Masthead
June 30, 2012
Bioengineering student’s work pays dividends

Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Chris Paquette

Bioengineering student’s work pays dividends

Chris Paquette’s research in artificial intelligence and machine learning may lead to innovations in cancer treatment. And he recently won a prize for an agricultural application of the same technology.

Paquette, a 2012 graduate, worked with Walker Land, research professor of bioengineering, to analyze gene expression data and predict the recurrence of cancer using a machine learning algorithm called Kernel Partial Least Squared, or KPLS. Similar data mining and artificial intelligence techniques are used by companies such as Amazon and Google to predict searches and rank pages.

“The technology exists and is proven,” Paquette said. “Now it’s a question of: How do we take that and apply it to other fields?”

Apply it he did. Paquette received $5,000 for his application of KPLS research to an InnoCentive project. InnoCentive is a website where industry, businesses and government agencies can tap into a community of problem solvers, and pay a one-time award for rights to the crowd-sourced solution.

The Environmental Defense Fund and Iowa Soybean Growers posted a challenge requesting technology to predict crop yield using nitrogen sensors that would help manage fertilizer use and boost crop productivity. Paquette’s winning idea was to use blimps with on-board sensors that would fly over crops and take nitrogen readings, which would correlate with the vigor of the crop. The information collected would be fed to the farmer’s computer for analysis.

“The guy’s very creative; he can see things that a lot of other students can’t see,” Land said of Paquette. “He thinks about things in a way that most people don’t.”

Paquette plans to pursue a doctorate in machine learning and artificial intelligence. He used the KPLS research for his senior design project as well: in this case to predict the likelihood of lung cancer recurring within five years and to determine whether chemotherapy is necessary.

“Right now, cancer patients are getting chemo when they don’t need it,” Paquette said. “My dad had chemotherapy and it’s terrible. It destroys your quality of life.”