Better Diagnosis – With Help From AI

Better Diagnosis – With Help From AI

A man taking a photo

UNM graduates develop biomedical devices with an eye to earlier diagnosis of diabetes complications

By Leslie Linthicum

Photo of Jeremy Benson (’16 MS)

Jeremy Benson (’16 MS)

Photo of Aswathy Kurup (‘17 MS)

Aswathy Kurup (‘17 MS)

Photo of Jeff Wigdahl (’13 MS)

Jeff Wigdahl (’13 MS)

Diabetes affects one in 10 Americans, in many cases causing vision loss or a painful complication known as peripheral neuropathy that leads to foot ulcers and, in its most advanced form, amputations. 

In a suite of offices near the Albuquerque International Sunport, Simon Barriga (’02 MS, ’06 PhD) and a team of scientists and engineers at a biotech company called VisionQuest Biomedical are inventing early detection devices and software to catch complications of diabetes early and improve the lives of millions of people living with the disease.

“We want to do it cheaper, we want to do it faster and we want to increase diagnosis so everyone can have preventive tests,” says Barriga, a co-founder of the company and its CEO. Their ally in the work, he says, is artificial intelligence.

“There are multiple diseases you can diagnose using artificial intelligence,” Barriga says. Taking data collected over time on patients’ eyes, in the case of retinal disease, or feet, in the case of peripheral neuropathy, and training a computer network to recognize patterns of disease and health allows for computer-aided diagnosis.

Artificial intelligence-driven software that has seen millions of disease patterns can help doctors make a better diagnosis, or can make a diagnosis on its own, freeing doctors to focus on early treatments.

“One of the main things that we focus on is to detect diseases early, where they can be caught and treated before there is severe consequence,” Barriga says. “We want to prevent complications that end up costing a lot of money to the health system and to the patient if they are prevented from providing for their families.” 

The eye

The company’s main product is called EyeStar. Diabetic retinopathy is the most common complication of diabetes. It occurs when the blood vessels inside the eyes retina begin to fail, causing hemorrhaging and inflammation. Unchecked, it causes vision loss.

Many diabetics don’t know they have the condition until it is too late. Although the condition can be detected in an annual eye exam and treated, fewer than half of diabetics get an annual eye exam.

“There are very good treatments for that now,” Barriga says, “but the key is to detect it early.”

Photo of the eye

 VisionQuest’s rapid eye-screening technology uses a camera that takes a picture of the retina, without requiring dilation of the pupils. The picture is uploaded to the cloud, where VisionQuest’s artificial intelligence-driven software analyzes the image and within 30 seconds delivers a diagnosis.

The technology has not received approval for use in the United States from the Food and Drug Administration, but it is being used in a network of diabetes clinics in the city of Monterrey, Mexico. The technology has been used in exams on 35,000 people in Mexico and its early detection is credited with saving 5,000 of those people from going blind, Barriga says.

“Our plan is to put this in pharmacies, so if you’re going to get your medications in the time that you wait to get your prescription, you can get your pictures taken and get your eyes examined and get your results right away without having to have an appointment with an ophthalmologist.” 

The foot

In peripheral neuropathy — known more commonly as “diabetes foot” — blood vessels in the hands and feet break down, damaging the nerve endings and causing the loss of feeling. Minor cuts or other damage go undetected and lead to infection and sometimes amputations.

VisionQuest’s device and technology, awarded a U.S. patent in 2014, uses infrared cameras and artificial intelligence that can detect the effects of diabetes in limbs early on.

VisionQuest is working with UNM’s School of Medicine to perform a clinical study, paid for by a $3 million, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, that will test VisionQuest’s device on several hundred patients with diabetes. Researchers hope to begin enrolling patients this spring.

Photo of a diabetic foot image

David Schade, MD, an endocrinologist at UNM Health Sciences Center and professor of internal medicine, will be working with Peter Soliz, PhD, the principal investigator in the grant, on performing the study.

Currently, physicians rely on tapping or tickling a diabetic patient’s foot to assess nerve responsiveness and send patients for further imaging if they suspect damage.

VisionQuest’s system works by detecting temperature changes in the feet. After applying a cold patch to the foot, the technology measures how quickly blood flow returns, lighting up compromised areas of a foot, which differ from the pattern of a healthy foot. In an instant, a clinician can pinpoint where compromised nerve endings are failing to deliver blood and begin to work toward better control of the disease and better limb care.

“Right now, there are not very good tools to determine any of this,” Barriga says. “The tests out there are very subjective. This will give a very good quantitative test.”

Photo of Simon Barriga with instrument

Surprising career

Barriga grew up in Trujillo, Peru.

“I was always good at math,” he says. He dreamed of being a physicist, but his practical mother encouraged him in the direction of engineering. “So, I chose the engineering that was the closest to physics,” Barriga says, “and that was electrical engineering.” In an irony, many of his high school classmates wondered if he would end up in medical school, which he discounted because of his distaste for biology at the time. “So, to my surprise,” Barriga says, “I’ve been working for 20 years in medicine.”

Barriga received his undergraduate degree in Peru, and at age 26 he came to UNM for graduate school in the College of Engineering and stayed for his PhD. His thesis analyzed data from a device invented at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y. that used light to stimulate the retina and look for changes. It was his first work in ophthalmology and led to his joining VisionQuest shortly after it was founded by Soliz, one of his advisers at UNM.

One benefit of launching a startup in Albuquerque is the ability to mine well-educated graduates of UNM as employees. VisionQuest has on staff three UNM alumni in addition to Barriga. Research scientists at the firm include Jeff Wigdahl (’13 MS) and Jeremy Benson (’16 MS), who is also working toward his PhD in computer science at UNM. And Aswathy Kurup (’17 MS), who is working toward her PhD in engineering at UNM, is a research assistant.

Simon Barriga Looking at the Camera

Barriga also married a UNM graduate. He and Lauren Salm (’06 BUS, ’11 MA, ’20 MS), a speech-language pathologist, married in 2016.

Barriga never would have imagined that choosing engineering as a career would lead to discovering advances in medicine, but he is grateful for the field of research he found.

“It’s so rewarding to work in the health care field, because of the impact it has in people’s lives,” Barriga says. “It really makes you feel good about the things you’re doing. It gives you an incentive or a motivation to continue doing it.”

There are more than 450 million people around the world diagnosed with diabetes. VisionQuest hopes to bring to market an integrated set of tools that can help reduce its complications and allow patients to lead fuller and healthier lives.

“In the future you can imagine that you walk into a pharmacy and you sit down in this device where you will get your feet examined and then you put your head on a chin rest and you can get your retina pictures taken, and in one step you’ll get all of these exams done while you’re picking up your medications,” he says. “That’s the vision for a few years down the road.”

Wiping Out SARS-CoV-2

Wiping Out SARS-CoV-2

A photo of Eva Chi and David Whitten

UNM team invents antimicrobial polymers that neutralize the coronavirus

By Leslie Linthicum

In the laboratories of the nation’s top-tier research universities, scientists experiment and engineers tinker, looking to expand fundamental knowledge about cells, space, subatomic particles and everything else around us.   

Often, that basic science leads to discoveries and sometimes those discoveries are made at exactly the right time.

David Whitten has never liked the dueling reputations of basic science research as science for science’s sake and application-driven research as the problem-solver.

“I don’t buy that,” says Whitten, a Distinguished Professor in UNM’s Department of Biological & Chemical Engineering. “I think a lot of scientific-driven research finds an application — even if you weren’t in search of it.”

Whitten has focused a long career on conjugated polymers, something few of us have ever heard of, much less understand. They are a class of polymers — substances composed of linked large molecules — that are complicated organic semiconductors.

“You can think of them as being like beads that you string,” Whitten explains. “One bead touches another and another, and so forth. It’s a repeating pattern and that motif goes on and on and on. When certain of the polymers touch, they conduct electricity. And, when they are excited by being exposed to light, they absorb light and emit light.”

He has worked on these synthetic molecules and their biological applications for the past 15 years.

Elsewhere in the Department of Biological & Chemical Engineering, Professor Eva Chi has collaborated with Whitten to learn more about his synthetic polymers.

“My collaborations with him have been figuring out why these work and how these work,” Chi says.

Nearly a decade ago, the team discovered that the excitable polymers were really good at acting as antimicrobials, selectively inactivating bad bacteria, spores and some viruses.

They published a paper on their work in 2011.

Then came coronavirus.

Photo of hospital worker wearing a mask
Photo of person holding disinfectants

“At the beginning of the pandemic we were just all scrambling — what can we do to contribute during this pandemic?” Chi recalls. 

They thought back to their paper and remembered that the properties they were studying were also antiviral.

Whitten and Chi reached out to Alison Kell, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology at the UNM School of Medicine, whose lab studies RNA viruses, and who had access to samples of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

They didn’t see any reason their polymers wouldn’t grab onto SARS-CoV-2, so when UNM’s labs reopened in June, Chi and Whitten chose polymers they thought were most promising, given the characteristics of the virus, then made solutions containing them and took them to Kell’s lab at the Health Sciences Center.

Kell got back to them with a week. They worked.

It’s tempting to say the team found a weapon to kill COVID. But SARS-CoV-2 is a virus — meaning it’s not made out of cells and is unable to grow on its own. A virus is more like an android or a robot that can invade a cell and instruct it to manufacture more virus. So the UNM polymer discovery doesn’t kill coronavirus; rather it attracts the virus and immobilizes it. Then, when exposed to light, it inactivates the virus so it no longer spreads.

They began to run more tests to make sure the results weren’t a fluke and settled on two different polymers that both inactivated the virus.

“They all were very effective and there was no indication the coronavirus could be resistant to our materials. We could inactivate them completely,” Chi says.

“This to us was a really big discovery and we were really excited about it,” Whitten said.

They wrote a paper on their results (published in December in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces), filed for patents on the process and began working with BioSafe Defenses, a tech transfer company that both are part of, to secure expedited registration of their product with the Environmental Protection Agency so it can be marketed.

“In terms of how effective these compounds are, they’re really outstanding,” says Chi, who envisions the company producing disinfecting wipes, sprays and even fabrics for face masks.

The benefit of a polymer-based disinfecting product is its effectiveness and its staying power.

“The polymers, having all this charge, they will stay on a surface for quite a long time — several days — and continue to be effective,” Whitten says. Additionally, surfaces can be wiped off and the coating still stays effective.

That could be a game-changer in terms of opening the economy while still staying safe. Restaurants could use the product on tables a couple of times a week; malls could use it on handrails and door handles; sports stadiums could wipe down seats; medical offices and hospitals could avoid constantly wiping down everything touched by patients and caregivers.

There’s also promise in making personal protective equipment more effective by incorporating the polymer material in the outer layer of face masks, where it could sequester the virus and inactivate it before it reached a user’s airway.

Whitten is ecstatic about the discovery, calling it “the most exciting work I’ve ever been involved with.”

After years of studying the repeating beads of polymers, he says, “We’re poised to try to make this into something useful that could really help humanity.”

Whitten is also excited about seeing the fruits of cross-university collaboration. The team involved also included Linnea Ista in the Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering, Florencia A. Monge, of UNM’s Center for Biomedical Engineering, Virginie Bondu of the Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology at the UNM School of Medicine and Patrick L. Donabedian of the Nanoscience and Microsystems Engineering graduate program at UNM. Also on the team are Kirk S. Schanze and Pradeepkumar Jagadesan, both of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“I think the thing that is most satisfying to me, and I would guess also to my colleagues, is we’re doing something that could really mitigate the pandemic and help mitigate future pandemics,” Whitten says. “Invariably there will be variations of the coronavirus that will cause problems in the future. I think this is a constant threat but we can hopefully make it not a pandemic in future years.”

Face Masks, Pivots and Zoom

Face Masks, Pivots and Zoom

Photo collage of a face mask, vaccine, research group and zoom meeting on a laptop

How UNM adapted to the oddest of academic years

By Leslie Linthicum

Professor Eva Chi and her team of instructors in the Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering spent their summer puzzling through some big academic challenges: How to teach a hands-on, upper-level chemical engineering lab course under social distancing restrictions.

Owen Whooley, as associate professor of Sociology, had his own concerns. Should he teach his Health, Medicine and Human Values course entirely online or try for an anything-but-normal in-person class once a week? How could he encourage class participation in a disembodied virtual world? And how could he connect with students he would never see in person?

As the Spring 2020 semester ended in a hurried rush out the door and academics finished online, students were left to wonder what the Fall semester would look like and faculty members in every department scrambled to improve their online chops.

The strangest academic year anyone could imagine at UNM has played out over the past few months mostly on computer screens. For some it has meant freedom never enjoyed in a normal school year ­— freedom to travel, work and complete coursework from anywhere at any time. For others, it has been a series of hurdles — to focus and to find human connection.

Freshman Year Reimagined

It feels like we’re stuck in a cycle that we can’t get out of.

– Jaanai Giselle Martinez

Photo of Jaanai Giselle Martinez
Jaanai Giselle Martinez graduated from College & Career High School, a small Albuquerque magnet school, in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic closed in on New Mexico. She knew her freshman year at UNM would be different from what she imagined when she dreamed of going to college. But, still, every day surprises her.

“I imagined that I would be able to go to the library with my friends. I would gather for lunch,” Martinez says as her first semester winds down. “I imagined I would take advantage of any opportunity we got to socialize to the point where I would almost never be alone.”

Instead, Martinez has been closed in a four-bedroom apartment-style dorm suite with three roommates for the entire semester taking all of her courses online.

“Luckily, I got a good group of roommates, so because of them I feel like I have a little bit of a social circle,” Martinez says. “We do everything together, which is a good thing and bad thing sometimes. We don’t really see anyone else, just to play it safe.”

Inside the apartment, the four don’t wear masks, but they mask up any time they leave their unit.

All are members of the close cohort of freshman in the Combined BA/MD Degree Program, which puts them on a path to UNM’s School of Medicine after they successfully complete their bachelor’s degrees. Martinez, who has wanted to be a doctor ever since she can remember, is taking general pre-med courses — chemistry and calculus — along with Spanish and a sociology course that focuses on medicine.

Since arriving on campus in August, Martinez has never walked into a classroom building and attended a course with other students. She hasn’t met any of her professors. Even the experiments in her chemistry class have been online.

Martinez “attends” scheduled classes each day, but they are all remote.

Some of Martinez’s roommates are in the same classes, so for those they put the course on the TV in their living room and watch and take notes together.

“We try to make it feel as normal as possible,” she says.

Martinez, who is 19, took some college courses at Central New Mexico College during high school and she misses the interaction with instructors that happens during class and also less formally in the minutes before and after class.

“I know what it feels like to just able to go to your professor and ask them something or just even ask them how their day is. And because of the mode we’re in, it’s hard to even ask how is your day, because you’re interrupting a class. There’s no asking for help. There’s no making conversation,” she says.

The social life of a freshman, which can be exciting and sometimes distracting, isn’t happening. For fun, Martinez and her roommates stream movies or TV shows in their apartment.

“One time me and my roommates walked through campus,” Martinez says, “but we got very lost and had to use GPS to get back.”

Even La Posada, the dining hall, looks different. Instead of getting a meal and then finding a table to sit and eat with friends, all meals are packaged to go and meals are eaten outside or back at the dorm.

Even so, Martinez is happy to be on campus, to prevent the distractions of home. And she is grateful for the relationships she has developed with her roommates.

Photo of Owen Whooley

Learning New Moves

I decided I wasn’t going to pretend this was normal.

– Owen Whooley

“It’s not anyone’s fault, obviously, but I do feel like we were robbed a little bit. Robbed of what we could have potentially got from our education,” Martinez says. “It feels like we’re stuck in a cycle that we can’t get out of that just involves our room.”

One of the bright spots in Martinez’s schedule has been her Health, Medicine and Human Values course, which examines how social factors shape health outcomes. Part of the course work is keeping a “COVID diary,” where students relate the concepts they learn in class to what is going on in real time with COVID-19.

Martinez can see the meaning behind the concepts playing out in the news every day, and she looks forward to the course because of the professor’s enthusiasm.

“He doesn’t seem like he’s lecturing; he seems like he’s just talking to us,” Martinez says. “He’s a professor I would have loved to meet in person.”

Owen Whooley, an assistant professor who was on the other side of the Zoom screen for Martinez’s sociology course, is relieved when told he was able to break through the glass barrier created by remote teaching.

“This was all uncharted territory,” says Whooley, who has been teaching for eight years at UNM and has taught Health, Medicine and Human Values seven times.

Normally he would meet his students in Dane Smith Hall or another classroom building. Students — 28 this semester — would be arranged in desks and he would lecture, use PowerPoint, lead discussions and assign small group projects to be done in class.

“It’s a lecture-discussion hybrid and one of the things that’s changed this year is it’s more lecture than I would like,” Whooley says. “Rather than drone on and on, I like to keep them on their toes and encourage active participation.”

Whooley was on sabbatical when campus closed at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year, so he missed the difficult transition from in-person to remote teaching. Over the summer he took advantage of a week-long online teaching training provided by UNM and he thought a lot about how to engage students virtually.

He hoped to make the course an in-person/remote hybrid, but he would have been able to meet with only one third of his students once a week to allow sufficient distancing. “I quickly realized that was going to be untenable,” Whooley says. “I’ll be honest — I didn’t want to teach online. I’ve never taught online before and I’d never wanted to teach online, so I tried hard to maintain some sort of in-class element. Fear of the unknown was a major motivator, but you really lose something when you’re not in the same space. You lose the informal interactions that happen before class and after class. You lose the feedback. You lose some of the intimacy and you lose some of the community.”

But like so many things during the pandemic, he made peace with the situation and worked to make the best of it.

Whooley ended up restructuring most of the class, scrapping a group presentation and replacing it with a group paper, and establishing a discussion board that resembled a text chain in an attempt to preserve group interaction.

For class, Whooley set up his camera in his home office with a burnt orange accent wall behind him and on occasion his two small children piping up from their home classrooms in other rooms of the house. And the class was conducted twice a week much like any business meeting or extended family gathering conducted on Zoom, with him and his students appearing on a grid.

“I learned quickly how to hide myself, because I don’t like lecturing to myself,” Whooley says. Zoom is simultaneously more distant and more intimate because faces are so close.

“At first I was pretty insistent on having students keep their cameras on, but I quickly realized it was kind of sensory overload to have 25 faces staring at you,” he says.

To encourage participation, Whooley lectured for several minutes, then paused for questions or discussion, then resumed lecturing.

“I would say it went better than expected but not as good as it normally does,” he says. “You develop a certain style that works for you, a certain classroom performance. And I don’t think I fully adapted that online. I tend to be far more funny and have a banter back and forth. I felt like my jokes fell flat.” 

Opportunity From Chaos

It’s complicated.

– Sharon Chischilly

Photo of Sharon Chischilly

In preparation, Whooley reflected on the question: What does it mean to learn during a global pandemic?

“People are stressed out. They’re isolated. They’re alienated from their family. These are freshman who are starting a huge transition under really crappy circumstances,” he says.

He decided not to pretend the class was normal and concentrate on making sure his students were OK.

“So, more so than I normally do, I tried to convey to the students, ‘Look, I know this is hard. We’ll get through this. If you need anything, come to me. I care about you.’”

In mid December The New York Times published its annual The Year in Pictures, featuring the best photos published in the year. Representing the month of November was a bright photo of a posse of Navajo Nation tribal members heading to vote on horseback on election day. The photographer was Sharon Chischilly, a junior journalism and communications major at UNM.

Disruption caused by the pandemic has had odd benefits for Chischilly. When UNM decided to finish the Spring 2020 semester online, Chischilly went home to Manuelito, N.M., on the Navajo reservation. The Navajo Nation was being ravaged by COVID-19 and Chischilly took advantage of free time to photograph its effects.

She met a reporter from The Washington Post at a food distribution event who asked her if she might sell some photos to the newspaper. That led to her first freelance assignment and broke open a new world for Chischilly.

Chischilly, who describes herself as a self-taught photographer who still has a lot to learn, now has the kinds of photo clips many veteran photojournalists only dream of.

“Strangely, for me, I was given an opportunity to work for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal while going to school online,” says Chischilly. “There’s a lot of negatives about what’s happened — it’s hard to see my people struggling. And this has tested me emotionally and mentally. But there’s a lot of positives.”

Chischilly was taking four classes last Spring semester while juggling her new freelance career, and she tried to be at home or at a McDonald’s with free WiFi during her scheduled Zoom classes. One afternoon, with class meeting scheduled, she found herself on a reservation road far from internet.

“I pulled over on the side of the road and got on using my phone. But there’s not really good service here and it kept dropping me out,” she says. “I was freaking out.” When she reached reliable internet she messaged the instructor, who understood.

When the Spring semester ended, Chischilly took the summer off and got an internship at the Navajo Times in Window Rock., Ariz. She continued to freelance through the summer. Caught up in freelancing, working and helping her family in Manuelito (her father lost his job during the pandemic), Chischilly missed the deadline to apply to renew her tribal scholarship. Because she had to pay for school on her own, she chose to go part-time for the Fall semester and juggled only two courses — journalism and photojournalism — while continuing to work. She maintained her spot in the dormitory at Lobo Rainforest and bounced back and forth between Albuquerque and the reservation so she could attend her photojournalism course, a hybrid in-person/online model.

With a limit on six students and everyone in face masks or face shields, “It was really strange,” she says. But it allowed for something approaching a normal course.

As the Fall semester neared finals, Chischilly was offered a full-time job at the Navajo Times.

Pre-pandemic, she would have had to choose between a job in her chosen profession or finishing her degree. With the pandemic continuing unabated and UNM’s Spring 2021 semester online, Chischilly could have both.

“It’s complicated,” she says. “If this pandemic wasn’t happening, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Eva Chi, a professor and Regents’ Lecturer in the Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering, had the summer to consider how to reimagine a chemical engineering laboratory course for seniors. Labs are normally bustling places that rely on human connections to puzzle through problems.

“We started to talk in earnest about how we have to do things differently in that class because the way we had done it before was just not going to work — with the restrictions from the University and also just for the safety and well-being of our students and us,” Chi says.

The mission was how to minimize contact and exposure to COVID-19 but also provide a good learning experience. Chi had never taught online, but members of her instructional team had experience with online learning.

“We changed everything,” she says.

Rather than choose a textbook experiment for the course’s main objective of teaching chemical distillation, Chi took a page from breweries and distilleries, who were using their knowledge of distillation to rush much-needed hand sanitizer into the community.

When the class convened online, the syllabus was all about safety and creativity — learning about the chemical distillation process, talking to local brewers about their techniques and then designing a lab experiment that would ideally result in hand sanitizer that could be distributed to a community of need identified by each student team.

“I suppose we could have done it the way we did before, but we thought, ‘This is a great opportunity for us to make a change,’” she says. “It was the spirit of what can we do for our community and how can we make this relevant. It was the spirit of — hey, we are problem solvers.”

Chi felt the coursework tapped into the goals of chemical engineering majors — to improve the environment and health of communities.

Rather than have each of the 70 students perform two experiments during the semester, the lab component was pared to just one experiment. Some international students had returned to their home countries over the summer and not returned. Other students had health conditions that made interaction in a lab unsafe. So Chi divided the class into four-person teams and had the teams choose only two members to come to the lab to perform the experiment. 

Photo of Eva Chi

Experimenting with Science

We changed everything.

– Eva Chi

Students watched a series of videos to understand the lab process rather than watching an experiment in person before they designed and conducted their experiment. Chi visited the lab twice and saw students in person, but the rest of the course was completely virtual and asynchronistic, meaning the students could access the lessons whenever they wanted within a week.

“It’s been a really hard transition for lots of reasons,” Chi says. “How do you build a community when you don’t see each other?”

Chi required more video reports than written reports, she said, so students had to show up in front of their camera and speak to someone. Instead of messaging her feedback, she also recorded videos so students could see and hear her.

Toward the end of the semester, Chi also reimagined the curriculum to focus on the daunting tasks ahead for seniors graduating during the economic and social disruption of a pandemic — applying to grad school or finding a job. She reached out to alumni and friends and invited them to present video seminars about their jobs or graduate programs.

Chi intends to take some of those new practices forward, even it is safe to return to in-person class.

“I don’t think we’ll go back to how it was,” she says.

Colman Sandler, one of Chi’s students, visited Broken Trail Spirits and Brew, a craft distillery and brewery in Albuquerque that early on in the pandemic distilled ethanol to formulate hand sanitizer, which it offered for free.

He learned about the chemistry of their distilling process and he and his teammates decided to start with a solution based on vodka — 40 percent alcohol — to get to the end product of a hand sanitizer that was 80 percent to 85 percent. Team member Alycia Galindo worked out the calculations that would tell the distillation column what to do during the experiment.

Galindo, who was taking six classes during the semester, also found an extra push to perform because the class project was relevant.


Locked Down Senior Year

It was actually really motivating.

– Alycia Galindo

Photo of Alycia Galindo
Photo of Alycia Galindo in a Laboratory

Locked away in a room of her family home in Albuquerque to study without distractions during the online semester, Galindo was excited to work on something relevant and useful and also to have the opportunity to design her own distillation process rather than rely on an experiment from a book.

“It was actually really motivating,” says Galindo, 21. “We were actually doing something that could help the community during the pandemic and it was really exciting to go into the lab

and actually see what we designed from scratch come to life.”

The lab day was challenging, as Sandler and Galindo had only a few hours to familiarize themselves with the complicated distillation column — a tall glass cylinder that separates water and alcohol according to predetermined calculations to arrive at a desired solution.

Holing up with his roommates and attending his classes online, Sandler found the lab one was one of the bright spots in a dreary semester.

“I was definitely more motivated for the lab than I was for my other classes,” Sandler says.

Sandler also appreciated the professional development portion of the course, as he struggles with whether to choose graduate school or industry when he graduates — most likely via Zoom — later this year.

Galindo, motivated by what looks like a bleak job market, is applying to PhD programs for next year. And she found her six-course semester in lockdown was a success.

“It was a lot to handle, but personally I kind of enjoyed it,” Galindo says. “I couldn’t go out with friends, so all I could do was school work. When people ask someday, ‘What did you during the pandemic?’ I’ll say I sat there and I learned!”

Cultivating Cultural Intelligence in AI

Cultivating Cultural Intelligence in AI

Photo of Davar Ardalan standing in front of a mural

Photo: IVOW AI

UNM alumna Davar Ardalan’s company IVOW AI aims to put cultural literacy in artificial intelligence.

By Steve Neumann

One of the most frequently used clichés in popular science fiction is robots endowed with artificial intelligence becoming self-aware and destroying humanity. And while some engineering companies like Boston Dynamics have managed fairly astonishing physical feats, like robots dancing to “Do You Love Me?”, the actual AI component of this promising technology is still unacceptably unaware of the diversity of human heritage and tradition. It’s culturally illiterate.

That’s because artificial intelligence is derived from data that’s already out there in the public sphere, and that data is mostly based on Western European heritage rather than the diversity of communities that actually exists in the world. To make up for this deficiency, Davar Ardalan (’93 BA) created IVOW AI, a multidisciplinary team of women technologists and storytellers whose mission is to enhance consumer engagement through the unique lens of culture and artificial intelligence.

UNM Alum Davar Ardalan

Davar Ardalan (’93 BA)
Photo: IVOW AI

Ardalan graduated from UNM with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communications and went on to become an author, journalist and, now, a tech entrepreneur. Prior to starting IVOW — which stands for Intelligent Voices of Wisdom — she was a veteran journalist at NPR News for 2o years.

Ardalan — whose maiden name is Bakhtiar — chose UNM because the institution was somewhat of a family affair: at the time Ardalan enrolled, nine members of her large Iranian-American family were getting either their bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degrees at UNM.

“It was really cool,” Ardalan said, “because there was a whole Bakhtiar clan that would meet at the Student Union Building every day for lunch.”

Ardalan’s journalism journey began when she saw an ad for a work-study job at KUNM, an NPR affiliate on the UNM campus. That experience, combined with her coursework in journalism and communications with the late professor Charles Coats and current professor Miguel Gandert, laid the foundation for everything Ardalan has done since.

“Charles Coats was incredibly strict on journalistic ethics, but also on building a beautiful story,” Ardalan said. “And Miguel, with his background in photography, became a creative influence in the work I ended up doing around culture.”

Photo of smart devices and speakers
Davar Ardalan in Washington DC

Photo: IVOW AI

Ardalan and her company have created Sina, a digital voice assistant like Siri and Alexa, that is conversant in cultures outside the Western European tradition

One of the projects Ardalan’s IVOW has been working on is the Indigenous Knowledge Graph, which her team presented at the AI for Good summit in June 2020, and again at the Online News Association annual conference this past October.

“We created the Indigenous Knowledge Graph because even a simple recipe that has been passed down through generations represents a collection of components like ingredients, instructions, techniques, tools and occasions that the food is eaten at,” Ardalan said.

Because AI starts from zero knowledge about the world, the Indigenous Knowledge Graph helps it understand, for example, how significant corn is to the Navajo tradition. It does this by breaking down the recipe into its component parts, each of which becomes a piece of metadata that you can tag and allow a machine that knows nothing about corn or beans in the Navajo context to understand that.

Thus the foundation is laid for a culturally aware intelligent agent.

Most of us are already familiar with intelligent agents like Siri and Alexa, but IVOW has created Sina (pronounced SEE-na), which combines the power of AI with ancient storytelling wisdom to create an interactive user experience that is culturally specific, narrative rich and customizable for a global appeal.

“The point is to show that we can make our Siris and Alexas more personalized, and for them to understand heritage and tradition in a more profound way,” Ardalan said. “Sina will be attached to a culture graph, just as Siri and Alexa are attached to a knowledge graph.”

Despite the global COVID-19 pandemic this past year, Ardalan’s IVOW has been moving steadily along. In November, Ardalan pitched Sina’s capabilities at WaiACCELERATE, the first ethical leadership and business acceleration program for women innovators in the field of artificial intelligence, data science and machine learning, hosted by Women in AI (WAI).

The nine-month program was the brainchild of WAI’s Ambassador to the Netherlands, Eve Logunova, who was impressed by Ardalan’s work on Sina.

“The first thing you notice when you open Davar’s LinkedIn profile is her previous experience before she started building her company,” Logunova said. “She comes with knowledge, experience, understanding and commitment to bring change.”

“So she doesn’t just say, ‘Let me build something and see what happens.’ She spends time to really figure out every minor thing in the whole development of the solution.”

What Ardalan has been building is her response to a call from an open letter penned in 2015 by Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and a group of experts in the field of artificial intelligence regarding the “research priorities of a robust and beneficial AI.” The signatories noted that it is important to research how to reap the benefits of AI while avoiding its pitfalls.

“If we continue the way we’re going right now,” Ardalan said, “we’ll just be creating products and solutions that aren’t going to necessarily be useful, or might even be detrimental to different communities. With more representative data, we know that brands, advertisers and researchers in all industries can have a deeper understanding of global audiences and make better informed decisions. So we’re pausing and looking at cultural intelligence in AI.”

Selling a World

Selling a World

UNM alum Steven Maes

Alumnus Steven Maes (’00 BUS) created iconic graphics for ‘Breaking Bad’ — and many more movies and TV shows

By Leslie Linthicum

Growing up in the copper mining towns of Ely, Nev., and Silver City, N.M., Steven Maes (’00 BUS) loved to go to the movies and to play around with an 8-millimeter handheld movie camera his family owned.

But Maes’s first love was music. He played piano, sax and guitar, and at Silver City High School he fronted the rock band Private Session.

“I was going to be a rock star,” Maes says with a smile today.

He gave it a good shot. In fact, Maes immersed himself so much in the local music scene when he enrolled at UNM that his grades suffered and he was placed on academic probation and left college.

Maes worked in recording studios and played in bands — Split Image and Audio Drain — in Los Angeles and around the Southwest.

Sadly for Maes — but luckily for movie lovers — he realized that his dreams of making it big in rock would have to remain dreams. At 27, married and with a baby on the way, he went back to UNM.

He had an interest in film and art and he had worked at a graphic design house before his return to UNM, so Maes designed a major in University Studies that incorporated art, media and film.

After graduation, there was the question of what to do with that degree.

old southwest motel film set
Blue Mesa Bus graphic design
Maes went to work at a graphic design firm and launched a magazine about the local music scene.

He wanted to work in film, but didn’t know if he should pursue videography or screenwriting.

“I’ve always loved film,” Maes says. “As I got to experiment more with different types of film, I loved being able to capture a story. I thought capturing your own story and being able to tell it and show it was visually was amazing.”

Maes’s sister, JoAnna Maes-Corlew (’96 BFA), had gone to work in Los Angeles as a website designer for Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment, and returned to Albuquerque to take a graphic design job on a television show filming in New Mexico. “Wildfire,” which ran for four seasons on ABC Family, was the first big series in New Mexico’s nascent film industry.

She heard about a new film coming to Albuquerque — “The Flock,” starring Claire Danes and Richard Gere — and suggested Maes apply for a graphic design position on the production.

He got the job.

“It was pretty incredible,” Maes says. “It was my first feature film, and it was pretty big, and it was an opportunity to see how the film business actually works.”

Interview with Steven Maes: Director, Art Director, and GFX Designer.

Los Pollos Hermanos Logo

A career in pictures

Let’s fast forward our story of Maes’s life 20 years — to the present.

Maes now has an IMDb entry that scrolls on for screens, with art department credits for 46 films and TV series.

It reads like a list of just about everything made in New Mexico since the film and TV industry blew up in Albuquerque and Santa Fe just around the time Maes was graduating from UNM.

“In the Valley of Elah.” “Sunshine Cleaning.” “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” “The Ridiculous 6.” “In Plain Sight.” “Longmire.” “Roswell.”

And, of course, “Breaking Bad.”

The art director on a film or television show is responsible for every space the viewer sees: the buildings, interiors and props. Graphic designers, part of the art team, design every unique item that isn’t a ready-made prop — the cover of a book, the sign on the tavern, a painting hanging on a living room wall.

“It’s different from commercial graphic design in the sense that if you’re doing graphic design for a marketing firm, you’re trying to make the best possible graphic that tells a story or sells a product,” Maes says.

“In film it’s about selling a world. You’re trying to sell an environment. You’re not trying to design beautiful graphic design. You’re trying to design graphics that will sell the reality of a real world.”

Maes has worked as a graphic designer, assistant art director and art director, a more managerial role.

Big Break

Maes, on some rare time off from his current gig, assistant art director on “Outer Range,” an Amazon drama series being filmed at I-25 Studios and on location in New Mexico, is happy to reminisce about the images he is most associated with — those iconic touchstones that were part of “Breaking Bad.”

He was lead graphic designer on the first three seasons of the show that drew a fanatic following and put Albuquerque on the map.

“I designed all of the graphics for the first three seasons of ‘Breaking Bad,’” Maes says, taking care to clarify that the show’s title logo — the periodic table with the two big Bs — was the work of show’s creator Vince Gilligan.

Maes’s contribution to the iconography was lawyer Saul Goodman’s logo (“In legal trouble? Better Call Saul!”) and Goodman’s sleazy strip mall office; Shraederbrau beer, the homebrew of Walter White’s brother-in-law Hank; the A-1 Car Wash, where White and his wife, Skylar, laundered their meth money; and the sign and graphics for Los Pollos Hermanos, the chicken restaurant run as a front for drug kingpin Gus Fring.

A local illustrator came up with the two chicken characters for Los Pollos Hermanos and Maes and partner Robb Wilson King worked with them to devise a logo.

“We went through so many really funny versions of the logo,” Maes remembers. “We had the characters inside a frying pan at one point.

And then we had them in a lowrider, which was kind of cool. And

then we settled on them in the mariachi outfits.”

Los Pollos Hermanos, like so many visuals in the series, draws tourists to Albuquerque for “Breaking Bad” tours and is reproduced on collectibles.

“It’s amazing to see where all of these things have gone. They’re iconic now,” Maes says. While he’s tired of seeing his work copied on everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs to tennis shoes (and, for the record, he gets no licensing fees from any merchandise), he is grateful to have worked on a hit show in which graphic design played such a big role.

“I feel super fortunate to have been a part of that,” Maes says, “just because you never know where these things are going to go.”

Before “Breaking Bad,” Maes already had an enthusiastic cult following for the prop objects he created for the SyFy Channel mini-series “The Lost Room,” another filmed-in-New Mexico hit. The series centers on Room 10 of the Sunshine Motel, where objects — a key, an ashtray, a bus ticket and many more — hold certain powers.

“The show clicked with people and ended up becoming a cult favorite and it spawned all of these fan clubs for the objects,” Maes says. 

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Family business

Maes’s sister JoAnna, who now lives in Bernalillo, has her own successful career in TV and film. She has done graphic design on a number of New Mexico productions, including “Godless,” “Manhattan,” “Longmire,” “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.” Her husband Rob Corlew has worked as a production coordinator on “In Plain Sight,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “No Country for Old Men,” and other productions.

Maes’s older daughter Kayleigh (’19 BA) graduated from UNM with a film degree, is working as a photographer and already has her own IMDb entry. She had small roles in the TV series “Roswell” and in the mini-series “Godless.”

And younger daughter Ashleigh, a senior in high school, has acted in the TV movie “Beyond the Blackboard” and the USA Network series “Dig.”

For an aspiring rock star, Maes’s career in film and TV and the ability to live and work in Albuquerque has been an unexpected surprise.

“The ability to be here and work on really cool big things, is such a bonus,” Maes says. “I couldn’t ask for anything else. I never imagined it,” Maes says.

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