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Electronic Imaging & Signal Processing

Right Down His Alley

Edward Dougherty switches from professional bowling to pure mathematics and picks up SPIE's 2004 President's Award along the way.

From oemagazine September 2004
31 September 2004, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.5200409.0008

SPIE Fellow Edward Dougherty on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.

If Edward Dougherty had lived out his dream, the application of his math skills might not have gone beyond keeping score at the bowling alley. Without the candor of a coach that led to Dougherty's pursuit of mathematics and science as a career, many important scientific works might never have been published.

Dougherty is the author or co-author of 12 books and hundreds of technical papers. He has chaired 25 conferences for SPIE, taught numerous short courses, and has been so integral to the Society that he is the recipient of the 2004 President's Award.

After finishing his PhD in pure mathematics at Rutgers (New Brunswick, NJ) in 1974, Dougherty took a teaching position at Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY). "I thought my research days were over before they really began," Dougherty says. After several years he was offered the opportunity to retrain in computer science, and his interests were stimulated by artificial intelligence and imaging.

"I read Georges Matheron's seminal work, Random Sets and Integral Geometry, recognized the great potential of the nonlinear methods of morphological image processing, and settled there," he says.

In 1995 he was asked to work with the National Human Genome Research Institute (Bethesda, MD) by its scientific director, Jeff Trent, on the recommendation of a colleague from earlier collaborations in fluorescence imaging of cells. "I knew nothing about genomics, but he was very convincing," Dougherty says.

Today, Dougherty is director of the Genomic Signal Processing Laboratory at Texas A&M University (College Station, TX). The lab works on expression-based phenotype classification, construction and analysis of gene regulatory networks, and therapeutic strategies based on applying the principles of optimal control to regulatory networks.

With his roots in mathematics, Dougherty enjoys solving practical problems by applying math. "My basic job is to find a way to model a problem mathematically so that the mathematics leads to a solution sufficient for the task at hand," he says. His work in biology has led him to appreciate that the computation requirements in that field far outweigh those necessary in electrical engineering.

"The great impediment is to develop an educational structure that facilitates the mathematical development of biology," he says. Working for years with the same colleagues, they have developed a taxonomy that works for them, but "it would be more efficient if education, beginning early, integrated the two sides," he says.

Dougherty has a deep interest in philosophy, and he names Fyodor Dostoevsky as his favorite author. His favorite novels include Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, Herman Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, and Nikos Kazantzakis's Zorba the Greek. "A key experience of my life was studying the conflict between David Hume and Immanuel Kant when I was an undergraduate," Dougherty says. "Epistemology interests me very much. It has had an enormous impact in physics, but I believe it has not been taken sufficiently seriously in biology."

His friend and colleague Jaakko Astola (Tampere University of Technology; Tampere, Finland) says that the breadth of Dougherty's knowledge hones his problem-solving skills. "Often in our discussions, topics ranging from world history to problems in pure mathematics came up, [and] the actual image processing problem that we started to discuss ended up being much clearer and better structured," Astola says. He and Dougherty have co-chaired numerous conferences on nonlinear image processing for SPIE.

As an author, Dougherty brings his unique interests to bear on complex problems. His Random Processes for Image and Signal Processing (SPIE Press, 1999) is "the book he was meant to write," according to Eric Pepper, SPIE director of publications. "It's very clear and logical in how he ties it together. He's the best writer of any author I've worked with," Pepper says.

Dougherty names the same title as his favorite of the books he's written, which include an unpublished work on the relation between modern philosophy, science, and religion. Random Processes was intended to "provide a mathematically rigorous presentation without giving difficult proofs, so that one would not need to be a PhD-level mathematician to read it," Dougherty says. "Had I known how much effort it would take, I never would have done it." The book took 10 years to complete.

But his career could have taken quite a different path—or alley. Dougherty was a member of the Professional Bowlers Association while in graduate school. One day when he was at the top of his game, his coach took him aside. "After telling me how much I had achieved, he dropped a bomb by telling me I should give up on trying to make a career of bowling," he says. "'You just don't hit the pins hard enough,' he said. That was it. It took several months of sulking, but I realized he was right—so here I am."

Now he stays active by playing basketball, and at age 58 can still compete with the students at the Texas A&M gym. "The wind is fine, but the legs are not always there," he says. "I'm still fond of blocking shots." Basketball figures into his work too, as he says he can only work efficiently when he's physically active.

"My thesis adviser at Rutgers taught me that mathematical research is irrational and goes on in the subconscious," he says. "When I want to solve a problem, I lie back in a large reclining chair and allow myself to enter a meditative state. Lack of physical tension is critical."

Dougherty's family includes his wife, Terry, a Methodist minister, and his sons Russell, John, and Sean. They're not too far away—Russell just graduated from the University of Texas (Austin, TX), John is in graduate school in statistics at Texas A&M, and Sean is a junior in high school. Dougherty has a long history of coaching basketball and soccer. Today he and Terry travel and hike whenever they can, and the Scottish Highlands are a favorite destination.

Astola, who has known Dougherty since they met at SPIE's Annual Meeting in San Diego more than 15 years ago, says that collaborating between Finland and Texas has become easier via the Internet, but he still values their face-to-face time so that discussions can cover a wider range of topics.

"I admire his wide knowledge, and his ability to quickly see the essence of a problem," Astola says.