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Alex Mariakakis
Alex Mariakakis at the University of Washington. (Photo courtesy of Alex Mariakakis)

Growing up in Chapel Hill, N.C., Alex Mariakakis got his first taste of research in a region known for its exceptional universities. Oh, and he fell for basketball, too, of course.

Mariakakis had acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) when he was a little kid, but he credits proximity to amazing doctors with helping get cancer free by the time he was 5 years old. He credits his mom, who went to Duke University and was a big basketball fan, with steering him toward the Blue Devils rather than the Tar Heels and the University of North Carolina where his dad went.

Mariakakis — our latest Geek of the Week — is now a Husky, as a fifth year PhD student at the University of Washington working under Dr. Shwetak Patel in the Allen School’s UbiComp Lab. Patel’s UW spinout Senosis Health was acquired by Google this summer.

It’s a path Mariakakis chose after getting bachelor’s degrees in electrical/computer engineering and computer science at Duke.

“I worked with Dr. Romit Roy Choudhury and Dr. He Wang on enabling indoor localization with smartphones,” Mariakakis said of his time at Duke. “That experience got me really excited about the fact that smartphones have sensors that can be repurposed for all sorts of different applications.”

Outside of the lab, Mariakakis, who is Greek-American but wasn’t raised speaking Greek, has started using Duolingo to pick up the language.

“I do Greek folk-dancing if I’ve had enough to drink,” he said. “I’m also a Southerner at heart. I love fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, and real sweet tea (not the stuff they serve in the PNW). I also have an absurd collection of cheap sunglasses that’s almost reached 35 pairs at this point. Orange, purple, color-changing, faux-wood, bottle-opening; you name it, I probably have a pair.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Alex Mariakakis:

What do you do, and why do you do it? “My research involves taking medical observations that are normally subjective and making them objective using smartphone sensors. Two projects I’m working on right now use computer vision and machine learning with the smartphone’s camera to examine symptoms in a person’s eye better than the average person could. The goal of BiliScreen is to quantify the extent of jaundice (yellowing of the sclera, or whites of the eyes). Jaundice can indicate a number of medical conditions, but we are particularly excited about BiliScreen’s potential as a screening test for pancreatic cancer. PupilScreen is our version of an objective penlight test that we’re hoping volunteer parents and nurses can use to screen for concussions on the sidelines of youth and high school football games. Some of my work is also part of Senosis Health, a recent spinout from our research lab at the University of Washington.”

“There are so many reasons why I work at the intersection of health and technology. I like to work on projects that can be explained at a high level for a curious parent or student or at a deeper level for a senior faculty member. I like working on projects that I hope will have a lasting impact on society rather than just sit as a document on a website. And sometimes, I just like to pretend to be a real doctor when I visit collaborators (I got to wear scrubs once!).”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “When most people think about computer science, they think about the traditional subfields like systems, architecture, and databases. Without the work they do, so many things wouldn’t be possible, but people should know there is so much more to computer science than just those areas. Within our own school, there’s ubiquitous computing, human-computer interaction, natural language processing, security, and so much more. And you don’t have to be a computer scientist to be involved in it. Computer science is showing up in biology, politics, and even the arts and design.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “I’m really fortunate to be at the University of Washington and in Seattle, both which have some of the best health and technology communities in the country. I don’t always need to find inspiration for new projects because there are more and more tech-savvy clinicians who see problems in their own jobs where computer science and engineering can make a difference. I feel like my job is to help them refine that vision and deal with all of the nasty research problems along the way.”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “Easily my laptop. Work and entertainment all-in-one.”

Alex Mariakakis' work space
Alex Mariakakis’ work space. (Photo courtesy of Alex Mariakakis)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “I work in a lab with other grad students who do similar work as me. My desk is tucked away so that nobody can see my screens. It’s not that I’m doing anything sketchy on my computer. I just enjoy watching live streams and sporting events on one of my monitors while I work on the other. To some people, it looks like I’m not working at all, and sometimes, they’re right!”

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “I work on multiple projects at the same time. If I’m really stuck on a particular project, I can just take a break from it and work on another one. That way, I don’t feel like I’m stuck. It also helps that my projects have lots of overlap right now (involve eyes, computer vision, and deep learning). I definitely wouldn’t recommend multiple projects for everyone though.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “Windows desktop, Mac laptop, and remoting into Linux machines for all of the important work.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Professor Oak.”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Time machine. (1) I’ve done many stupid things in my life, so it would be really nice to go back in time and fix some of those. (2) With the time machine, I could go anywhere for as long as I want, then go back in time to where I started. I get to keep my memories of going to the place without losing any time.”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Hire developers to speed up the development of my projects so we can get them out to the public sooner.”

I once waited in line for … “It’s a rite of passage to line up for Duke men’s basketball games. For a Duke-UNC game, lining up entails sharing a tent with friends for a month or two. I also remember we slept on the sidewalk for a game against Maryland, only to discover that it snowed overnight. Needless to say, we didn’t make full use of the housing portion of our tuition.”

Your role models: “My dad. He’s probably the most warm-hearted man you could meet. He’s extremely organized and tidy. He’s also generous and unselfish to a fault sometimes, which I like to think runs in the family.

“Also, Dr. Michael Gustafson. Everyone who goes through undergrad engineering at Duke University knows who he is, and I’ve never heard anyone ever say a negative word about him. If I end up in academia (fingers crossed), I aspire to be at least half as well-liked and caring as him.”

Greatest game in history: “‘League of Legends.’ I play at least one game every day. Sure, there are days where the game pisses me off, but it’s an escape from whatever else is on my mind for at least 20 minutes.”

Best gadget ever: “My keychain pocketknife. I always thought it would be badass to have one, and it’s only after you have one when you realize how useful it actually is.”

First computer: “Macintosh Classic.”

Current phone: “Samsung Galaxy S5, though I’m looking to upgrade pretty soon.”

Favorite app: “Coffee Meets Bagel. I’m single, ladies ;)”

Favorite cause: “I really enjoy being a part of STEM outreach events like the Allen School’s DawgBytes camps and UW’s Engineering Discovery Days. I totally understand that not everyone wants to be involved in STEM, but I think it’s important that students at least know what’s out there.”

Most important technology of 2016: “Microsoft’s HoloLens. There’s so much potential for augmented reality to help people, from displaying map directions directly on the road to helping people with Alzheimer’s with helpful reminders in real time.”

Most important technology of 2018: “Cheaper and more accessible 3D printing. I’m excited to see 3D printing get to the point where everyone has the ability download models of parts and gadgets that they need print them themselves.”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “‘If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present’ – Lao Tzu.”

Website: Alex Mariakakis

Twitter: @blackbelt812

LinkedIn: Alex Mariakakis

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