Humans of Alberta Innovation: Dr. Christian Jacob

Take a look at the people behind the research, product, company or groundbreaking discovery. The ASTech Foundation’s Humans of Alberta Innovation campaign shows a new side to Alberta’s fascinating innovation community — the human one.

Dr. Christian Jacob is the director of the LINDSAY Virtual Human Project, which won the 2015 Innovation in Information and Communications Technology Award. The LINDSAY team uses virtual imaging technologies to help teach human anatomy in new and exciting ways.

I’m Not a Typical Computer Scientist 

Growing up, I wanted to become a Latin teacher. I liked Latin as a very algorithmic language, almost mathematical.

I moved to Calgary in two stages. In 1996, I was looking for someone working in plant simulation because I did my PhD in plant growth programs. We would see how a tree grows, or how the petals fall off flowers and then combine it with an evolutionary program. I connected with a graphics prof at the University of Calgary and that brought me here as a post doctoral fellow. Then, the computer science department had openings which brought me to U of C in 1999 as an assistant professor. I was just going to try it out for two or three years to see how I liked it. I really liked the university and the colleagues; it was a young department and I found some good research projects. That’s why I stayed and why I’m still here.

I’m not a typical computer scientist; I’ve always looked at the computer as a think tool and nothing more. I was first interested in biology because of the brain. I did my diploma thesis on building artificial neural networks. I wanted to know how neurons work, how the brain works and how much of this can be transferred to computers as think tools, to help classify patterns and understand speech.

Eventually I got into simulating immune systems. Suddenly I was inside the body and looking at physiology and how the immune system reacts to viruses and bacteria. Then an offer came to start this LINDSAY Virtual Human Project which led me to work with medical students and researchers.

I’m a very graphical person: I must see and illustrate things. The constant development of technology has always fueled my interest in computer science. It went from different user interfaces where there’s just a mouse and a keyboard to touch screens and portable iPads that could react to my input.

When we ventured into 3D, we could put these augmented reality glasses on. Now we can literally enter digital worlds; and bring virtual worlds, that are trapped behind the screen, into the real world and combine them. All this technology innovation helped create the things I only imagined we could do a few years earlier.

With the LINDSAY Virtual Human Project, there’s always an opportunity to build the next prototype. Suddenly I had a project that was integrated into a medical school, and I had to really pay attention to the details regarding medical education, human physiology and anatomy. It’s still being used to train medical students at U of C, which is really cool. I also get to work with a lot of awesome people from other disciplines outside of computer science, including medical educators, physiologists, medical doctors, physicians and the artists and designers who make the program look good. That’s changed my life as a scientist, being on that inter-disciplinary side of computer science.

The Giant Walkthrough Brain added to that. Jay Ingram is a fabulous science communicator and working with him was a great experience. I had to rethink how to present content from a stage, not for an expert audience. Now we had to consider music, stage lighting, a script and we had to set up this giant walkthrough brain with hallways and signs, like a movie set. As a scientist, that was very exciting because I learned how to sell my science. We explained to people how the human brain works and then we told stories through the computer tool. This has changed my perspective on how to sell and promote science.

I’m excited to venture even more into story telling, especially around the human body; people learn well through stories. Now computer games are the vehicles to create engaging stories. In the end, I hope I can keep inspiring students.

Introducing Humans of Alberta Innovation

Take a look at the people behind the research, product, company or groundbreaking discovery. The ASTech Foundation’s Humans of Alberta Innovation campaign shows a new side to Alberta’s fascinating innovation community — the human one.

For the next eight weeks we will post a story about from our ASTech Award Winners and Finalists. Students, professionals or anyone looking to become inspired by the people behind the work can check out Humans of Alberta Innovation each Wednesday.

This week, meet Glen Kathler.Glen Kathler

The 2015 Winner of the Innovation in Agriculture Science Award, sponsored by Dow AgroSciences Canada, tells the story of of his childhood fascination with taking apart and rebuilding electronics and how it led to him innovating Radio Frequency Identification in the Alberta cattle industry through his role as SAIT’s RFID research lead.

I’m not afraid to go where there are no footprints.

My glass is always pretty much half full. In my line of work, it’s always like, “Okay, it’s not that I can’t do what you’ve asked me to do, but I just haven’t quite figured out how.” I am always looking for a solution to a problem. I’m not afraid to go where there are no footprints. It’s definitely not a very linear path to success. I’ve always been a pretty good listener, so when someone describes a problem they’re having, I’m not in a rush to tell them, “this is what you have to do.” It’s more of a “here are some of the solutions we should look at.” Sometimes, there literally are no footprints. One of my jobs as a young technical fellow was to drive the snowcat up the mountain in the winter to do repairs at radio sites. Most of the time, you could not actually see where you were going; it was foggy, snowy, maybe a blizzard, but you still had to get there.

From the time I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I’ve always been fascinated by the opportunity of solving problems with technology. I was probably seven or eight years old. My dad was a radio and television repairman in his spare time, so there were always things for us to take apart. There was no shortage of large electronic equipment that he wanted for spare parts, and he said, “I’ll pay you to take them all apart”. I realized as I started taking them all apart that I knew how they went together. Suddenly, it was like, “I could actually build something!” By the time I was eight or nine, I had built an AM radio – which may sound kind of antiquated – and an actual burglar alarm out of spare parts. I scared the daylights out of my mom with the alarm, because it was designed to prevent anybody from coming into my bedroom unannounced, and it just so happened that she was the first.

I also liked anything related to antennas. I climbed up on top of the garage and built an antenna, because my little AM radio didn’t have quite the range that I wanted. My parents gave me that creative license and said, “well, he hasn’t broken too much, he hasn’t hurt any of his brothers or sisters, so let’s just keep letting him play with this stuff.”

I did not grow up on a farm but I lived in small farming communities in southern Manitoba. I have a love for the outdoors, so when the opportunity to work in agriculture came along, something immediately resonated. I am passionate about technology, and through certain opportunities, I’ve gained a passion for Alberta agriculture. Right now, I’m working on tracking animals and locating and identifying them by using drone and RFID technology.

I love being paid to do my hobby. I have a business card from around 1983; it said: “The Innovators.” Innovation for me is a way of life and I’m very passionate about the research.