Faculty of Engineering


Computing technologies and data science for better health and wellbeing

In this issue of “Tell Us Teacher” we spoke with Junior Associate Professor Liang Zilu of the Faculty of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical and Electrical Systems Engineering. Dr. Zilu told us all about her research on wearable computing and information processing technologies that will help to make people healthier and smarter.

Q:When did you realize you were interested in science?

It happened when I was in the first year of middle school. My parents bought me lots of kid-friendly science books and I had my own library at home. In my first summer vacation in middle school, I happened to read a series of books on the history of science and technology. Those books were quite different from the ones that we used at school. In those books, I read about the stories—or the “behind the scenes” tales—of various scientific discoveries. What impressed me was that many wrong theories were proposed and rejected before scientists finally arrived at the theories or equations that we learn about at school. The “boring” theories and equations that I had to memorize at school suddenly became alive and beautiful to me, once I was able to link them with the “aha” moments that I read in my books. Apart from these books, a TV science program called “Beakman’s World” was also a major inspiration for me. I even tried to replicate some experiments that I watched on the program. In my second year in middle school, I invested all my pocket money in a “Newton’s Box” which allowed me to perform about 100 physics experiments at home. I remember having lots of fun with that.

Q:Was that what motivated you to eventually study engineering when you entered university?

Yes, that’s right. Another thing that triggered my desire to study science is that my parents studied literature. My father liked to read books about science and technology, but he couldn’t understand the technical details, so he wanted me to be able to understand those things. My father always told me that it is cool for girls to excel in science or engineering.

Q:What did you major in during your undergraduate studies?

I belonged to the school of automation. At the time, this kind of technology had just emerged, so it was a new school in my engineering faculty. I belonged to the department of measurement and control. We took courses on mathematics, physics, computer science, and very specific courses like control theory and electronic measurement.

Q:I heard you changed your specialty during your Ph.D. What were you studying initially?

I was researching road traffic management. and my work focused on the prediction and prevention of traffic congestion. I am very lucky because the skills I gained from my study of the field, like data analysis, programming, as well as skills like how to research and design studies, were transferrable to my new discipline.

Q:When did you start studying your current field?

My research path is a bit unusual, as I switched to a totally different field after I obtained my Ph.D. This happened around the end of 2014. I had just finished my Ph.D. thesis defense. At that time, Fitbit and Apple Watch had just appeared on the consumer market as fashion accessories, and smartphones were getting thinner and faster. One day, I went to the Lawson near Yasuda Kodo on the Hongo campus of the University of Tokyo to get my afternoon coffee. I saw a WIRED magazine on the bookshelf while waiting for my coffee. That whole issue was about the Quantified Self, a cultural phenomenon of self-tracking with technologies for the purpose of gaining knowledge about oneself. Realizing that I actually had been a “Self Quantifier” for years without knowing having a name for the concept, and I couldn’t resist delving deeper into it. Through a Google search I came to know that the Quantified Self had triggered an interdisciplinary research boom to develop hardware and software tools that help people collect and analyze personally relevant information, and a new research field called “Personal Informatics” was emerging. After reading through all the papers I could find on the topic, I crafted a research proposal and submitted it to the Australian Government’s Endeavor Fellowship. Half a year later, I started my first research project on personal informatics at Melbourne University. In that project, I developed a cloud-based sleep analysis web app that integrates data from different consumer wearables and analyzes the relationships between lifestyle and sleep quality. During the past five years, I have developed various algorithms and systems that help people to gain insights from their health data. My research tools include not only smartwatches and fitness trackers but also embedded sensors (for measuring blood glucose) and wearable brain imaging devices (for measuring brain activity). Looking back, what I learned from my unusual research path is that life is full of serendipity.

Q:What areas of Personal Informatics would like to emphasize in your research moving forward?

Personal informatics can be applied to many contexts, such as health, education, smart cities, smart homes, and governance. I was especially attracted to personal informatics related to health for a very personal reason: my father passed away from cancer many years ago. He was only given 3 months to live when he was diagnosed. The doctors said that his cancer had probably started 10 years before. It shocked me to learn how long he had been sick before doctors had diagnosed it. I wondered if it would be possible to detect diseases at earlier stages. Or, would it even be possible to predict the onset of disease? Traditional diagnosis methods seem like they can not provide solutions to these questions, and many clinical diagnosis methods are resource-intensive: they rely on expensive equipment and trained experts that are only available in hospitals.

Ubiquitous sensors such as smartwatches, wireless earbuds, and smartphones hold great promise for simpler disease diagnosis systems that can be used by everyone at home. There are many challenges though, like how to design an intuitive user interface that not only experts but also laymen can easily use, or how to develop reliable algorithms that produce accurate results for most people, or how to raise people’s awareness of personal health and help them improve their health literacy, etc. Addressing these challenges requires contributions from various research fields, such as information science, computer science, electrical engineering, cognitive science, physiology, psychology, and public health. In my current projects, we are developing ubiquitous systems for diagnosing sleep problems, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes. I am looking forward to inviting highly motivated students to participate in these exciting research projects.

Q:In the future, how would you like to contribute to society through your research?

I want to disseminate my research findings in academic journals and at conferences. The personal informatics tools (i.e., web apps, smartphone apps) that my lab will develop in our research projects will be made available online or in app stores free of charge. Everyone will be welcome to use these tools as deemed appropriate. I also want to organize personal informatics workshops and symposiums for the community.

Q:What made you decide to come to Kyoto?

I’d say that the main reason I came to Kyoto is to work for KUAS; I was fascinated by the idea of establishing a brand-new Engineering Faculty with an innovative educational paradigm and philosophy.

Q:You have been very aggressive in encouraging your students to apply to international contests such as the IEEE TALE*, but what is your motivation for doing this?

I guess it has to do with my philosophy of education. The traditional education paradigm considers students as passive knowledge receptacles or consumers. But we should not forget that students can also be creators of knowledge. Students have the potential to create new knowledge on their own through self-directed exploration. As for the KUAS team who won the student research competition at the IEEE TALE conference, they are very talented and active students, and I could see the potential in their project. I think they are capable of creating new knowledge, and it’s worthwhile for them to distribute that knowledge to a wider audience at outside events. Another benefit of participating in events like this is that they can receive feedback from experts in different fields. It was a good opportunity for them to meet different kinds of people and to hear different opinions. I want my students to have that kind of opportunity from an early age.

* IEEE International Conference on Teaching, Assessment, and Learning for Engineering

Q:What message would you like to convey to women who want to become scientists in the future? In KUAS, we want to welcome more women to study in the STEM fields, and I would like to hear what advice you have for them.

My advice would be to break out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself. For example. I understand many students are not willing to try new things, such as learning a foreign language, joining a sports club, or going abroad, because they are afraid of making mistakes or they fear failure. I think they should not worry about failure, because they are young. I want students to enjoy exploring various disciplines and treat life as an adventure, as my parents encouraged me to do.

Q:You speak and write Japanese quite well. Where did you learn?

I believe reading is one of the best ways to learn a foreign language. When I was a university student, I read lots of books in Japanese for fun, like literature books and popular science books. By the way, there are two books I want to recommend to students: Shikou No Seirigaku by Toyama Shigehiko and Nou ga Saeru 15 no Syuukan by Tsukiyama Takashi. I also regularly skim through magazines like Toyo Keizai, Newsweek Japan, Tarzan, and less regularly, some fashion magazines that girls like. I used to read lots of books in English and Spanish as well, but now I don’t have enough time.

Learn more about Dr. Zilu Liang