Q&A with Stephen Baek

Stephen Baek is an assistant professor in industrial and systems engineering, a researcher at the Center for Computer-Aided Design, and a member of the Public Digital Arts Cluster Faculty. He joined the College of Engineering in 2015. We caught up with Dr. Baek to learn more about him and his research.

Q: What do you do at the University?
A: I direct a research group called the Visual Intelligence Laboratory. The keywords that define us are computational geometry, computer vision, and deep learning. We are interested in the shapes of all kinds of objects and how the shape variations are related to other scientific quantities of interest. For example, we are working with the Department of Radiation Oncology to discover and quantify which geometric patterns of tumors are relevant to cancer treatment outcome. We also study how people's physical appearances affect economic outcomes (e.g., income) quantitatively, and we recently received grants from the U.S. Air Force to study the relationship between the microstructural geometry of crystals and their mechanical characteristics. These are seemingly unrelated topics of research, but, at the core, they share the fundamental mathematical research problem of (1) how to represent/quantify shapes; (2) how to measure shape similarity; and (3) how to characterize trends of shape variations. To do this, we apply mathematical principles from differential geometry, algebraic topology, and manifold theory and build practical formulae and scalable algorithms for processing videos, three-dimensional scans, computer graphics models, LiDAR images, medical images, microscopic images, etc.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work?
A: I get to collaborate with many people across disciplines and, through that, I keep learning new things outside my boundaries. The very nature of my mathematical shape analysis research makes it easily generalizable and applicable to different areas in different disciplines. Basically, you get to play in everyone's backyard.

Q: Which achievements are you most proud of?
A: My daughter.

Q: What are your goals for the future?
A: My career goal is to build machines that can perceive and recognize geometric patterns better than humans such that they become new "lenses" for scientific discovery.

Q: What do you like best about Iowa City?
A: Having lived in big cities for most of my life, I find Iowa City very interesting, in the sense that it's a small campus town, but it's filled with lots of people, cultures, places to visit, things to do, etc. The cost of living and safety are other things I feel fortunate about. It's also a great place to start a family.

Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: I play tennis quite a lot these days, but I'm a huge, huge baseball fan. I played first baseman and pitcher when I was in grad school. I played in the 2012 SNU League All-Stars at Seoul National University.

For more information about Dr. Baek and his research, please visit the following websites: