By Mallory Hughes
Ananya Sen Gupta is a big fan of the Midwest. She completed her PhD at the University of Illinois-Champaign Urbana and is a new faculty member at the University of Iowa as part of the Water Sustainability Initiative. When a friend relayed information about the available position at the University of Iowa, she said it was a “double-wow” because it was in the Midwest and because it pertained very closely to her field of signal processing, which is target toward environmental applications.
“I like the highly professional [work] environment,” Sen Gupta said. “Yet it is very personable, too. It’s very close-knit.”
She said she appreciates the top-notch academic staff at Iowa and the strong support infrastructure that allows for new faculty members to get involved quickly. While Sen Gupta’s core expertise at Iowa is signal processing and optimization, she is expanding her research interests into pattern recognition and informatics because they are closely related to her work, the contributions to those fields comes naturally. She has most recently been working on topography maps of hydrocarbon biomarkers in crude petroleum, with emphasis on oil fingerprinting in the Gulf of Mexico.
“The idea is to glean the part of the information that is important and see if we can meaningfully extract that information with signal processing techniques,” she explained. “That’s why the environment is both an inspiration and a real playing field.”
During her first few months at Iowa with the Water Sustainability Initiative, Sen Gupta has learned that several mathematics and theoretical foundations need to be developed to address the complicated challenges that the environment lends the world.
“Now, as a professional scientist, I’m working with field data. I now go in expecting things to not work,” she said. “Inevitably, something fundamental is being overlooked.”
When something so fundamental is overlooked, it is her job to develop a solution to that problem or a new way to approach it. She says a lot of things go in to solving an Iowa environmental problem, but fingerprinting contaminants goes a long way.
“Contaminants can happen because of air pollution or water pollution,” Sen Gupta said. “We have toxins and pathogens in groundwater and rain water.”
Even though Iowa is not close to the sea, fingerprinting can go a long way, she said. By fingerprinting contaminants, scientists can then see how different contaminants combine and travel together. Historically, she comes from a signal processing and undersea acoustics background, thanks to her postdoctoral years at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. So in the future, she is interested in studying sonar and radar data to see if scientists can understand and predict floods and precipitation better. She hopes to work with the Iowa flood center in the coming years. As an academic, she is delighted with the challenges her research gives her and said if there were not a challenge, she would not know where to go
“If research wasn’t challenging, it wouldn’t be research,” Sen Gupta said.