On Opportunity and Legacy

Summer 2012

Hynek Hermansky, PhD

Julian S. Smith Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering

At Johns Hopkins: Since 2008

Before Then: Directed research at the IDIAP Research Institute and taught at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

Now: Directs the Center for Language and Speech Processing and is known as an expert in bioinspired speech processing and for developing techniques, such as perceptual linear prediction and RASTA spectral filtering, used widely in research and industry applications worldwide.

The Legacy: Julian Sinclair Smith ’52, founder of the Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc.

On Being Chair Holder: “I am honored to be associated with the name of one of the most successful Baltimore engineer-entrepreneurs, whose interests were, just as mine,in human communications. There is also the honor imprinted on the Smith chair by its first holder, the late Frederick Jelinek, whose work laid the foundation for modern speech recognition and text translation. I remember seeing Fred’s obviously Czech surname on his seminal paper on stochastic speech recognition back in the 1970s in Czechoslovakia. Then I thought,‘Oh well, obviously, only in America.’ I am now holding the same endowed chair Fred did …Indeed, only in America!”

The Opportunity: “In spite of the recent flood of speech recognition applications, this technology is, in many respects, far from human capabilities. One suspects that some very fundamental problem remains. Just as Roman numerals make simple numerical manipulations very difficult, I feel that our understanding of the way the information is coded in speech is incomplete, and therefore decoding this information is very cumbersome.

When the human communication by speech is truly understood, our speech technology becomes much more efficient and elegant. I believe this is possible,but it can be achieved only through tight integration between human sciences and engineering.”

Greatest Professional Accomplishment: “To get in and to finish my high school in Czechoslovakia. In my home country at that time, children from so called ‘politically unreliable’ families-I was one of these-were not supposed to get higher education but were manipulated to become laborers,and I became an apprentice for repairing electrical appliances. So to ‘sneak’ into technical high school after three years of repairing electric plates and radios was quite likely my greatest professional accomplishment with huge implication for my further scientific career.”


Pablo A. Iglesias, PhD

Edward J. Schaefer Professor in Electrical Engineering

At Johns Hopkins: Since 1991

Before Then: Earned a doctorate in control engineering from University of Cambridge

Now: Directs the Cellular Signaling Control Laboratory

The Legacy: Edward J. Schaefer ’23, founder of the Franklin Electrical Company, oversaw the establishment of a separate engineering school at Johns Hopkins (now the Whiting School).

On Being Chair Holder: “For me, this chair is particularly special as its previous holder, Professor Emeritus Wilson J. Rugh, was influential in my decision to come to Johns Hopkins and he served as a mentor. I have big shoes to fill.” The Opportunity: Iglesias studies cell migration and is working to understand how cells sense and interpret cues, and then regulate their motility apparatus. His research also focuses on cell division and figuring out how cells place molecular components in the right place at the right time to divide.

Greatest Accomplishment: “Rather than a specific scientific breakthrough, I would say that my biggest accomplishment is the bridging of two quite separate scientific disciplines and cultures: control engineering and cell biology. The two are completely natural counterparts. Biology studies complex systems that are highly regulated, but it does so with somewhat blunt instruments. Control engineering evolved a set of (mostly mathematical) tools for understanding and eventually designing such systems. So it is natural to try to bridge the two systems, and I was certainly not the first. However, to make an impact requires that one be willing to spend the time understanding the biology, and few other researchers have been able to make this leap.”

Why Johns Hopkins? “Hopkins provides me with two essential things. First, I have fantastic scientific collaborators. My work depends on having experimental collaborators and I have found an excellent group of colleagues who have been patient and willing to work with me. Second, the atmosphere of interdisciplinary work here is fantastic. When, as an electrical engineer, I started getting interested in understanding biology, everyone was incredibly supportive.”


Natalia Trayanova, PhD

Murray B. Sachs Professor in Biomedical Engineering

At Johns Hopkins: Since 2006

Before Then: On faculty at Tulane University when devastation from Hurricane Katrina inspired her to look for other opportunities.

Now: Directs the Computational Cardiac Electrophysiology Laboratory and is recognized for groundbreaking work in development of computational tools and simulations that advance understanding and improve treatment of cardiac rhythm disorders.

The Legacy: Murray B. Sachs, founding director of the Whittaker Biomedical Engineering Institute at Johns Hopkins.

On Being Chair Holder: “Murray hired me. I have never known someone who inspired such trust and collectivity in a department department, or was so respected. So many people came together to honor Murray’s legacy and celebrate his scholarship and leadership, and to have had the opportunity to work in a department with him at the helm and now be the first Sachs Professor is an enormous and very special responsibility.”

The Opportunity: Trayanova’s research is dedicated to understanding the fundamental mechanisms that underlie rhythm disorders in the heart, and developing prevention and treatment strategies. Her lab’s aim is to develop computational tools and simulations to advance the understanding of the mechanisms that underlie rhythm disorders in the heart and figure out how to prevent and treat them. Ultimate Research Goal: “We want to take the cardiac simulations we use in basic science research and use them to improve patient care. For certain cases, we can simulate a heart arrhythmia in a patient and model different treatment options, and be able to predict which is best. Our aim is to develop what we know now into a tool physicians can use in the clinic.” Why Johns Hopkins? “I turned down chairs like this at two other institutions because I wanted to be here. The clinical collaboration in biomedical engineering and cardiology that is happening at Johns Hopkins is incredible.”