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UC professor snags $1M INSPIRE grant from National Science Foundation

Ali Minai, a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Cincinnati, recently was awarded the Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education (or the INSPIRE award) for his project, “The Hunting of the Spark: A Systematic Study of Natural Creativity in Human Networks.” 

INSPIRE grants, from the National Science Foundation, target complicated and important scientific problems in interdisciplinary studies. 

Before coming to UC, Minai received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in Pakistan; he then came to the United States in 1985 to study for his master’s and PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Virginia. After completing his post-doctoral work in neuroscience at the University of Virginia, Minai landed his first teaching job in 1993 at the University of Cincinnati. 

Q: What interests you the most about the work you do? What got you started in this line of research? 
A: My initial interest was in artificial intelligence because I have always been fascinated by how brains work. My PhD is in electrical engineering, but my dissertation focused on brain-inspired systems called neural networks that can learn from data. 

Since then, my research area has broadened to the field of complex systems, which are systems where a large number of entities (cells, computers, people, organizations, etc.) interact, which results in the self-organized emergence of structures and processes. 

Examples of such systems include living organisms, brains, societies, economies, markets, ecosystems and social networks. 

Scientists have gradually realized that the same basic principles underlie all such systems, which is why we can study them using the same mathematical and computational methods. 

My research in particular focuses on biological and human systems, although I have also worked on some others. In the last several years, most of my work has been on systems that underlie cognitive processes.

Q: What does the INSPIRE award mean to you? 
A: Above all, it is an opportunity to do very exciting research. It is an honor that is both gratifying and humbling. I think it is also an indication that the scientific community considers the research we do at UC valuable. I am very grateful for all the support I have received at UC over the years, which has enabled me to pursue my research interests, leading to successes such as this.

Q: What kind of research are you currently working on? 
A: “I am currently working on several research projects, including: 1) Understanding the brain mechanisms that underlie thought and action; 2) Understanding the cognitive and social factors that underlie creativity in individuals and groups, including social networks; 3) Understanding the co-evolution of ideas and communities in human networks; and 4) Analyzing large bodies of text (online news, blogs, etc.) to extract latent ideas, sentiments, opinions and biases.

Q: What does your research involve? 
A: The projects involve building computational models of various regions of the brain, simulating multi-agent computational models of human communities, mining and analyzing large amounts of data from the Internet and developing new analytical algorithms. 

To do this, my students and myself have to read and synthesize research papers from engineering, computer science, psychology, neuroscience, systems biology, sociology, information science and a variety of other disciplines. Above all, our work is highly interdisciplinary.

Q: Have you been granted any other awards like INSPIRE? 
A: Before the INSPIRE grant, I received several other research grants from different sources. Since 2007, my collaborators and I have received two grants from the National Science Foundation to work on models of creativity. However, the work we propose to do for the INSPIRE grant will be at a whole new level.

Q: Is your research team strictly from UC?
A: The INSPIRE award involves researchers from four institutions. UC is the lead institution, so I am the principal investigator for the overall project. 

Very important parts of the work will be done by my collaborators: professors Paul Paulus and Jared Kenworthy, both at the University of Texas at Arlington; Prof. Alex Doboli at the State University of New York-Stony Brook; and Prof. Simona Doboli at Hofstra University. 

All of us have collaborated on previous projects in this field of study, and I think the strength of our collaborative record was a critical factor in receiving the INSPIRE grant. Doctors Alex Doboli and Simona Diboli received their PhDs at UC, so UC is a big part of the team. 

By Caitlin Koenig
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