Developing security technology

Jody O'Sullivan focuses his research on scientific and engineering questions that could impact homeland safety

During the Vietnam War era, when Jody O’Sullivan was in grade school at Our Lady of Lourdes on Forsyth Boulevard and Asbury Avenue in University City, he walked through back yards on Wydown Boulevard onto Forsyth and then to the school each day.

Jody O'Sullivan with grade-schoolers
Jody O’Sullivan, Ph.D., professor of electrical engineering and of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science and assosciate professor of radiology in the School of Medicine, illustrates electricity and mangetism to rapt students at Our Lady of Lourdes School in University City during Science Day at the school. – Photo by David Kilper

Today, as a professor of electrical engineering, when he walks from his University City Northmoor Drive home to his Jolley Hall office, much of his trip is exactly the same as his childhood one — only in reverse.

At first glance, this might imply that O’Sullivan, Ph.D., hasn’t really gone anywhere. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The reputation of O’Sullivan — who also is a professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science and an associate professor of radiology in the School of Medicine — is international. He’s known for constantly exploring, researching, achieving and serving the University and his profession in diverse ways.

In his 17-year career at the University, O’Sullivan has taught a wide arc of courses, graduate and undergraduate, offered by his department.

In 1998, he became director of the Electronics Signals and Systems Research Laboratory, an academic research laboratory. It pursues complementary educational and research activities and occupies the entire fourth floor of Jolley Hall.

In 2002, he was appointed associate director of the Center for Security Technologies (CST), which features nearly 40 interdisciplinary collaborators who address the fundamental scientific and engineering questions that arise in the design of advanced security systems. The goal of the center is technology development to defend against an array of threats that could impact homeland security.

Also in 2002, O’Sullivan was elected chair of the Faculty Senate and the Faculty Senate Council for the academic year 2002-03. O’Sullivan served as council secretary from 1995-98.

The council brings together 15 representatives from the University’s eight schools. It serves as liaison between the administration and the faculty on a broad range of issues touching virtually all aspects of campus life.

Within this frantic framework, O’Sullivan advises eight graduate students and teaches regularly. How does he manage to juggle such a hectic schedule?

“My interests are very broad, and they continue to get broader,” O’Sullivan said. “I have wonderful collaborators and students that make work enjoyable. Nearly every year I like to learn a new area and get involved in it.”

His research interests include information theory; imaging science, including biomedical imaging; object recognition; security technologies; and magnetic information systems. Much of his work is founded on mathematics, a discipline he has loved and excelled in since childhood.

O’Sullivan, along with colleague Donald L. Snyder, Ph.D., the Samuel C. Sachs Professor of Electrical Engineering, and G. James Blaine III, D.Sc., professor of radiology, as well as others in the School of Medicine, is trying to improve the accuracy of X-ray computed tomographic (CT) imaging by reducing false features, known as artifacts, in CT images. Recently, the researchers have begun working with colleagues in radiology to extend these techniques to scanners that compute both positron emission tomography (PET) images and CT images.

With colleague Ronald S. Indeck, Ph.D., the Das Family Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering, O’Sullivan is working on design and analysis of error-correction coding techniques for future high-density data-storage systems.

The O'Sullivan family
Jody O’Sullivan and his family: (from left) wife, Christina; and sons Joseph, Anthony, George, Andrew and Michael. – Courtesy photo

One research project began with speculative thinking during late nights and led to his making a fundamental discovery in an emerging field known as data hiding. O’Sullivan and a former graduate student, Pierre Moulin, D.Sc., now associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Illinois, made an advance in the understanding of how much information can be hidden in a data-hiding system.

A kind of encryption, data hiding can be used by a terrorist to secretly communicate with operatives by embedding data in images in ways that are undetectable by the naked eye. Digital watermarks can be inserted into photographs, other images or videos to protect intellectual property.

For example, Disney has information hidden in every frame of every movie it makes.

“I started working on this problem for fun,” O’Sullivan said. “It has led to some great recognition for Pierre, who became a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) in part because of his contributions to this field.”

O’Sullivan also is an IEEE fellow and was awarded the institute’s Third Millennium Medal in 2000.

One of his key research areas is automatic target recognition (ATR), technology being honed at the CST and funded by the Office of Naval Research. Various aircraft — from helicopters to fighter jets to drones — use the technology to spot tanks, troops, vehicles or missiles in uncertain visual environments.

O’Sullivan has nearly two decades of experience in imaging science, radar and ATR, among other areas. His skills are in modeling the physics of scenes and sensors and then deriving algorithms — mathematical programs — based on these models.

He and his research group implement these algorithms in software and use it to predict their performance. Similar theory and underlying techniques form part of the basis for research in bio-metrics recognition (including fingerprint and face recognition) in the CST.

O’Sullivan is interested in designing systems that can dynamically reconfigure to use available resources, a distinct difference from most ATR systems.

For example, he works on designs that are capable of updating their knowledge by computing on the fly. Most ATR systems now take an input, process it and give an answer in a certain amount of time, say, 60 seconds. The time component always stays the same, and the algorithm cannot compute longer or shorter than that.

O’Sullivan’s approach, on the other hand, would allow the system to make a decision taking longer (two minutes), which has the potential to make the decision more reliable because of increased computations. It would also allow the system to take a shorter amount of time, say 25 seconds, to identify a target.

His approach includes a framework for predicting how the performance of the system varies as the amount of time allotted for recognition varies.

“No ATR technology can be 100 percent accurate,” O’Sullivan said. “We think our approach can produce more reliable estimates. We know the military is interested. They see our approach as a good way to think of adapting systems in the future.”

Jody O’Sullivan, Ph.D.Education: B.S. 1982; M.S. 1984; Ph.D. 1986; all in electrical engineering from the University of Notre DameFamily: Wife, Christina; sons Joseph, 9; Andrew, 7; George, 5; Anthony, 3; and Michael, 1.Hobbies: Playing competitive basketball; involvement with his sons’ sports; attending St. Louis Rams gamesO’Sullivan’s father, Daniel F. O’Sullivan, M.D., is a surgeon practicing at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Louis. His uncle George O’Sullivan had a small electronics company in New Jersey and served as his first influence in engineering.

As a student at the University of Notre Dame, O’Sullivan considered following his father into the medical profession by earning a medical doctorate after a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.

“I realized that my interest in math and engineering far outweighed my interest in biology,” he said. “At Notre Dame, I took as many math courses as I could fit into my electrical engineering curriculum.”

O’Sullivan chose Washington University in 1986 over offers from McDonnell Douglas and Bell Laboratories.

“It has been my privilege to work with Jody O’Sullivan since he first joined Washington University,” Snyder said. “He always brings fresh ideas to solving hard problems, and they are brought with enthusiasm and vigor regardless of whether they are technical problems or they are nontechnical ones of general concern to WUSTL faculty campuswide.

“His students become part of his family as he guides them through their research and personal development. Jody is a great asset not only for our department but also for the University broadly.”

O’Sullivan said, “I recognized the opportunity at Washington University immediately. The people at Washington University are great — in our department, in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, and in the University as a whole.

“I look forward to many more years of working with all these great people on a wide range of exciting topics.”

In addition to keeping up with his five sons’ athletic contests, O’Sullivan is an avid sports enthusiast who holds season tickets to St. Louis Rams games and plays basketball in a Missouri Athletic Club league year-round. He has a standing pick-up game at the club every Friday at 6:30 a.m.

O’Sullivan has earned many plaudits and honors for his research over the span of his career, but not all of his awards are academic. A small spot on his windowsill is reserved for the 1992 Air Jordan Award, a trophy given to him by the WUSTL chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.

“I got hot in a tournament game, hitting something like eight baskets, and they probably figured they’d better give it to the old man,” he said, smiling.