When Michael Gehm, associate professor for electrical and computer engineering, starts listing his ongoing research projects, one can be forgiven for thinking they just tuned in to an episode of Star Trek: gigapixel cameras, spectrometers, millimeter waves scanning projects — it can all sound a little out-of-this-world.

Gehm focuses on what he calls computational sensing, which is looking at the physics and math of measurement systems, like cameras and airport security scanners, and how you design such a system to have the best performance. He recently stopped by the Duke in Washington office, and we took the opportunity to find out more about this expanding field of engineering.

DiW: How does your work as a computer engineer relate to policymakers in Washington right now?

Gehm: So the majority of my research are Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense based projects. This area of research is motivated by applications, in the sense that as engineers we are trying to find solutions to actual real-world problems or even problems that will be emerging in the future. And right now, the people who have the problems are in Washington because many of the pressing measurement challenges in the next decades will involve security-related issues.

DiW: We’ve seen you in and out of Duke in Washington a couple of times recently. What’s on your schedule during a typical visit to Washington?

Gehm: [Federal government] grant-recipients are summoned to Washington fairly frequently  to do various reviews. So many times it’s hard to schedule meetings with collaborators or potential collaborators — industrial partners, other universities — but we’re often always in Washington at the same time. And while we’re here, it’s a very natural time for us to start thinking about what’s the next problem, about what the next big challenges that we want to solve are going to be.

DiW: Why are industrial partners interested in working with academic faculty and researchers on solving these challenges and problems?

Gehm: There has been a recognition in the Homeland Security community that academia is leading the way in thinking about next generation approaches to sensing technology. Where industry has been more focused on where is the next product that we need to make and maybe more evolutionary rather than revolutionary steps that we need in certain types of sensing applications. So the Department of Homeland Security has been pushing these big academic ideas as things they want in their next generation of tools and instruments, so there has been an encouragement for industry to work with academics as they develop this new generation of products.

DiW: Is there anything that Duke does as an institution that makes these collaborations possible?

Gehm: There’s been a real strategic choice by the Dean of Engineering to hire both people who are good on the theory side [of computational sensing] and people that are more on the experimental side. Another thing that is really great is the strong collaborative nature  at Duke. For example, we have a strong partnership with statistics, which informs a lot of the math in our work — we also have partnerships with applied math faculty, and faculty across the university in a way you don’t necessarily see at other universities.