This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Mapping the human body

UB conference gathers leaders in "computational anatomy"

Published: April 7, 2005

Reporter Editor

Some of the leading figures at the forefront of the new field of "computational anatomy" will be at UB next week to attend a conference titled "Mapping the Human Body: Spatial Reasoning at the Interface Between Human Anatomy and Geographic Information Science," to be held April 16-17 in 280 Park Hall, North Campus.


The workshop is being presented by the UB site of the National Center for Geographic and Information and Analysis (NCGIA), an international leader in the field of qualitative spatial reasoning and spatial ontology. Copresenters are the Department of Philosophy and the newly established National Center for Ontological Research, which brings together individuals and groups from UB and Stanford University that are interested in cross-disciplinary ontology research.

Organizing the conference are Barry Smith, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Julian Park Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, College of Arts and Sciences, and David Mark, professor in the Department of Geography, CAS, and director of the UB site of NCGIA.

Smith is a pioneer in the field of applied ontology. His work addresses a major problem confronting information science today—it must employ a large number of modeling methods and conceptual categories that lack a unifying foundation. As a result, databases and terminological standards show a very low degree of compatibility and cannot be re-used, even for similar areas of application.

The goal of Smith's research is to develop a powerful general ontology—a semantically sound taxonomical and lexical framework—for overcoming such problems in reusability and coherence.

Smith, who also serves as director of the National Center for Ontological Research, notes that medical research is becoming increasingly transformed into biomedical research.

"But the vast amounts of data that have become available in the wake of the Human Genome Project also mean that biomedical research is itself increasingly become transformed into biomedical informatics," Smith says, noting that process is further illustrated by the establishment of the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences.

"How are we to organize and manage the newly available biomedical data in ways that also can be fruitful in leading to new clinical discoveries?" he asks. "One answer is in terms of spatial relations. Everything that takes place in the body takes place at some spatial location, but our understanding of the spatial structure of the human body is still in its infancy when measured against new developments at the interface of biology, medicine and computing.

"How do the biochemical processes in one part of the body relate to the symptoms of pain occurring in another part? How are we to understand the spatial relations between the human body and its external environment? What conditions must be met for an external object—for example a molecule in a drug or in a morsel of food—to become not merely spatially located in a cavity of the body, but also to be integrated in the body as a part?

"Human clinicians and biologists have intuitive ways of providing answers to such questions, but when the corresponding information needs to be communicated to computers, then formally precise theories of the underlying spatial relations are required," he points out. "The workshop (at UB) is designed to contribute to the development of such theories, from the side of both bio- and spatial informatics."

Attending the workshop will be some of the most prominent figures in the field, both nationally and internationally. Among them will be representatives from the Digital Anatomist Group in the Department of Biological Structure at the University of Washington, Seattle, which is considered to be the principal center of innovative research in spatial bioinformatics in the world, and the Institute for Formal Ontology and Medical Information Science in Saarbrücken, Germany. Also speaking will be Olivier Bodenreider, head of medical ontology research at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md.

Smith says the meeting's "star guest" will be Cornelius Rosse of the Department of Biological Structure at the University of Washington, "probably the world's leading anatomist and instigator of the Foundational Model of Anatomy, a highly elaborated computational representation of the human body that supports a wide variety of different types of spatial and biological reasoning."

Rosse and his research group are playing a central role in the Pentagon's Virtual Soldier Project, which is an attempt to map the health of soldiers in a digital form that can be stored inside soldiers' dogtags in order to speed medical treatment in the battlefield, Smith says, adding that work done at the workshop will feed into this project.

For more information about the workshop, go to http://ontology.