“When you think of medical studies, you do not typically associate computer science; however, with computer science being pervasive in all facets of modern life, software development, algorithms and data analytics are omnipresent in any serious research study,” says Sebastian van Delden, chair of the College’s computer science department. “We partner with the Medical University of South Carolina in a few such capacities, with Dr. Munsell bringing computer vision and image processing algorithms to the table in order to process and analyze medical images and data. This meritorious work has a direct impact on people’s lives and the betterment of society.”
A software engineer by trade and an electrical engineer by education (he holds undergraduate and master’s degrees in electrical engineering), Munsell spent several years in the private sector, following a five-year stint in the Navy, creating software for defense contractor Lockheed Martin and later Charleston-based Scientific Research Corporation. Using computer vision technology, he created Mission Impossible-esque software to help suss out images and patterns from surveillance video, photos and data for intelligence agencies and various branches of the military. His skills were so sharp, the CIA once offered him a job.
Obviously, Munsell knows how to create algorithms that can visualize things, so it was only natural that he would channel those skills into finding a way to help Maddy and others with similar neurological conditions.
Munsell’s wife, Melissa, says being a mad scientist holed up with a computer is just who he is. Maddy’s condition simply added an intensity and deeper purpose to his work.
“I definitely think with Madelyn, it has made him more focused and maybe given him a little more drive to go after what he wants, but with the goal of relating it to what he thinks would be helpful to others,” she says. “He wants to be able to help others any way he can, whether that’s helping better understand the disorder Maddy has, or helping those in the autism community and finding solutions for them.”
She adds, “I think when you have a child with special needs, you’re really more aware of others with special needs and what needs to be done to help those kids.”
And in the three years since launching the lab, Munsell, in partnership with researchers from universities across the country and around the world, has developed ground-breaking computational models for brain imaging that have the potential to change the way we diagnose and understand conditions such as autism, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease.
In 2016, he traveled to Greece with researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the School of Software at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, for the Medical Image Computing and Computer Assisted Intervention Society’s annual conference. The group presented data on a new imaging technique that better maps connectivity between gray and white matter regions of the brain, a tool that could help diagnose such conditions as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease or autism. In 2017, Munsell’s work, as part of the Infant Brain Imaging Study, a consortium of eight universities across the United States and Canada, was published in the journal Nature. That research, which made international news, focused on a computational model that can detect subtle abnormal brain overgrowth patterns in infants. In a study of more than 400 MRI scans, the technique correctly predicted the diagnosis of autism in infants with such overgrowth patterns with 94 percent accuracy.
And while much of his work has been funded by the College, Munsell and a group of researchers led by Professor Jane Joseph at MUSC recently received a grant from the Department of Defense to study connectome (map of neural connections) biomarkers for predicting Alzheimer’s disease in traumatic brain injury patients. He’s also on another team led by Dr. Leonardo Bonilha at MUSC that is seeking additional grant funding for epilepsy research from the National Institutes of Health.
This torrent of potentially life-changing research has done something else, too. It’s opened doors for computer science students at the College to have a front-row seat to this cutting-edge work. Matt Adamson ’18 and Eric Hofesmann ’17 have both worked alongside Munsell in the Machine Learning Lab after taking his course in data structures and algorithms.
Adamson, who majored in computer science, has spent the last two years working with Munsell to refine machine learning algorithms that can predict cognitive ability in children using brain scans. It’s an opportunity that he never thought he would get as an undergraduate student.
“I always thought that machine learning was kind of a black box – something that only Ph.D.’s could do,” he says. “Dr. Munsell showed me that someone as young as a sophomore can use machine learning to make valuable predictions in the medical field.”
Hofesmann’s research with Munsell on using brain connectivity patterns as a neurological fingerprint took the “Best of the Best” award at the School of Sciences and Mathematics Undergraduate Research Poster Session in 2017. The experience, says the physics and computer science double major, inspired him to pursue his doctorate in computer vision at the University of Michigan, where he is currently a research engineer.
“Working on that research project with Dr. Munsell was by far the most important thing I got out of my undergraduate experience,” says Hofesmann, noting that he’d never even heard the term “machine learning” before he started working with Munsell. “Once you actually dig into those types of complex problems, you learn way more than just memorizing something for class.”
The experience for students is invaluable, says van Delden.
“In his lab, Dr. Munsell and his students work side by side to understand and implement complex algorithms,” says the computer science department head. “This is technical work that involves a lot of student mentorship on Dr. Munsell’s part so that they can contribute to the project. His efforts have a big impact on our students.”
IRON WILL | Maddy Munsell giggles with delight as her father slowly pushes her wheelchair along the winding asphalt of the James Island Expressway. A mess of blond, curly hair bounces on top of the child’s head as she reaches out a small hand, fingers wiggling, trying to reach the brown-and-white dog that’s trotting by with another runner during the Charleston James Island Connector Run.
“She loves it,” says Munsell of his youngest daughter’s delight of racing with her dad.
The visible pleasure of the 5-year-old girl dances across Munsell’s tired heart as he makes his way to the other side of the bridge, feet clomping as he steers Maddy up the span. He knows she’s one in a million. And that’s why he decided to start running four years ago.
“I basically said to myself, ‘What am I sitting here doing?’” reflects Munsell. “She wasn’t walking, and I just felt like I had to do something. I’m doing it because she can’t, and in a much larger picture for those of us who are healthy, we should thank our lucky stars. And, we should get out there and be active for the people who aren’t so fortunate.”
His epiphany came on the eve of Maddy’s first birthday as he and his wife confirmed that their little girl had AHC. Faced with an uncertain future for his daughter, Munsell needed to do something for Maddy, for himself. So, he decided to run. And swim. And bike.
In 2014, the computer science professor, who admits he was more than a little overweight at 260 pounds, partnered with Chris Bailey ’12 (M.S., M.P.A. ’15), associate director of strategic initiatives and communications for the Honors College and a coach with the endurance fitness company Without Limits, and Catherine Hollister with Blue Sky Endurance, to begin the slow, grinding process of training for a triathlon. It would take two years of grueling workouts before he would be ready to tackle his first half-ironman event.
“A half-ironman event requires a high level of commitment,” says Bailey.
“I’m always impressed with his ability to keep up with seven to eight hours of training a week while balancing his career, his family and all he does to give back to our community.”
Since then, Munsell has gotten involved with Racers for Pacers, an organization that raises funds to provide running chairs for children with disabilities to participate in races. And, when his oldest daughter, 10-year-old Abbylee, wanted to start doing triathlons, the father-daughter team joined Palmetto Tribe, a triathlon training program for youth.
At each race or triathlon, the proud dad, who often holds fundraisers for AHC research before these events, wears what he calls his “uniform,” a trisuit that says “One Mission END AHC,” an outfit he’ll don this summer when he takes on a half-ironman in Santa Rosa, Calif.
“We have an incredible supportive running and triathlon community,” says Hollister, “through fun runs and raffle tickets together we’ve raised hundreds of dollars to support the One Mission END AHC campaign.”
Melissa Munsell says watching her husband find meaningful ways of bonding with his daughters amid the sometimes crushing weight of Maddy’s AHC diagnosis has been inspirational. “It got him way more involved in the lives of the girls,” she says. “It kind of all fell together.”
These days Maddy can walk a little on her own with the help of a walker and ankle braces. She can say “Dada” and “bye-bye,” among a few other words. She struggles with a lot of limitations compared to other 5-year-olds, but that only makes Munsell work harder and race faster.
In March 2017, Munsell, Maddy and Abbylee, all participated in the Kiawah Island Triathlon event for children. As Abbylee competed alongside her sister, Munsell carried Maddy across the swimming pool, pushed her on a special bicycle he made for her and guided her as she crossed the finish line with a walker.
The trio finished the race exhausted, but happy. The scene was kind of a metaphor for the roller coaster ride of highs and lows that come with Maddy’s illness. With the bad, AHC has also brought threads of good.