Alumna’s Research Uses Mathematics to Improve Facial Recognition Technology

November 12, 2012 at 9:36 am

Some say that mathematics is the basis for all things. At first, one would be inclined to disagree, even argue the point.  After all, how could that be true?

Upon closer study, however, the fact of the matter is mathematics does, indeed, lie at the heart of many things.

Perhaps that’s what piqued the interest of Nicole Tobias (Hodge) at an early age or maybe it was the idea that a problem’s solution could be found by more than one approach. Whatever the reason, this USC Upstate graduate discovered that her path has always been guided by what made sense to her.

“I have always enjoyed math and the sciences,” said Tobias. “It just seemed to make sense to me from an early age. I enjoyed problem solving and seeing how different approaches can lead to the same result.”

Her freshman year, Tobias decided to major in Secondary Education with a focus on mathematics. Her goal was to become a teacher. Shortly into her coursework, she recognized that she was actually limiting her possibilities with that decision.

“I realized that the opportunities for a degree in mathematics were far more numerous than those if I cornered myself in a degree that would basically only allow me to teach,” noted Tobias. “And at the end of the day, I’d rather have a lot of options as opposed to none.”

Once she made the switch in majors, Tobias found that, much to her surprise, she enjoyed the required programming/computer science courses affiliated with earning a degree in mathematics.

“I enjoyed them so much that I sat down and figured my schedule so I’d be able to not only get my Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics, but also a B.S. in Computer Science,” she said.

“Computer science is an extension of mathematics in many ways; constantly changing and updating. It allows itself to be interdisciplinary extremely well.”

So, in 2009, she graduated Cum Laude with a B.S. in Mathematics and in 2010, Cum Laude with a B.S. in Computer Science.

While graduate school wasn’t in her original post-undergraduate plans, Tobias stayed true to her desire to keep all options open and explored available opportunities. What she found was that her math and computer science degrees gave her an edge for getting into graduate school.

As doors opened, Tobias opted to enter the graduate program at Clemson University.

“Timing is everything,” acknowledged Tobias. “Clemson accepted me as a direct entry Ph.D. student since I had two B.S. degrees. My current plan has me finishing my Master’s this December and my Ph.D. in computer science in May 2015.”

At Clemson, she works as a graduate research assistant in the Biometrics and Pattern Recognition Lab (BPRL). Biometrics, as defined on the BPRL website, “refers to the study of methods to establish the identity of an individual based upon one or more intrinsic or behavioral traits. Of particular interest are iris recognition, facial recognition, and multimodal biometric systems for use in less constrained operating environments.”

What that means in layman’s terms is the BPRL is “dedicated to performing basic and applied research in Biometrics, Pattern Recognition, and Matching Learning. Its missions are to advance the field of biometrics, as well as promote its use as a means of establishing identity.”

While BPRL research is generally done on an individual basis, collaboration on other projects is a team effort in order to complete various tasks relative to grants held by the lab, many of which are related to national governmental agencies.

“My work is currently focused on soft biometrics in the presences of age,” noted Tobias. “Soft biometrics refers to the study similar to biometrics; however, it is not entirely concerned with establishing the identity of an individual. It is more concerned with establishing other information that may help us narrow down the search space when trying to establish the identity of an individual.”

According to Tobias, aging drastically changes the appearance of the human face, causing all sorts of problems with recognition.

“I am interested in finding models that would help reduce the inaccuracies in facial recognition and the sub-areas that are caused due to aging of the face,” she added.

Tobias attributes much of what she’s accomplished, thus far, to her start at USC Upstate.

“I really value the connections I made at Upstate,” she said. “The faculty got to know you and care about you. Many of them also became mentors to me, and I am very grateful for that. I definitely liked that I was a name and not just a number on a roster.”

At first glance, what Tobias saw was actually more than she could have imagined. Now, she’s helping redefine the image for others.

-Story by Meg Hunt