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New faculty: Maithilee Kunda explores the role of visual thinking in problem solving and learning

by Oct. 22, 2015, 8:48 AM

Maithilee Kunda, assistant professor of computer science and computer engineering (Fitrah Hamid/Georgia Tech)

Throughout history, many feats of creativity, scientific discovery and memory have been credited to visual thinking. Maithilee Kunda wants to understand how this kind of thinking works at a computational level.

She was inspired to study visual thinking after reading the autobiography Thinking in Pictures by best-selling author and professor Temple Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism as a child and writes about being a strongly visual thinker. “Visual thinking gave her advantages in some areas and disadvantages in others,” Kunda said. “I wondered, ‘What’s the computational story here?’”

Kunda, a research scientist in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, will join the Vanderbilt School of Engineering’s computer science faculty as an assistant professor in January 2016 and will continue to design a family of computational models to better understand what role visual mental representations—mental images—play in learning and problem solving.

“A lot of my work to date has looked at visual thinking on cognitive assessments: If two people are solving problems on an intelligence test in completely different ways but still getting to the same solution, are there ways that we could measure that and model what’s going on in their heads?” asked Kunda, who earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her Ph.D. in computer science from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“There’s evidence that at least some people diagnosed with autism, like Temple Grandin, show an unusual propensity toward visual thinking. One goal of my research is to find ways to identify these individuals and model their cognitive differences using techniques from artificial intelligence. Another goal is to develop new interactive technologies that might provide better options for education and communication for these individuals.”

A Chattanooga, Tennessee, native and the daughter of two physicians, Kunda was attracted to Vanderbilt because of its strong interdisciplinary culture. “Up and down the entire university, everyone I met talked about it, and I saw so many exciting examples of interdisciplinary collaboration. I’m especially looking forward to research opportunities with colleagues in the Vanderbilt Vision Research Center and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center,” she said.

A self-described geek, Kunda spends her free time reading, watching Star Trek and playing Dungeons and Dragons. “My main D&D character right now is a grouchy, geriatric dwarven fighter with a 22 strength who fights with a pickaxe. He’s not very subtle in his methods,” she said.

She also enjoys the occasional bout of “cosplay,” or attending sci-fi/fantasy conventions in costume.  Recently, she dressed up as the Black Knight from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

“I actually did a crossover costume one day by combining the Black Knight with Uhura from Star Trek, and it ended up being a surprising hit at the convention,” she said. “I had my red Star Trek uniform, and I taped Uhura’s green hoop earrings to the outside of my Black Knight helmet.”

On Star Trek, Uhura was part of a crew that explored the frontiers of space to boldly go where no one has gone before, an apt model for a computer scientist whose research probes the unexplored frontiers of the human mind.

View the complete list of new university faculty for 2015-16.

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