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SJU senior working on new way to detect breast cancer

Tom VanDenEinde has always looked at computers and what they are capable of with a sense of awe.

“Even back in high school when I knew hardly anything about them, I was fascinated,” said VanDenEinde, a graduate of St. Cloud Cathedral High School who will begin his senior year at Saint John’s University this fall. “It seemed so incredible that this magical box of silicone and metal could do everything that it did. I wanted to find out more about how they worked.”

That curiosity led VanDenEinde to become a computer science major at SJU, paired with a minor in physics.

“I like solving problems and computer science and physics are areas where you have a chance to do a lot of that,” he said. “I enjoy a challenge.”

This summer, VanDenEinde is putting his problem-solving skills to work on a project that could provide valuable assistance in the fight against cancer.

He and fellow Johnnie Sam Edwards are working on a summer research project utilizing the ever-expanding capabilities of AI to produce a model that can be used in breast cancer detection.

“I’m building a convolutional neural network to detect breast cancer,” he said. “What we hope to achieve is a finished model that we could hand off to doctors. They could then feed into that model an image and they’ll be able to very quickly get a yes or no answer as far as if various tumors are cancerous or not.

“It would be something that could hopefully identify cancer even more accurately than the doctors themselves in some cases.”

That’s the goal, but getting there entails pouring through a lot of information and requires a great deal of data analysis.

“I’m doing a lot of researching,” he said. “A lot of trying to combine a whole bunch of different concepts together. With how big a lot of these neural networks are now, there are a lot of different tools that are being developed. I’m comparing what’s out there and trying to find the best stuff for our cause.

“It’s a lot of comparing numbers, trying new things and seeing what works best with what we have.”

It’s also a chance to apply skills he’s been learning in the classroom to a cause that could have huge benefits to society.

 “It feels like I’m building something real,” he said. “It’s gratifying to use a lot of the math skills and a lot of the knowledge I’ve picked up in classes. Convolution is a very important mathematical concept and it’s something I first learned about in physics.

“It’s really cool to get this kind of a real-world experience. It’s something I can put on a resume. I feel like it’s a huge door for me to go through in terms of future jobs.”

Karyl Daughters, the Dean of Curriculum and Assessment at CSB and SJU, said those benefits are what make summer research projects so valuable.

“We know from research that engaged students have better, more satisfying undergraduate experiences,” Daughters said. “Summer undergraduate research is a high-impact form of engagement.

“Summer undergraduate research is a cornerstone opportunity for our students,” she continued. “It is a transformative experience during which students forge mentoring relationships with faculty on meaningful projects that help them develop problem solving skills, technical proficiency and intellectual curiosity.  

“Summer undergraduate research transforms students from learners into creators, contributing to insights and knowledge about the world.”

The faculty advisor on VanDenEinde’s project is Vijay Srinivas Tida, an assistant professor of computer science at CSB and SJU. He had VanDenEinde in class and thought he’d be a perfect fit.

“Thomas is very active and wants to know more about the concepts covered in class,” Tida said. “He and Samuel Edwards attended the voluntary classes (I) conducted related to Artificial Intelligence. Their interests led me to consider them as the potential students for this research project.”

VanDenEinde said building such relationships with faculty is part of what makes CSB and SJU so special.

“The relationship between students and faculty is really important here,” he said. “There’s a lot of smaller class sizes, especially compared to other colleges, which I think is actually big thing. “It’s really cool to build these connections with your professors. It helps students engage and get opportunities like the one I have now.”

That opportunity could end up saving lives – a fact not lost on VanDenEinde as he goes about his work.

“I don’t have a lot of experience with breast cancer,” he said. “I’m pretty blessed that I don’t have any relatives who have had to suffer through it. But I do know that’s not the case for everyone, and it can be a really scary, scary thing. Being able to possibly alleviate that in the future would be huge.”