1/2009

Excellence through internationalization

Professor of Signal Processing Jaakko Astola heads Finland's leading group in signal processing and digital systems. The keys to success at the National Centre of Excellence in Research are combining new visions with strong theoretical foundations and understanding the needs of practical implementations.

Professor Jaakko Astola

"On a personal level, the development of new
methods and seeing a new theory or its
application work is fulfilling," says Professor
Jaakko Astola.

In the last 15 years signal processing has experienced rapid development on all levels - in the theory of audio, video and multimedia as well as on the conceptual and application levels.

What was earlier viewed as digital signal processing, now forms only a small part of the new concept of signal processing that might be more adequately described as the methods of analyzing, manipulating and presenting natural information.

Technologies emerging from this research are vastly increasing the capabilities of people to interact with the surrounding world in a multimodal way.

"We have been building the theoretical foundation for this for a long time. We are gaining a better and better understanding of sound, for example," explains Professor of Signal Processing Jaakko Astola, who heads the Signal Processing Algorithm Group SPAG at Tampere University of Technology.

He points out that despite many notable advances, a lot of work still lies ahead in developing techniques that enable interaction in a way most natural for a human. For example, even though multimedia already seems to be an outdated term, it is only now that we start seeing video in a genuinely wide range of applications, including mobile.

Another important research area in signal processing is biological systems. Applications include the study of complex biological phenomena, the analysis of genomic data and the processing and analysis of biological and medical images.

Combining visions with theory and practise

Astola began his career close to four decades ago by studying error coding. He notes that the principle essence of data error correcting code has changed very little.

"There were fewer applications in the early 1970s of course. By the end of the decade it was even believed that error correction would become totally unnecessary due to the increased capacity introduced by satellite technology. But as we know, then the need arose again!"

Since appointment as Professor of Signal Processing at TUT in 1993, his research has focused in areas like image processing, median filters, compression and statistical methods. Alongside administrative duties as head of research group and whole department, Astola has written a considerable number of textbooks and scientific publications and supervised the writing of dozens of doctoral theses.

The Signal Processing Algorithm Group SPAG has in some form held the status of a national centre of excellence in research from the early 1990s. The first appointment was given by the Ministry of Education in 1992. In the first centre of excellence programme run by the Academy of Finland in 1995-2000, the status was given to the Digital Media Institute, with SPAG at its core. In programme periods 2000-2005 and 2006-2011 the status was again given to SPAG.

In SPAG itself the key to success is defined as combining new visions with strong theoretical foundations and understanding the needs of practical implementations.

WHO: Professor Jaakko Astola

  • MSc in mathematics in 1973, Licentiate of Philosophy in 1975 and PhD in 1978 at the University of Turku
  • Professor of Signal Processing at Tampere University of Technology from 1993
  • Head of Signal Processing Algorithm Group SPAG, a National Centre of Excellence in Research appointed by the Academy of Finland until 2011
  • Several hundred scientific publications and articles, supervisor of close to 40 doctoral theses
  • Academy Professor, the Academy of Finland, 2001-2006
  • Fellowships in IEEE and SPIE
  • Four children and three grandchildren
  • Lives in an old farmhouse in Kangasala next to Tampere, hobbies include billiards and horse riding

"I think internationalization too has played a pivotal role. Activity in that field was started by my predecessor, Professor Yrjö Neuvo who later became Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Nokia. Internationalization set off with an international Master's Programme in 1989 and a few years later we established the Tampere International Centre for Signal Processing to facilitate high-level researcher exchange," Astola explains.

"We have had many talented people from abroad working or studying here over the years, and luckily many have decided to stay permanently. The result is that today TUT's Department of Signal Processing alone represents close to half of international activity in the field of computer sciences in Finnish universities. We have people from some 40 countries working here."

Fulfillment from seeing a new theory work

As the head of a large, international research group, Astola can't shy away from administrative tasks.

"You often hear people complain about too much administrative work but the fact is that this kind of machinery wouldn't work without it. I still manage to be involved in the work of some research groups and even do some research myself," Astola says.

"On a personal level, the development of new methods and seeing a new theory or its application work is fulfilling. It is also highly rewarding to put together a good presentation of one's ideas and results. Unfortunately, in today's copy-paste era, you perhaps see fewer excellent papers than some decades ago when you had to formulate your thoughts quite thoroughly before typing them on paper."

"I see many of my doctoral students more as colleagues than students. Olli Yli-Harja was my first doctoral student and later I have supervised the dissertations of Pauli Kuosmanen and Karen Eguiazarian, for example. Being an advisor for doctoral dissertations is most rewarding when it is integrated into the everyday research work and you are in continuous contact with the student."

Astola celebrated his 60th birthday in early May but he says there is no need to start planning retirement anytime soon.

"Many colleagues have worked vigorously well into their 70s."

 

Text: Katja Ayres
Photo: Petri Laitinen

 

 

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