Rice CS faculty Unhelkar partners with the TMC for AI collaboration

Vaibhav Unhelkar’s TMC research project receives seed grant via Rice’s ENRICH program

Rice faculty member Vaibhav Unhelkar pictured on the Rice University campus

Vaibhav Unhelkar, assistant professor of computer science, is one of six Rice faculty members to receive seed grant funding for collaborative research projects with institutions in the Texas Medical Center (TMC). The seed grants were provided via programs facilitated by Rice’s Educational and Research Initiatives for Collaborative Health (ENRICH).

Unhelkar has partnered with James Suliburk, associate professor of surgery at Baylor, to explore how artificial intelligence can augment surgical training. Using a surgical simulator, the researchers will gather data from expert surgeons and trainees, and use the data to train machine learning models to recognize the differences between suboptimal and ideal surgeries.

"Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being identified, across governments and businesses, as a key enabling factor for innovations in healthcare,” says Unhelkar. “However, acquiring high-fidelity data remains a hurdle for developing and benchmarking AI-based systems for healthcare. This Rice-TMC collaboration will help us overcome this hurdle through the utilization of intelligent sensors (Rice) and the Surgical Simulation Lab (Baylor)."

Established in 2016, ENRICH advises the provost on TMC collaborations, engages faculty in starting and strengthening those collaborations and helps remove barriers to them. In 2020, more than 21% of Rice faculty were engaged in active collaborations with TMC research partners, and one-third of projects funded by Rice’s COVID-19 Research Fund included TMC collaborators.

“Partnerships with TMC are an institutional priority, and they enable our faculty to translate their research to clinical practice, directly benefiting the Houston community,” said Marcia O’Malley, special advisor to the provost on ENRICH and the Thomas Michael Panos Family Professor in Mechanical Engineering. “ENRICH has been instrumental in facilitating faculty engagement with TMC partners, reducing barriers to collaboration and investing institutional resources in new partnerships.”

Before joining Rice, Vaibhav served as a visiting researcher at X, the moonshot factory (formerly, Google X). His research interests span artificial intelligence, robotics, and human-machine systems. At Rice, he leads a research group in the area of Human-Centered AI. Ongoing research in his group focuses on modeling human behavior, training human-robot teams, and improving transparency of AI systems.

Unhelkar earned his PhD in Autonomous Systems from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he worked in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). His doctoral work resulted in novel algorithms to enable effective collaboration and communication in human-robot teams.

Jade Boyd, Associate Director for Rice University's Office of Public Affairs