By Rachel Harrington

Improving Tone Deafness and Mispronunciations with Signal Processing

March 7th, 2011 in ECE, Events, Lectures, News-CE, News-EP, News-ISS

Professor Mark J. T. Smith, Dean of the Graduate School at Purdue University, spoke at Boston University March 2 as part of the ECE Department’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

Professor Mark J. T. Smith, Dean of the Graduate School at Purdue University, spoke at Boston University March 2 as part of the ECE Department’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

Not everyone is born with a singing voice that will win them a spot on Glee or American Idol, but what if you could improve the sound of a truly terrible vocalist?

That’s part of the idea behind the work of Professor Mark J. T. Smith, Dean of the Graduate School at Purdue University, and his colleagues.

He and his research team are working toward using signal processing not only to improve music but foreign language education as well. They have recently been developing automated software that can be used to correct pronunciation errors in Spanish.

“Our program identifies the error in pronunciation, makes the correction, and then plays it back for the speaker,” said Smith. Currently, the software can correct errors in cadence, intonations, pitch and accents.

Smith spoke at Boston University March 2 as part of the ECE Department’s Distinguished Lecture Series, which brings prominent engineers to the university. He discussed the topic, “Improved Models for Accent Detection and Voice Synthesis.”

When modifying and synthesizing speech, there are many components that go into reaching the desired outcome including pitch control and control over the time scale. Smith said that he and his team have been using the ABS-OLA synthesis model in their work because of the greater flexibility this algorithm allows.

Development is not yet complete on the software, but when tested on isolated words like “hierro” (iron) – complicated for some because of the rolling “rr” –impressive results were achieved.

In addition to working at Purdue, Smith is a fellow of the IEEE and has authored many papers in the areas of speech and image processing, filter banks, and wavelets. He is also an accomplished fencer, having been a member of the U.S. Olympic Team in 1980 and 1984.

-Rachel Harrington (

Professor Irving Bigio Elected SPIE Fellow

March 3rd, 2011 in ECE, Faculty, Recognition, Research, Research-EP

Professor Irving Bigio (ECE, BME)

Professor Irving Bigio (ECE, BME)

Professor Irving Bigio (ECE, BME) has already made significant achievements in biomedical optics, and now SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, is recognizing him for his work as well.

Bigio was recently elected to the rank of Fellow in the society for his work in biological and biomedical applications of lasers and optical technologies.

For more than fifty years, SPIE has annually honored distinguished members who have made significant scientific, technical, and community contributions in the multidisciplinary fields of optics, photonics, and imaging.

“Being elected a Fellow is an honor,” said Bigio. “It speaks well of the College of Engineering that a good number of our faculty members are Senior Members or Fellows of their respective professional societies.”

Bigio’s work is part of a growing effort to reduce health care costs through preventive medicine, early diagnosis, and reduced invasiveness of inpatient and outpatient procedures.

His contributions to the field of biomedical optics have included advances in optical interactions with biopolymers and tissues, in clinical applications of optical technologies and lasers, and in biomedical applications of spectroscopy.

Bigio’s breakthroughs have been applied by researchers around the world. Perhaps most notably, he suggested that ultrastructural changes in subcellular architecture could be sensed by a noninvasive optical method – elastic scattering spectroscopy. He went on to argue that this method could be used to detect early pre-cancer by measurements using optical fibers through endoscopes, catheters, and needles.

His current research also includes optical methods to study cellular dynamics, including the very early phases of apoptosis in cells and noninvasive imaging of nerve impulse propagation in nerve fibers and brain tissue.

Recently, Bigio led a multi-national, multi-year program under the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute Network for Translational Research in Optical Imaging that has led to improved methods of screening for colon cancer and new methods for drug delivery to patients with brain tumors.

He has also authored a number of patents and received three R&D 100 Awards for instruments utilizing optical technologies for detecting disease in tissue and sensing properties of biological media.

In addition to SPIE, Bigio is a Fellow of the Optical Society of America, the American Society for Lasers in Medicine and Surgery, and the American Institute for Medical & Biological Engineering.

-Rachel Harrington (

Dr. Nick Bowen Discusses IBM’s Evolution to a Standing-Room Only Crowd

February 25th, 2011 in ECE, Events, Lectures, News-CE, News-EP, News-ISS

Distinguished Lecture - Dr. Nick Bowen

Dr. Nick Bowen, IBM’s Vice President of Software Appliances, spoke at Boston University as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series on February 16.

As IBM approaches its Centennial – a rare milestone for an information technology company – one might assume that the employees behind it have a knack for predicting future technology trends.

But Dr. Nick Bowen, IBM’s Vice President of Software Appliances, said that in reality, technology moves very slowly but is still hard to predict.

“IBM has remained successful because we’re quite good at transforming ourselves over and over again,” Bowen told a Boston University standing-room only crowd on February 16.

That doesn’t mean IBM has been immune to the shifts in the marketplace. In 1992, the company saw $5 billion losses – the highest in American corporate history at the time – after it was unable to keep up with the world’s fastest changing industry and adapt to technology disruptions – innovations that improve a product in ways the market may not have expected.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t see technology disruptions like CMOS. The problem was that we didn’t react fast enough to what we were seeing,” said Bowen, who has worked for IBM for over 25 years.

Bowen was on campus as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series, which brings prominent engineers to the university. He spoke on the topic, “Technology Disruptions and Trends: The Next Decade.”

Today, IBM has come a long way since the dark days of the early ’90s. The company paves the way in areas like business analytics, cloud computing, and Smart Planet solutions. And its artificial intelligence computer system, Watson, recently made international headlines when it crushed its human opponents on Jeopardy.

But how did IBM get out of its crisis?

Bowen said that there were many factors including new leadership whose mission was to “never be surprised by a technology disruption again.” He also pointed to the company’s push toward a culture of innovation, citing IBM’S Global Innovation Outlook – an effort to see how the company could impact areas like healthcare, energy, and economic development on a global scale – as one example.

“Today there is a deep culture in IBM to never go back to 1992,” said Bowen.

When asked if he had any advice to offer engineering students, Bowen said that it’s important to find a place to work that demands more and strives for innovation.

“Possessing broad knowledge is also important in engineering today,” offered Bowen. “Today, it helps to possess a diversity of skills.”

The final Distinguished Lecture of the spring will take place Wednesday, March 2, and feature Professor Mark J. T. Smith, Dean of the Graduate School at Purdue University. He will speak on the topic, “Improved Models for Accent Detection and Voice Synthesis” at 4 p.m. in room 211 of 8 Saint Mary’s St.

-Rachel Harrington (

Conference Explores Wide Range of Smart Lighting Applications

February 11th, 2011 in ECE, Events, Faculty, Graduate Students, Grants, Lectures, News-EP, News-ISS, Research, Research-EP, Research-ISS

Smart Lighting

Nearly 120 participants from academia, government and industry attended “Smart Spaces: A Smart Lighting ERC Academia—Industry Day” at the Boston University Photonics Center on Feb. 8. Here, they enjoy a research poster session.

When the National Science Foundation Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center (ERC) was launched in 2008, one of its main objectives was to create an optical wireless network using LED-based visible light. While this remains a top priority, the Center has since explored several other applications of LED-based lighting systems, including boosting workplace productivity, detecting bio-terror agents and reducing energy consumption in buildings on the Smart Grid.

To explore such possibilities, nearly 120 participants from academia, government and industry attended “Smart Spaces: A Smart Lighting ERC Academia—Industry Day” at the Boston University Photonics Center on Feb. 8. Presenters represented the Smart Lighting ERC’s partner universities—Boston University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of New Mexico—and many other academic institutions in the U.S. and abroad.

View photos from the conference.

The meeting focused on “smart spaces” that integrate illuminators, sensors, controllers and communications technology into LED-based lighting systems that enhance and adapt to human needs and activities.

“Today’s revolution in solid state lighting yields efficiencies but is not very smart,” said Robert F. Karlicek, the ERC Director at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). “Part of the ERC’s vision for smart spaces is to be able to live in a world that’s directed by artificial light.” Karlicek announced major goals for the ERC that include the use of smart lighting for biochemical hazard detection, visible light communication and full-spectrum adaptive lighting.

Conference speakers described research on smart lighting applications that ranged from filmmaking to security.

For example, Stephen Selkowitz discussed how he and his team at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California have been examining how smart lighting can improve efficiency and productivity in the workplace. The researchers introduced automated smart lighting systems to the 52-story New York Times Building in a design that includes sensor-controlled shades to reduce glare and more than 18,000 individually-dimmable fluorescent fixtures to supplement natural light.

“Workstation lighting was found to be more comfortable and more cost-efficient,” Selkowitz said, adding that the building saves 60 to 70 percent in energy costs.

Joel L. Plawsky, a professor of chemical engineering at RPI, explored how smart lighting can be used to purify air and water when used in photocatalysis, a process in which a catalyst harnesses UV radiation from sunlight and uses that energy to break down different substances including pesticides, microbes and nitrous oxide. To create a photocatalytic device, Plawsky and his team aim to deposit titanium dioxide nano-rods directly on a UV LED.

“Eventually, the goal is to build an autonomous photosystem,” he said.

BU Assistant Professor Hatice Altug (ECE) described how she is exploiting UV LED lighting, as well as multicolor LEDs, to detect individual viruses. Altug, Professor Thomas Little, Associate Professor Jeff Carruthers and other ECE researchers are spearheading smart lighting research efforts at the NSF Smart Lighting Center at BU.

Ten students from participating academic institutions, including BU computer engineering graduate student Michael Rahaim (PhD ’14), gave elevator pitches on their smart lighting-related research. Several others, including six student teams from the College of Engineering, presented their findings during a research poster session.

“These are our future colleagues,” ECE Department Chair David Castañón told attendees. “Take advantage of the opportunities to network with them.”

Prospects appear bright for these students as the smart lighting industry—already an estimated $50 billion market—continues to grow.

-Rachel Harrington (

Professor Ramachandran Receives $765K from the ONR for Maritime Sensing Research

February 9th, 2011 in ECE, Faculty, Grants, News-EP, Research, Research-EP

A high-power Bessel beam output from a fiber laser

A high-power Bessel beam output from a fiber laser

Whether they’re applied to underwater exploration or the military, optical sensing technologies – those that automatically identify an object without coming into physical contact with it – are necessary in detecting everything from a giant squid to an enemy submarine.

One optical platform that has become the sensing technology of choice for military applications, atmospheric/weather predictions, and satellite navigation is the optical analog to the RADAR, also known as the LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). As the name implies, this technology requires specialized laser beams – very high power ones at that.

When used in the ocean, these technologies are dependent on the ability to propel light through water, but they also need to be compact and lightweight in order to be used by ships, aircrafts, and submarines. To satisfy these needs, the U. S. Navy is considering using fiber lasers – already used in telecommunications, spectroscopy, and medicine – but none of the current laser technologies in existence fit the military’s needs.

That’s where Professor Siddharth Ramachandran (ECE) comes in.

Professor Siddharth Ramachandran

Professor Siddharth Ramachandran

Over the last few years, Ramachandran has developed a new class of fiber lasers that emit light in highly complex spatial patterns called Bessel beams. The maritime sensing directorate of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) is interested in his work and recently gave him $765,043 to support a three-year project, “Power-Scalable Blue-Green Bessel Beams.”

The project will focus on studying and developing applications in underwater sensing that could be used not only by the Navy but applied to atmosphere and deep space technologies as well. It will follow pioneering experiments by Ramachandran’s group in the last few years that have demonstrated that these exotic beams can be generated and propagated stably in optical fibers.

View an animation of self-healing Bessel beams.

“These beams possess several intriguing properties, ranging from the ability to propagate virtually diffraction-free – countering conventional wisdom that states that a light beam spreads as it travels in space – to the ability to recreate itself past opaque objects,” Ramachandran said.

These exotic properties, along with the ability to generate these beams in fibers, suggests that the development of high power Bessel beams may enable the application of LIDAR technologies through ocean water, fulfilling a critical need for future maritime sensing capabilities of the US Navy.

-Rachel Harrington (

UC San Diego Professor Begins Spring Distinguished Lecture Series

February 8th, 2011 in ECE, Events, Lectures, News-CE, News-EP, News-ISS

Distinguished Lecture - 01-26-11

Professor Rajesh K. Gupta spoke on the topic, “The Variability Expeditions: Exploring the Software Stack for Under-Designed Computing Machines,” as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series.

In electronics, there is a constant demand to make devices smaller, faster, and cheaper. But as design is scaled down, the resulting circuits and systems do not behave as precisely as they should.

Last week, Professor Rajesh K. Gupta offered a solution to Boston University’s Electrical & Computer Engineering community.

“Changing the way software interacts with hardware is the best hope we have for recovering the advantages of process scaling,” said Gupta, “but creating a new design and manufacturing regime is easier said than done.”

The Chair of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, Gupta spoke as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series, which brings prominent, innovative engineers to the university. He spoke on the topic, “The Variability Expeditions: Exploring the Software Stack for Under-Designed Computing Machines.”

Gupta, who previously worked for Intel, said that hardware has very rigid specifications right now.

“This makes life very difficult for hardware designers,” said Gupta.

Engineers design for worst-case scenarios rather than what the hardware will actually be used for, and this results in overdesigned parts. On average, Gupta said overdesign can result in 40% more chip area and require 35% more power.

Gupta is researching how much ‘under-design’ the engineers can get away with in software that proactively probes hardware for its telltale signatures. He said that there are a number of projects rethinking the relationship between hardware and software, but it will take some time and partnerships to make it work.

“In order for this to work, you need the industry to work with you,” he said. He and his team continue to look for engagements with the industry, and more information can be found on the Expeditions website at

The next Distinguished Lecture will take place Wednesday, February 16, and feature Dr. Nick Bowen, Vice President of Software Appliances at IBM. He will speak on the topic, “Technology Disruptions and Trends: The Next Decade” at 4 p.m. in room 211 of 8 Saint Mary’s St.

-Rachel Harrington (

Moustakas Awarded $1.5 Million to Develop Handheld UV Laser

February 7th, 2011 in ECE, Faculty, Grants, News-EP, Research, Research-EP

Professor Theodore Moustakas (ECE) inspecting the growth of nitride-based semiconductor materials

Professor Theodore Moustakas (ECE) inspecting the growth of nitride-based semiconductor materials

Professor Theodore Moustakas (ECE) has received a $1.5 million, two-year subcontract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to help develop a handheld, electron-beam pumped semiconductor laser that would be the first to operate within the ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Because of its ultra-low emission wavelength and compact size, such a laser could be exploited for a wide range of defense and commercial applications, including non-line-of-sight communication in dense urban areas and other military theaters, via airborne particulates that propagate the signal; identification of biological and chemical substances used in potential terror attacks; and point-of-care chemical analyses of blood and other bodily fluids.

To develop this unprecedented laser technology, Moustakas and two co-investigators, Associate Professor Roberto Paiella (ECE) and Assistant Professor Luca Dal Negro (ECE) will fabricate UV laser materials and component devices; Applied Physics Technologies and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory will design miniature electron guns to pump the laser, and Photon Systems, Inc., the prime contractor, will integrate everything into a prototype sized below one cubic inch.

“We plan to make a laser structure that, when bombarded with an electron beam, produces pairs of electrons and holes (positively charged particles), which recombine and produce the UV light” said Moustakas. “DARPA chose us because we have produced aluminum gallium nitride alloys in which up to 68 percent of those electron/hole pairs are converted into light, a conversion efficiency of about 1,000 times that of materials produced by other research groups.”

Using an atom-by-atom assembly technique called molecular beam epitaxy, the ECE research team will produce the core laser material, aluminum gallium nitride, and then construct component devices from multiple layers of the material. The researchers will evaluate the materials by directing electron beams at them in the lab.

In parallel with this project, Moustakas is working on a separate grant from NASA to develop a similar laser to perform chemical analyses of soil samples on future Mars expeditions. He is also advancing visible and ultraviolet LEDs and lasers for solid-state white lighting, water and air sterilization, and identification of biological and chemical agents; and indium gallium nitride “quantum dots” that boost solar cell efficiency.

Selected for the 2011 Distinguished Scholar Award, Moustakas will present the lecture “Nitride Semiconductors and their Applications to Solid State Lighting and Water/Air Purification” on March 3 at 3 p.m. in the Trustees’ Ballroom at One Silber Way. The event is free and open to the College of Engineering community.

-Mark Dwortzan

Research Fair Serves as Resume Builder for ECE Undergrads

February 4th, 2011 in ECE, Jobs in ECE@BU, Students, Undergraduate Student Opportunities, Undergraduate Students

Research Fair

Held on January 31, the ECE Undergraduate Research and Lab Job Fair provided students with an opportunity to speak to faculty and graduate students about working in an ECE lab.

These days, finding a job out of college can be a challenge – especially if graduates can’t list any experience on their resume.

Last semester, several of Boston University’s Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE) students told their professors that they were interested in research but didn’t know where to start.

Enter the first-ever ECE Undergraduate Research and Lab Job Fair.

“Students were eager to add some research experience to their resumes, so we wanted to give them a chance to see how many opportunities were available within the department,” said Professor Mark Horenstein, who organized the fair.

Held on January 31, the fair provided students with an opportunity to speak to faculty and graduate students about working in an ECE lab – either during the academic year or in the summer. Both paid and unpaid jobs were available.

“Sometimes we, as students, lose perspective on the potential of our education beyond the classroom,” said Nick Dougherty (CE ’12). “This was a great opportunity to really find out more about the research that goes on at the college.”

The event proved to be very popular with registration filling up nearly a week early. More than 75 students attended and had a chance to speak with 28 faculty members on hand to offer projects.

View photos from the event.

“There seemed to be a constant buzz throughout the evening,” said Horenstein. “Students were so eager to hear about the projects that the event lasted almost an hour longer than scheduled.”

Opportunities for research varied across different disciplines of ECE and included topics like smart parking, 3-D video, and cybersecurity.

The fair provided opportunities for experiential learning, a highly effective educational method that involves making meaning from direct experience. Kenneth R. Lutchen, Dean of the College of Engineering, has been emphasizing the importance of educating societal engineers at BU, and first-hand experience is an important step toward becoming one.

-Rachel Harrington (

Detecting Explosives

January 31st, 2011 in ECE, Faculty, News-ISS, Research, Research-ISS

ENG group’s quest to improve airport screening systems

Using advanced modeling and algorithms, the ALERT team at BU aims to enable airport screening machines to provide three-dimensional cross sections of a bag so that individual items can be clearly separated. Images show top and back views of a boom box and other objects. Images courtesy of W. Clem Karl.

Using advanced modeling and algorithms, the ALERT team at BU aims to enable airport screening machines to provide three-dimensional cross sections of a bag so that individual items can be clearly separated. Images show top and back views of a boom box and other objects. Images courtesy of W. Clem Karl.

Airport luggage inspection machines scan one bag every six seconds, but the conventional medical imaging technology they use can easily overlook potential threats. In the vitally important quest to make airline travel safer since 9/11, David Castañón is working to equip these machines with a wider range of sensors and pattern recognition tools and more sophisticated signal processing algorithms to analyze the data in real time.

“We need to design a system that’s partially automated and where human intelligence gets used as needed to resolve ambiguities and produce highly reliable decisions,” says Castañón, a College of Engineering professor and chair ad interim of Electrical & Computer Engineering. “This involves several systems engineering trade-offs: how much do you automate? What’s the algorithm you put in for making that decision? How do you generate alerts? What sensors do you bring to bear?”

Since 2008, Castañón, W. Clem Karl, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, Venkatesh Saligrama, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and five PhD students have addressed these questions for potential applications ranging from whole-body imaging to video surveillance in a Department of Homeland Security initiative called Project ALERT: Awareness and Localization of Explosive Related Threats. Focusing on systems engineering solutions, Castañón is associate director and the University’s principal investigator of the project, which draws on experts from 15 academic institutions to improve the nation’s explosives detection capability.

The BU team’s effort centers on mathematical problems in machine learning, optimization, and image processing. “We model the capabilities of different sensors,” says Castañón, “develop algorithms to combine the information they gather to form decisions concerning the presence of a potential risk, and intelligently sequence sensor data to ensure that the system as a whole performs well.”

One promising solution emerging from the team’s work is an “adaptive training” system that uses video cameras to monitor pedestrian and traffic behavior, and that “learns” on the job to detect abandoned packages and vehicles by tracking changes in image pixels of sidewalks and streets. The team is also designing an intelligent sensor network system to monitor moving crowds with infrared cameras, chemical sniffers, and other devices. The system tracks individuals’ locations and detects unusual behaviors and explosives nonintrusively yet reliably.

“In explosives detection applications, most researchers focus on improving the performance of individual components, such as sharper imaging quality,” says Castañón. “We’re exploring ways of combining components and examining trade-offs to see how different data streams can complement each other to get a more accurate system.”

One important trade-off is between throughput and sensitivity. “The question of how to improve both throughput and sensitivity is at the heart of some of the novel pattern recognition and statistical learning techniques being developed at Boston University,” says Saligrama.

-Mark Dwortzan

This story was also featured in BU Today and Engineer.

Majoring in ECE Prepares Students for the Fastest Growing Jobs

January 24th, 2011 in ECE, News-CE, Undergraduate Student Opportunities


The Boston Globe predicts that the number of computer engineering positions will grow by 39.3% by 2018 - an increase of about 450,000 new jobs.

When The Boston Globe recently picked the “Top 30 fastest-growing jobs by 2018,” there was something strikingly similar about three of the top careers.

“For several of the positions, you need a background in Computer Engineering for the job,” said David Castañón, Chair of Boston University’s Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering.

Those careers included computer software and systems engineers, computer applications software engineers, and network systems and data communications analysts.

The Globe predicts these fields will grow by 39.3% – an increase of about 450,000 new jobs over eight years. The median salary for these careers is about $79,000, well above the national average.

The prediction is supported by last year’s report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) that found that the demand for computer engineers will grow more quickly than most other occupations during the next eight years, thanks to a surge in electronic records, wireless technology, data processing and information security. Read more.

And the Globe isn’t the only media outlet predicting promising futures for computer engineers.

“Despite enduring an industry bubble and the threat of outsourcing, software engineer ranks as the Best Job of 2011,” reported, which also chose Computer Systems Analyst as their number five best job.

CareerCast determined their picks after researchers surveyed 200 different professions and ranked jobs based on work environment, physical demands, outlook, income, and stress.

“While many factors push a career to the top of the rankings, the strong performance of Software Engineer this year can be attributed to two emerging industries: web applications and cloud computing,” CareerCast said.

Out of the 30 jobs listed by the Globe, engineering fared very well with 20% of the careers requiring a background in engineering. Other positions that made the list included biomedical and environmental engineers, who, when combined, may see more than 28,000 new openings by 2018.

-Rachel Harrington (