Category: Alumni

From Student to Professor

December 11th, 2013 in Alumni, Graduate Students, News-ISS, Undergraduate Students

Sam Keene (PhD ’07)

Sam Keene (ECE ’98, PhD ’07)

In 1998, Sam Keene completed his first college experience when he graduated from Boston University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering. Nearly a decade later, he now also holds a doctoral degree in Electrical Engineering (PhD ’07) and works on the other side of the classroom as an Assistant Professor in Electrical Engineering at The Cooper Union in New York City.

His job not only entails teaching two or three classes each semester and supervising Master’s Theses and various undergraduate projects; it also demands that he keep up with the latest technology.

“I’m always amazed at how much my students are capable of, so the pressure is on me to keep challenging them with interesting work, whether they are course projects, contests, senior projects or thesis topics,” said Keene. He added that watching his students overcome the research challenges put in front of them is a rewarding experience.

It’s easy to see how Boston University could prepare Keene for teaching in the classroom, but he credits the Electrical & Computer Engineering Department for launching another career as well – communication engineer at The Mathworks Inc. After a few years in the industry, he decided to fully immerse himself in research by going back to school and focusing his studies on wireless communications and networks.

“While doing my Ph.D., I learned from my many advisors and professors how to do research, publish papers, and teach classes,” said Keene. “All of these skills helped me land the job I currently have.”

He credits many faculty members, including Professor Hamid Nawab (ECE), Associate Professor Jeffrey Carruthers (ECE), and Professor Thomas Little (ECE, SE), for having a great impact on his career. Each had different qualities that Keene wanted to emulate.

“I am so proud of Sam’s progress from Boston University to professor,” said Carruthers. “He was disciplined, doing excellent work and staying on track with his research. Sam and I had many interesting discussions about academic life and finding the right fit between balancing teaching and research.”

Keene hopes to inspire his students in the same manner the ECE faculty inspired him and is even collaborating with a student of Little’s who mentors one of his undergraduates. He may have graduated, but Keene still has a strong connection to his alma mater.

- Chelsea Hermond (SMG ’15)

Distinguished Alumni Awards Honor Exceptional ENG Grads

November 19th, 2013 in Alumni, Awards, Events, News-CE, News-EP, News-ISS, Recognition

Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen with Anton Papp (EE '90) (top), Dan Ryan and Aaron Ganick (both ECE '10) (middle) and George Savage (BME '81) (bottom) (Photos by Dave Green)

Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen with Anton Papp (EE '90) (Photo by Dave Green)

In a ceremony held October 25 at the Boston University Photonics Center, the College of Engineering celebrated its alumni and announced the 2013 Distinguished Alumni Awards. Presented by Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen following a buffet dinner and champagne toast, the awards recognize individuals who have made significant contributions to their alma mater, community and profession. Lutchen commended the recipients for bringing honor to the College through their careers, commitment to the highest standards of excellence, and devotion to the College.

Anton Papp (EE ’90), vice president for Corporate Development at Teradata, received the Service to Alma Mater award, which honors alumni who have enhanced the College of Engineering’s stature through voluntary service to BU.

Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen (center) with Dan Ryan (left) and Aaron Ganick (both ECE '10) (Photo by Dave Green)

Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen (center) with Dan Ryan (left) and Aaron Ganick (both ECE '10) (Photo by Dave Green)

At Teradata Papp oversees, evaluates and executes investments, mergers and acquisitions, and strategy. Prior to joining Teradata, he served as vice president of Corporate Development & Global Alliances at Aprimo and held numerous investment banking positions. A graduate of the prestigious US Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN), Papp attended BU on a Naval ROTC scholarship and served as a Naval Officer and F-14 Tomcat Flight Instructor. He also earned an MBA in Finance from Columbia Business School.

Papp serves on the College of Engineering Dean’s Advisory Board, the ENG West Coast Alumni Leadership Council, and the BU West Coast Regional Campaign Committee. He has been the leading supporter for the ENG/SMG Summer Leadership Institute program, and part of the College’s efforts to recruit top undergraduates.

Dan Ryan and Aaron Ganick (both ECE ’10), cofounders of the telecommunications company ByteLight, received the Distinguished Young Alumni award, which honors outstanding alumni within 10 years of graduation for outstanding service to their profession or community.

Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen and George Savage (BME '81) (Photo by Dave Green)

Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen and George Savage (BME '81) (Photo by Dave Green)

A startup that emerged out of the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center at BU, ByteLight has produced a system that’s similar to an indoor GPS. Special LED lights provided by Bytelight enable your smartphone to determine your location and to bring up location-based information ranging from store coupons to museum exhibit descriptions.

George Savage (BME ’81), Chief Medical Officer and cofounder of Proteus Digital Health, and a member of the BU College of Engineering West Coast Advisory Council, received the Service to the Profession award, which honors alumni whose work has significantly contributed to the advancement of their profession and brought them recognition within their field.

Savage has started 10 companies since 1989 as entrepreneur or founding investor, including FemRx (acquired by Johnson and Johnson), CardioRhythm (acquired by Medtronic) and QRx Pharmaceuticals. He holds an M.D. from Tufts University School of Medicine and an M.B.A. from Stanford University Graduate School of Business, and serves on the boards of Menlo Healthcare Ministry, the Pacific Research Institute and Silent Cal Productions.

At Proteus, Savage has advanced a system of small, ingestible event markers that are implanted in a patient’s medications. A monitor worn as a patch on the patient identifies each pill upon swallowing and tracks vital signs, which are uploaded to the patient’s mobile phone and transmitted to caregivers and healthcare professionals. The system allows for instantaneous and personalized treatment and promises to transform the way doctors monitor patients’ medicine.

-Mark Dwortzan

Removing Communication Roadblocks

November 7th, 2013 in Alumni, Awards, Courses, Events, Faculty, Graduate Programs, Graduate Student Opportunities, Graduate Students, News-CE, Publications, Recognition, Research, Research-CE, Students

Distinguished Professor Lev Levitin (ECE)

Distinguished Professor Lev Levitin (ECE)

Over the last few weeks, nearly 20 million Americans tried accessing a broken United States health care site that couldn’t handle the traffic, among other problems. And even if you weren’t one of the many applying for health coverage, you’ve probably experienced network congestion at some point.

Typically, network congestion occurs if a link or node is carrying too much data; as a result, the quality of service drops. The most severe form of communication disruption is deadlocks. A deadlock happens when several messages mutually block each other so that their delivery is not just delayed but stopped permanently.

“This is a long-standing problem, which is practically important and theoretically challenging,” said Distinguished Professor Lev Levitin (ECE, SE). “It has been attracting the efforts of many researchers for decades.”

Professor Mark Karpovsky

Professor Mark Karpovsky (ECE)

Professors Levitin and Mark Karpovsky (ECE) have been working with their students on this problem for several years, developing new algorithms, specifically turn prohibition algorithms, to help direct data and essentially prevent information from being stuck in a deadlock as it travels through communication networks. This work covered a lot of ground by establishing lower and upper bounds for an optimal solution, outlining their discovery of a new class of algorithms, and developing a few algorithms that could actually solve the initial optimization problem.

The last advance on this project was achieved this year by Levitin and his team – ECE alum, Ye Wu (MEng ’13), and Visiting Scholar, Mehmet Mustafa. They have been working on developing new algorithms, specifically turn prohibition algorithms, to help direct data and essentially prevent information from being stuck in a deadlock as it travels through communication networks.

“Without changing the topology of existing networks, we managed to improve saturation points so that congestion is less likely to happen and latency is reduced which means lower waiting time for users,” said Wu.

The team recently presented their work at OPNETWORK 2013, a conference that focused on advancing the state of application and network performance management. Impressed by their research, “A Study of Modified Turn Prohibition Algorithms for Deadlock Prevention in Networks,” the judges awarded them Best Technical Paper.

Ye Wu (left) receives his MEng degree from Professor Selim Ünlü (ECE, BME) at Commencement 2013.

Ye Wu (left) receives his MEng degree from Professor Selim Ünlü (ECE, BME, MSE) at Commencement 2013.

“Computer experiments, executed earlier and in the latest work by Ye Wu and other students under the guidance of Dr. Mustafa, clearly showed the superior performance of our algorithms versus different algorithms suggested by other research groups,” said Levitin. He went on to add that the majority of publications in the field are on ad hoc algorithms as opposed to the “tree-free” algorithms he and his team explored.

The work gave Wu a chance to travel to Washington, D.C., and deliver the presentation at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

“I met some really nice students and professors from different countries who were happy to talk about their research,” said Wu. “The audience, I think, was also smart enough to understand the key points of our project and asked really good questions.”

Now a Boston University graduate, Wu looks back at his professor fondly, describing Levitin as open-minded, even when his student was questioning his own theories.

“Professor Levitin is the best professor I’ve ever known,” said Wu. “Even when we had no idea how to begin a project, he’d point us in the right direction.”

-Rachel Harrington (rachelah@bu.edu)

Shining Light on the Problem

November 4th, 2013 in Alumni, Faculty, Graduate Programs, Graduate Student Opportunities, Graduate Students, Grants, News-EP, Publications, Recognition, Research, Research-EP, Students

New Laser Technique Boosts Accuracy of DNA Sequencing Method

Shining a green laser beam on a solid-state nanopore immersed in a salt water solution increases electrical surface charge and current at the pore surface. The current, in turn, sweeps the salt water in the opposite direction of incoming DNA molecules, slowing them down enough for nanoscale sensors to identify each DNA nucleotide with greater sensitivity.

Shining a green laser beam on a solid-state nanopore immersed in a salt water solution increases electrical surface charge and current at the pore surface. The current, in turn, sweeps the salt water in the opposite direction of incoming DNA molecules, slowing them down enough for nanoscale sensors to identify each DNA nucleotide with greater sensitivity.

Low-cost, ultra-fast DNA sequencing would revolutionize healthcare and biomedical research, sparking major advances in drug development, preventative medicine and personalized medicine. By gaining access to the entire sequence of your genome, a physician could determine the probability that you’ll develop a specific genetic disease or tolerate selected medications. In pursuit of that goal, Associate Professor Amit Meller (BME, MSE) has spent much of the past decade spearheading a method that uses solid state nanopores — two-to-five-nanometer-wide holes in silicon chips that read DNA strands as they pass through — to optically sequence the four nucleotides (A, C, G, T) encoding each DNA molecule.

Now Meller and a team of researchers at Boston University — Professor Theodore Moustakas (ECE, MSE) and research assistants Nicolas Di Fiori (Physics, PhD ’13) and Allison Squires (BME, PhD ’14) — and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology — have discovered a simple way to improve the sensitivity, accuracy and speed of the method, making it an even more viable option for DNA sequencing or characterization of small proteins.

In the November 3 online edition of Nature Nanotechnology, the team demonstrated that focusing a low-power, commercially available green laser on a nanopore increases current near walls of the pore, which is immersed in salt water. As the current increases, it sweeps the salt water along with it in the opposite direction of incoming samples. The onrushing water, in turn, acts as a brake, slowing down the passage of DNA through the pore. As a result, nanoscale sensors in the pore can get a higher-resolution read of each nucleotide as it crosses the pore, and identify small proteins in their native state that could not previously be detected.

“The light-induced phenomenon that we describe in this paper can be used to switch on and off the ‘brakes’ acting on individual biopolymers, such as DNA or proteins sliding through the nanopores, in real time,” Meller explained. “This critically enhances the sensing resolution of solid-state nanopores and can be easily integrated in future nanopore-based DNA sequencing and protein detection technologies.”

Slowing down DNA is essential to DNA or RNA sequencing with nanopores, so that nanoscale sensors, like sports referees, can make the right call on what’s passing through.

“The goal is to hold a base pair of DNA nucleotides in the nanopore’s sensing volume long enough to ‘call the base’ (i.e, determine if it’s an A, C, G or T),” said Squires, who fabricated nanopores and ran experiments in the study. “The signal needs to be sufficiently different for each base for sensors in the nanopore to make the call. If the sample proceeds through the sensing volume too quickly, it’s hard for the sensors to interpret the signal and make the right call.”

Other methods designed to slow down DNA in nanopores change the sensing properties of the pore, making it more difficult to ensure accuracy of detected base pairs. Shining laser light on the nanopore alters only the local surface charge, an effect that’s completely reversible within milliseconds by switching the laser off.

As an added bonus, the researchers found that the sudden increase in surface charge and resulting flow of water reliably unblocks clogged nanopores, which can take a long time to clean, significantly extending their lifetime.

Meller and his team characterized the amount of increase in current under varying illumination in many different-sized nanopores. They next aim to explore in greater detail the mechanism underlying the increase in surface current when the green laser is applied to a nanopore, information that could lead to even more sensitivity and accuracy in DNA sequencing.

The research is funded by a $4.2 million grant from the National Institute of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute under its “Revolutionary Sequencing Technology Development — $1,000 Genome” program, which seeks to reduce the cost of sequencing a human genome to $1,000.

-Mark Dwortzan

If Boston Were Smart

October 30th, 2013 in Alumni, Faculty, Graduate Programs, Graduate Student Opportunities, Graduate Students, News-CE, News-EP, News-ISS, Research, Research-CE, Research-EP, Research-ISS, Students, Undergraduate Programs, Undergraduate Student Opportunities, Undergraduate Students

Imagining intelligent traffic lights, parking spaces, buildings and appliances

Professor Janusz Konrad (ECE) and Professor Venkatesh Saligrama (ECE, SE) have developed algorithmic security cameras that spot unusual activity. (Photo by Flickr contributor Miki Yoshihito.)

Professor Janusz Konrad (ECE) and Professor Venkatesh Saligrama (ECE, SE) have developed algorithmic security cameras that spot unusual activity. (Photo by Flickr contributor Miki Yoshihito.)

Last year, the Daily Beast named Boston the country’s smartest metropolitan area. The website was referring to the people of Boston, of course, not the city itself. But what if the city itself were smart? What if technology, designed by the smart people who work in Boston, could help us save time and energy and spare us from daily frustrations? We talked to some BU researchers who are studying, designing, and building the technology for a more enlightened city.

Smarter Grid

Because the cost of electricity fluctuates throughout the day, depending on demand, smart meters that are currently available tell homeowners exactly how much energy they use and at what cost, encouraging them to delay energy-intensive activities until a time of day when demand and costs are low. Supported by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant, Professor Michael Caramanis (ME, SE), Professor John Baillieul (ME, SE) and two MIT faculty members are collaborating on a study of how these and larger-scale measures could result in a smarter electricity grid. In the United States, we lose about 8 percent of energy because it travels long distances between points of generation to use. Caramanis thinks the loss could be greatly reduced if we got our energy from closer and cleaner sources. A smarter grid could help us do that.

Smarter Security

Security officers could sort through billions of hours of video footage and spot unusual events, such as someone attempting to enter a building in the middle of the night, using specially designed cameras with embedded algorithms. Professor Janusz Konrad (ECE) and Venkatesh Saligrama (ECE, SE) have developed the technology, supported by more than $800,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies.

Smarter HVAC

BU engineers have designed software that, once uploaded to a building’s HVAC system, would measure airflow room by room and revise it to meet minimum standards, decreasing energy costs while keeping occupants happy. The invention earned Associate Professor Michael Gevelber (ME, SE), Adjunct Research Professor Donald Wroblewski (ME) and ENG and School of Management students first prize and $20,000 in this year’s MIT Clean Energy Competition. The team plans to develop and market the software through its newly formed company, Aeolus Building Efficiency.

Smarter Traffic Lights

Professor Michael Caramanis (ME, SE) suggests that appliances connected to a home photovoltaic unit, like a solar panel, could be programmed to detect passing clouds and choose to cycle at a later time. (Photo by Flickr contributor Savannah Corps.)

Professor Michael Caramanis (ME, SE) suggests that appliances connected to a home photovoltaic unit, like a solar panel, could be programmed to detect passing clouds and choose to cycle at a later time. (Photo by Flickr contributor Savannah Corps.)

A smart traffic lighting system would mine GPS information from cars and smartphones and count the number of vehicles waiting at red lights. If there is no approaching traffic, it would switch lights from red to green. Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) is testing this system on a model mini-city in his lab.

Smarter Parking

Cassandras, working with research assistant Yanfeng Geng (PhD, SE ’13), has developed the BU Smart Parking application, which can be downloaded to a smartphone from the iPhone App Store by searching “BU smartparking.” Drivers tell the app when and where they want to park, prioritizing price and location, and the app searches for available spaces, all of which are networked to the device. When the app identifies a spot that meets the search criteria, it tells the driver where to go. At the same time, a light installed above the spot turns from green to red. When the driver who made the reservations approaches, the light turns yellow. The catch? At the moment the system works only in BU’s 730 Commonwealth Avenue garage, but Cassandras hopes to expand it to private parking facilities throughout Boston.

Smarter Lighting

The next-generation lightbulb could enhance sleep quality, send data like a Wi-Fi hotspot does, or help visitors navigate large buildings through a network of visible cues, while operating more efficiently. This technology is made possible by combining LEDs, sensors, and other control systems within a single hybrid bulb that needs 40 to 70 percent less energy than existing compact fluorescent lights or LED lightbulbs. It is being developed by Professor Thomas Little (ECE, SE), associate director of the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center, working with researchers at the center under an $18.5 million National Science Foundation grant. Little is collaborating with colleagues from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of New Mexico.

Smarter Timing

Refrigerators and hot water heaters are duty-cycle appliances, meaning they need to run only two to three times each hour. Caramanis thinks they could be designed to communicate with the electricity grid and run when electrical demand is lowest during that time period. Alternatively, if either of these appliances is connected to a home photovoltaic unit, it could be programmed to detect when a passing cloud blocks the sun and choose to cycle at a later time. Caramanis says this technology is mostly being tested in pilot settings. A New Jersey-based company called FirstEnergy has installed temperature sensors and communication controllers that turn on and off the hot water heaters of thousands of consumers in relation to low or high energy costs in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland region.

Smarter Central Control

Imagine a network of sensors that would collect and send data to a centralized processor, which could order a garbage pickup or warn drivers of traffic jams. Cassandras, Professor Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE), codirector of the Center for Information & Systems Engineering, and Professor Assaf Kfoury (CS), are testing a miniature version of this network in Cassandras’ lab, with help from a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

For more information, see videos on traffic control and parking.

-Leslie Friday (Videos by Joe Chan), BU Today

Ahmed (Magdy) Farouk Advances to Finals at MIT’s Future Energy

October 21st, 2013 in Alumni, Events, Graduate Programs, Graduate Student Opportunities, Graduate Students, News-EP, Recognition, Research, Research-EP, Students

Ahmed (Magdy) Farouk (MS ’12) may be a recent graduate, but that hasn’t kept him from having big ideas about how to improve solar energy efficiency.

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Ahmed (Magdy) Farouk (MS '12)

Just a few months ago, he was on stage at MIT’s Future Energy event, pitching his idea about new structures of organic solar cells that increase the light harvesting capabilities of these devices, as well as reduce their costs by eliminating many of their expensive components and making them more manufacturable.

Farouk’s plan involves using organic semiconductors that can be dissolved into a solvent and treated as ink. He then takes the ink and puts it in a printer to produce a drawing – on virtually any substrate – of a solar cell with all of its components. He said that by using this method with the new structure, solar energy could produce cheaper electricity than fossil fuels.

At the April 4 MIT event, Farouk introduced his proposal to a room full of investors, researchers, and other entrepreneurs. At Future Energy, about 100 start-ups focused on solving the world’s energy challenges present in front of an audience and a panel of four experts and investors. Only eight new projects, including Farouk’s, advanced to the finals, during which each team presented and took questions from a panel of judges.

Farouk decided to participate in Future Energy because of the collaborative platform the event provides. “For me, the real benefits were the exposure and the interaction with other entrepreneurs and experts in this community,” he explained. “It helped me understand more what investors are looking for, what their main concerns are, and how I can improve my business model.”

Farouk presented similar research during his master’s presentation at BU, but pitching the idea was different for Future Energy. The presentation needed to be more business-oriented rather than technically-detailed because investors were examining the economical viability of the idea.

Future Energy's Logo

“To be able to estimate the economical data requires a different kind of research that sometimes is even more demanding than the technical side,” Farouk stated.

Farouk said that in the past, the solar manufacturing industry has been volatile. Many solar companies failed because they raised more funds than they actually needed. Currently, many investors are hesitant to lend out funds.

Learning from his experience at the Future Energy event, Magdy is working on making his design technologically ready and creating a preliminary prototype. He believes he needs stronger proof to garner more investor interest, and he is eager to build upon his work based on what he learned during the competition.

- Chelsea Hermond (SMG ’15)

Molly Crane Wins Clare Booth Luce Award

August 20th, 2013 in Alumni, Awards, Faculty, Graduate Programs, Graduate Student Opportunities, Graduate Students, Grants, News-ISS, Recognition, Research, Research-ISS, Students

ECE Ph.D. candidate, Molly Crane (MS '12)

ECE Ph.D. candidate, Molly Crane (MS '12)

Not too many students make the transition from studying English to Electrical & Computer Engineering, but Boston University Ph.D. candidate, Molly Crane (MS ’12), did just that – with flying colors.

Crane was recently named a recipient of a Clare Boothe Luce Scholarship, given for two academic years to advanced degree candidates. Each fellowship covers the cost of tuition, medical insurance, mandatory fees, a $20,000 stipend and $4,000 for allowance to cover educational and professional development expenses.

The Clare Boothe Luce Program (CBL), the largest source of private funding for women in science, mathematics, and engineering, aims to increase women’s participation in science and engineering at every level of higher education.

Given the recent honor, it’s hard to believe that Crane, who earned her master’s degree through the Late Entry Accelerated Program (LEAP), only began studying engineering three years ago after graduating with an English degree summa cum laude from Clark University.

“I was unsure how long it would take to fulfill the many course requirements, as I was coming in with virtually none of them completed,” said Crane. “I dove in headfirst though and often overloaded on courses to finish in a timely fashion.”

Crane said that earning her master’s in a short timeframe motivated her to apply for her doctorate at BU.

“I didn’t even apply anywhere else,” she said. “There is tremendous value in students having familiarity with the faculty and vice versa, and in having an established rapport with a doctoral advisor right at the outset of research. There is no other school in the world where I would have had that advantage.”

At BU, Crane has been working closely with her advisor, Professor Hamid Nawab (ECE), who nominated her for the award.

“Molly is precisely the type of person who would help to further shatter the glass ceiling in the male-dominated world of electrical engineering research and academia,” said Nawab. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she wound up becoming a tenured faculty member in a leading ECE department or an internationally renowned leader in her field.”

Crane said she was taken by surprise when she won the award, especially since she had a very non-traditional path into engineering.

“The foundation’s support has allowed me to move into a coveted realm in doctoral research, where the student is free to define the problem on which her research will focus without having to worry about focusing solely on a problem as defined in a grant,” said Crane.

Crane’s research at BU focuses on signal processing, though her work overlaps into other areas.

“We’re at the point now where artificial intelligence is really exploding, and fields like signal processing are interwoven in that explosion,” said Crane.

Crane said that she hopes her work will help improve the ability of artificial intelligence (AI) applications to work in the face of mutually interfering inputs.

Examples of such AI applications include Apple’s Siri or Google’s voice recognition. Both work if a user is speaking clearly into a microphone, but if there are signals like music or other voices superimposed on the input speech signal, the results are often inaccurate.

She hopes to find a way to extract the meaningful input even when interfering signals are in the way, and do so in a way that can be applied to multiple applications.

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to do research on a problem that has far-reaching implications and the potential to contribute something meaningful to the signal processing community at large,” she said.

Crane has been thrilled with her BU experience, describing her professors as “accessible and brilliant.”

“I am happy to be at BU, to call Boston home, and am looking forward to the experiences ahead,” said Crane. “Honestly, I’ve never been happier.”

-Rachel Harrington (rachelah@bu.edu)

Giving Voice Where There Is None

August 8th, 2013 in Alumni, Awards, Faculty, News-CE, News-EP, News-ISS, Recognition, Research, Research-CE, Senior Design, Students, Undergraduate Programs, Undergraduate Student Opportunities, Undergraduate Students

ENG Alums’ iPad App Helps Speech-Challenged Communicate

Verbal Care helps nonverbal patients communicate a desire for things like food, medicine, and pain relief by touching one of the large picture-based icons. Photo by Kelly Davidson.

Verbal Care helps nonverbal patients communicate a desire for things like food, medicine, and pain relief by touching one of the large picture-based icons. Photo by Kelly Davidson.

Every year, more than seven million people are affected by conditions that prevent them from speaking or understanding language. The disability may mean that stroke victims can’t tell a nurse that they need to use the bathroom, can’t share with their spouse that they are hungry, or can’t simply ask to please change the channel because they are about to watch a fourth straight episode of Law & Order.

To the rescue comes an iPad app designed by College of Engineering alumni Nick Dougherty, Eric Hsiao, and Gregory Zoeller (all CE ’12). Their creation, called Verbal Care, helps nonverbal patients communicate a desire for things like food, medicine, and pain relief by touching one of the large picture-based icons. After creating a few iterations of the software over the course of a year and testing in beta, the last stage of testing for a computer product, the trio will make the latest version of the app available in the iTunes store August 12.

“Our goal is to bridge the communication gap between patients and caregivers,” says Dougherty, CEO of Verbal Applications, the alums’ new company. “Patients will receive custom care faster, and hospitals will get money back in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements because of higher patient satisfaction scores.”

Verbal Care must be downloaded from the iTunes store and loaded onto an iPad. Once opened, the user is asked, “What would you like to say?” as nine icons pop up on the screen, among them “pain scale,” “food,” “bathroom,” and “entertainment.” Each category is subdivided into requests for certain types of food, for example, or a specific television station. Caregivers, who can receive the request on an iPad, can confirm requests with a “yes or no” module, and the app can also act as a rudimentary translation tool. Based on the needs of the patient, caregivers can add their own text, voice recordings, and images (“If the patient’s favorite food is Oreos, they can add that personal icon,” Zoeller says).

Caregivers can monitor a patient's request with the app. Photo courtesy of Verbal Care.

Caregivers can monitor a patient's request with the app. Photo courtesy of Verbal Care.

In addition to helping people who have trouble speaking, Verbal Care could one day make a difference for those with aphasia, a complex communication disorder caused most often by stroke. “Aphasia patients often mix up signals,” Hsiao says, “So our app has three different inputs, where they can see the pictures and icons, read the text, and hear audio feedback.”

After being challenged senior year to create a communications device by Theodore Morse, an ENG professor emeritus of electrical engineering, Dougherty, Hsiao, and Zoeller designed the Verbal Care app as part of ENG’s electrical and computer engineering (ECE) department senior design project. The three, along with former teammates Kenneth Zhong (ENG ’12) and Kholood Al Tabash (ENG ’12), won the ECE department’s Entrepreneurial Award and second place at the ENG Societal Impact Capstone Project Awards last year.

After graduating, Dougherty, Hsiao, and Zoeller formed their own business venture. Their research, shadowing nurses and speech pathologists at Massachusetts General Hospital, revealed some similar devices targeted specifically for aphasia patients, ALS patients, and stroke victims, but with price tags upwards of $7,500. Verbal Care was designed as a far more affordable app for all types of communications disorders. Currently the app is free, but Dougherty says it may be priced at around $10 a month, or $99 a year. The three alums also learned the importance of user-friendly design, which they achieved by using hard contrast, brighter colors, and very simple icons for patients with lower visibility, Hsiao says.

Nick Dougherty (from left), Gregory Zoeller, and Eric Hsiao (all CE '12) founded Verbal Care, which was selected for both the School of Management's 2013 ITEC New Venture Competition and the MassChallenge. Photo by Kelly Davidson.

Nick Dougherty (from left), Gregory Zoeller, and Eric Hsiao (all CE '12) founded Verbal Care, which was selected for both the School of Management's 2013 ITEC New Venture Competition and the MassChallenge. Photo by Kelly Davidson.

CEO Dougherty continues to meet with speech language pathologists, nurses, and patients to better understand what they need from the product. He also develops relationships with potential investors and hunts for grants. Zoeller, the COO, deals with pricing and projects how much money they will need from investors to become profitable and in what areas they should spend their money. Chief technology officer Hsiao oversees the product’s infrastructure and technology.

This summer, the three quit their jobs as web developers and software engineers to focus full-time on their business. They had plenty of encouragement – Verbal Care was selected both for the School of Management’s 2013 ITEC New Venture Competition, taking the People’s Choice Award, and the MassChallenge, an annual $1 million global accelerator program, two start-up camps where they could get excellent advice from experienced mentors. And while that advice is certainly helpful, Dougherty says, one of the most important lessons was learned while he was still a student.

“You have to be able to totally burn what you have and start over,” says Dougherty, who also founded the popular campus nonprofit Project Mailbox. “We’ve done Verbal over maybe four times. Every time it’s like a phoenix, where it crumbles to ashes and then rises out of the flames. I think there’s a lot to learn from that, and that’s the benefit of being a younger entrepreneur.”

The latest version of Verbal Care will be launched in the iTunes store on August 12. Users can e-mail the company for more information.

-Amy Laskowski, BU Today

Jeffrey Demas Awarded Honorable Mention in Maiman Student Paper Competition

July 15th, 2013 in Alumni, Awards, Faculty, Graduate Programs, Graduate Students, News-EP, Recognition, Research, Research-EP, Students

Donna Strickland, president of the Optical Society of America, awards BU ECE Ph.D. student, Jeffrey Demas, a certificate for honorable mention in the Maiman Student Paper Competition.

Donna Strickland, president of the Optical Society of America, awards BU ECE Ph.D. student, Jeffrey Demas, a certificate for honorable mention in the Maiman Student Paper Competition.

Lasers are a staple in our day-to-day lives and used in acne treatment, fingerprint detection, dentistry, printing, and a variety of other areas.

Researchers continue to find new applications for the devices, and in the future, they might be used in explosive identification, underwater sensing, and various high power communications applications.

A Boston University team in the Nanostructured Fibers and Nonlinear Optics lab, led by Associate Professor Siddharth Ramachandran (ECE), is hoping to help make that vision a reality by developing new high power fiber laser sources at frequencies not achievable by current means.

In a recent paper by Electrical & Computer Engineering Ph.D. students, Jeffrey Demas and Boyin Tai; postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Paul Steinvurzel; Yuhao Chen (MS ’13); and Ramachandran, the team described how they were able to generate new wavelengths by pumping a specially designed fiber with a higher order, bull’s-eye-shaped mode.

“The research itself is very visually dynamic due to the extent of the visible frequencies we generated,” said Demas. “I think on a deeper level, it’s also interesting because we were able to take a chaotic process in a system that allows dozens of intermodal interactions and simplify it to a well-understood pattern.”

Demas presented the paper, “Two Octaves of Frequency Generation by Cascaded Intermodal Nonlinear Mixing in Solid Optical Fiber,” during the 2013 Maiman Student Paper Competition. This contest takes place annually at the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO) and recognizes student innovation, research excellence and presentation skills in the areas of laser technology and electro-optics.

“I am delighted to note that several scientists in the field approached me at CLEO to comment on the excellent presentation Jeff made at the conference,” said Ramachandran.

The panel of judges, impressed by the work, awarded Demas honorable mention, which puts his paper in the top 3 out of more than 1000 student papers submitted to the conference.

“I was, and still am, incredibly honored and surprised,” said Demas. “This project has been incredibly stimulating and rewarding for me personally, so it was very nice to see that others were interested as well.”

Additionally, Ph.D. student, Patrick Gregg (ECE), was named a semi-finalist for his paper, “Stable Transmission of 12 OAM States in Air-Core Fiber.”

This was Demas’s second CLEO conference, and he said he was “blown away” by the quality and diversity of the research presented.

“Photonics can feel like a very tightknit community, but this conference in particular seems to do a good job sampling a large extent of the field,” said Demas.

Ramachandran said that the research offers “exciting implications” for high-power fiber laser development and is happy about the great strides the team has made on this project.

“I was particularly impressed by Jeff’s detailed analysis of the seemingly ‘chaotic’ data obtained in the lab, which resulted in uncovering a methodical rule for the nonlinear interactions we observed, and was the basis of his rather impressive CLEO paper and talk,” said Ramachandran.

Demas, who is a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering, said that working with Ramachandran has been a “spectacular” experience.

“It has been great to find a research advisor whose work aligned so well with both my background and my own interests,” said Demas. “Our lab is very driven, so the pace of the research is incredibly fast and we are constantly generating exciting results.”

-Rachel Harrington (rachelah@bu.edu)

Shawn Jin (SAR ’15) Receives Hariri Award for Summer Research

July 5th, 2013 in Alumni, Awards, Faculty, Graduate Students, News-CE, Recognition, Research, Research-CE, Students, Undergraduate Programs, Undergraduate Student Opportunities, Undergraduate Students

Last year, Shawn Jin (SAR '15) was a member of the gold medal-winning iGEM team. Here, he poses with his teammate and mentors. Pictured from left: PhD student, Evan Appleton (BME '10, MS '12); post-doctoral associate, Traci Haddock; Jin; Monique De Freitas (MET '13); PhD student, Sonya Iverson; and PhD student, Swati Carr.

Last year, Shawn Jin (SAR '15) was a member of the gold medal-winning iGEM team. Here, he poses with his teammate and mentors. Pictured from left: PhD student, Evan Appleton (BME '10, MS '12); post-doctoral associate, Traci Haddock; Jin; Monique De Freitas (MET '13); PhD student, Sonya Iverson; and PhD student, Swati Carr.

Shawn Jin (SAR ’15) may be majoring in human physiology, but that hasn’t kept him from diving into research that combines both biology and computer engineering.

A Kilachand Honors College student, Jin has been working this summer on synthetic biology research with Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE) and Traci Haddock, a post-doctoral associate in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering.

Densmore, who recently spoke about the challenges facing this field on a DISCOVER panel, said that DNA assembly is not an efficient practice currently. To help alleviate this, Jin is designing a standardized method for tracking genetic circuits that has the potential to help solve this problem.

“We’re essentially creating a library of well characterized DNA parts that will allow synthetic biologists to share and compare information more quickly,” said Jin.

To help support his summer research, Jin was awarded a Hariri Award by the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computation Science & Engineering. The prize is given to students conducting research in computer science.

In addition to researching, Jin will also spend the next several months preparing for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) regionals competition.

The iGEM competition, which is geared toward undergraduates, is dedicated to advancing the field of synthetic biology by developing its community and collaborations.

Last year, Jin and Monique De Freitas (MET ’13) took home gold in the competition. The BU team will be partnering with Wellesley College like previous years, and with five teammates this time instead of two, Jin and Haddock have high hopes for this year’s contest.

“Our partnership with Wellesley is great because they’re able to provide feedback on our software tools,” said Haddock, who advises the team. “We’re looking forward to working with them again.”

Eventually, Jin hopes to further his education by earning a medical degree. In the meantime, he’s looking forward to competing in iGEM this October in Toronto.

-Rachel Harrington (rachelah@bu.edu)