Category: Alumni

Engineering in the Alps

February 25th, 2014 in Alumni, Courses, Faculty, Graduate Programs, Graduate Students, News-CE, News-EP, News-ISS, Research, Research-EP, Research-ISS, Senior Design, Students, Undergraduate Programs, Undergraduate Students

Kevin Mader (ECE '08, MS '08, who is teaching at ETH Zürich, bikes in one of the side valleys of Engadin in the Swiss Alps.

Kevin Mader (ECE ’08, MS ’08), who is teaching at ETH Zürich, bikes in one of the side valleys of Engadin in the Swiss Alps.

As a master’s candidate studying Photonics at Boston University, Kevin Mader (ECE ’08, MS ’08) decided to become an Undergraduate Teaching Fellow, a position that allowed him to work with students and help them master difficult concepts.

“I felt like I could help students because I had just struggled with learning the concepts a year before and could relate well to what they were going through,” he said.

The experience made Mader realize he wanted to become a teacher and today, he is a lecturer at ETH Zürich in Switzerland, where he is hoping to inspire the next generation to get excited about engineering.

“I think that a lot of students lose interest in science and engineering early on because it becomes too technical before it gets interesting,” he said. “I hope to try and make it exciting without watering it down too much.”

Prior to living in Switzerland, Mader’s roots were in the United States, where he lived in California, Ohio, Oregon, and Massachusetts. Still, moving abroad wasn’t quite the challenge you might expect.

“For some things it is no adjustment at all – there are Starbucks and McDonald’s restaurants on nearly every street corner – but for other aspects getting used to a new language and a different culture can take some time,” he explained. “Luckily, students seem to be pretty similar all around the world and Zürich is a very international city so it’s never a problem finding interesting people and somewhere to fit in.”

As an undergraduate studying Electrical Engineering at BU, Mader worked closely with Senior Lecturer, Babak Kia, on his senior design project. Like in Switzerland, Mader never had any problems finding other researchers he could collaborate with effortlessly.

“He was a very effective team player, espousing a humble leadership style and patiently sharing his thoughts and ideas with his team,” said Kia, who served as Mader’s customer during senior design.

Mader’s team, Esplanade Runner, was tasked with enabling a robot to navigate a Google Maps route while avoiding obstacles in its path. Known as autonomous navigation, the project was assigned a few years before Google Street View cars were popularized.

Calling the research one of his “most valuable experiences at BU,” Mader said, “Our project was particularly cool since it was tangible: make a little car follow a route and avoid obstacles. It was also deceptively simple, and I learned how difficult it is to make timelines and get everything running on time. We spent a few nights in the lab banging our heads against the wall trying to synchronize our vehicle, compass, sensors, and GPS.”

The hard work ultimately paid off and their team won the ECE Day Best Presentation Award that year.

“Kevin could hardly contain his drive and enthusiasm throughout the project,” said Kia. “He has such a natural ability and curious mind for exploring the unknown that is just a joy to witness.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Mader decided to continue his studies by pursuing a master’s in Photonics at BU.

“Initially I was intrigued by Photonics because I had no idea what it really was and had studied in the building by that name for years,” said Mader. “After taking the introductory class I was surprised by how complicated imaging really is – iPhones make it so easy – and how much potential there was in the field.”

Mader had completed a summer internship at the Center for Biophotonics at the University of California, Davis, where he looked at how cellular spectroscopy and imaging could be used to detect cancer. Upon returning to BU, he decided to build upon what he learned by taking a course on imaging and microscopy with Professor Jerome Mertz (BME).

“What struck me about Professor Mertz from my first interaction with him was how much interest and passion he had for the science he was working on,” explained Mader. “He seemed like one of those people who would continue to do the exact same thing even after winning the lottery because he enjoyed it so much.”

Mader went on to work on his master’s thesis in Mertz’s laboratory, where he worked on improving bioluminescence imaging so that a small group of cells, like a tumor, could be detected without using lasers or X-rays.

“Kevin was great to work with – really creative,” said Mertz. “He could always look at things from different and unexpected perspectives that were really intriguing. I think he’ll make a great professor someday.”

Since completing his master’s, Mader has taken more steps toward eventually becoming a professor, including earning a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Biomechanics from ETH Zürich.

He has also earned a Pioneer Fellowship from the university, which will allow him to work toward pairing microscopes, MRIs and CT-scanners with tools that will turn pictures into meaningful statistics.

“There seems to be sufficient industrial interest. The real challenge will be connecting with the right people at the right times,” he said.

As Mader balances research with teaching, he continues to give his all in both.

“I think one of the best ways to really understand a topic is to have to disseminate it to other people,” he said. “In particular, I enjoy trying to connect abstract concepts like parallel computing to everyday ones like card games with friends.”

Truly committed to being the best teacher he can be, Mader can often be found tweaking his lecture slides minutes before a talk, even though he’d finished preparing weeks before.

Said Kia: “I have no doubt, not even for a second, that he will become a highly effective professor and that his deep passion for research and discovery will be surpassed only by his immense passion for his students.”

Learn more about Mader’s new company, 4Quant.

-Rachel Harrington (rachelah@bu.edu)

ECE Alum Named in Forbes “30 Under 30″ Consumer Tech List

February 18th, 2014 in Alumni, Graduate Students, News-CE, News-EP, News-ISS, Recognition, Research, Research-CE, Senior Design, Students, Undergraduate Students

Recognized for Wearable Fitness Tracking Device

By Chelsea Hermond (SMG’15), ECE, and Mark Dwortzan

Atlas-Wearables-Wristband-Bench-Press-Angled

Atlas’ wearable wristband tracks bench press reps. (Photos courtesy of Atlas)

Energized by New Year’s resolutions of spending more time in the gym, more and more of us are using apps and equipment to help track our progress. Jawbone and Nike Fuel Band are among the wearable products on the market designed to do just that, but there’s a growing demand for more customizable fitness tracking devices.

That’s the idea behind Atlas, an Austin, Texas-based company founded by Mike Kasparian (ECE ’12, MS’13) and his preschool friend, Peter Li. The Atlas Wristband tracks and identifies exercises, counts reps and sets, detects heartrate, calculates burned calories and evaluates form. It also displays workouts live and is compatible with many popular fitness apps such as MapMyFitness and Fitocracy.

Atlas cofounder Mike Kasparian (ECE'12, MS'13).

Atlas cofounder Mike Kasparian (ECE’12, MS’13).

Now the idea has won accolades from the editors of a major business magazine: Forbes has named the company’s 25-year-old cofounders in its 2015 “30 Under 30: Consumer Tech” listing. Their entry reads: “Atlas cofounders Peter Li and Michael Kasparian both wanted to find a better way to keep track of their workouts so they teamed up to create a wearable with 3D body tracking and advanced data analytics. Atlas launched on Indigogo at the beginning of 2014, and has raised $1.2 million in investment capital.”

“I’m very honored and excited to be a part of such an elite group of young professionals,” said Kasparian, who learned of his inclusion in theForbes list while in China overseeing assembly and production of the company’s first production prototypes. “I couldn’t have gotten to where I am today without the experiences and mentors I had at BU, and the team chemistry between myself and Peter.”

To identify a user’s exercises ranging from bicep curls to pushups, Atlas combines motion sensors and advanced machine learning algorithms with an exercise motion database, enabling comparisons between the user’s form and a library of perfect form reference exercises. For each exercise it identifies, the device counts the numbers of reps completed per workout and tracks the user’s progress over time through a mobile and web app.

Li, the company’s CEO, initially came up with the idea while developing a program for people at Johns Hopkins University to lose weight and gain muscle mass. He contacted Kasparian, then designing circuits for defibrillators at Philips Healthcare, to help with the hardware and start exploring a business strategy. Techstars, a startup accelerator in Austin, provided them with office space, funding and mentorship. Kasparian now serves as Atlas’s chief technology officer.

“To reach this level, where he is competing with some of the most innovative companies in this field, speaks volumes about Mike’s vision, ability and the value of the education he has received at BU,” said Adjunct Professor Bakak Kia (ECE), who advised Kasparian during his senior design project, which garnered the top team prize, the P. T. Hsu Memorial Award for Outstanding Senior Design Project, and an individual honor for Kasparian, the Michael F. Ruane Award for Excellence in Senior Capstone Design. For his Master of Science research project, Kasparian designed the hardware platform that would ultimately be used in the Atlas Wristband.

The company’s first batch of production-quality Atlas Wristbands will be delivered to early backers in April 2015, and orders are now being taken for its third batch, which will be shipped this summer.

EPIC Ribbon-Cutting Welcomes Industry, Local Officials

January 21st, 2014 in Alumni, Events, 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

Features tour of ENG’s new design, manufacturing studio

The Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC) will train BU engineers “for the future manufacturing economy in this country,” says EPIC director Gerry Fine. Photos by Mike Spencer

The Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC) will train BU engineers “for the future manufacturing economy in this country,” says EPIC director Gerry Fine. Photos by Mike Spencer

The Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC) hadn’t yet opened for its inaugural semester, and it already had a wait list of students eager to register for classes in the sleek, glass-fronted Commonwealth Avenue building that not too long ago was the Guitar Center. That bodes well for the College of Engineering and the University officials and corporate sponsors who made the new facility possible.

ENG will host EPIC’s ribbon-cutting ceremony this Thursday, January 23. Among those present will be President Robert A. Brown, ENG Dean Kenneth Lutchen, local dignitaries, and key corporate partners, including representatives from principal industry sponsors GE AviationProcter & GamblePTC, and Schlumberger.

Lutchen, who is also an ENG professor of biomedical engineering, says that EPIC’s opening “now begins the opportunity for us to transform our engineering education at the undergraduate level to really create a much more powerfully enabled graduate who understands the process of designing products from conception to deployment.”

Those skills are particularly important, and valuable, now that manufacturing is making a comeback in the United States. US manufacturers have added at least 500,000 new workers since the end of 2009, energy costs have dropped, and labor costs in competing countries such as China and India have been inching upward.

Companies like Apple and GE are bringing high-tech facilities back home from overseas. While a positive development, “the problem is now there aren’t enough engineers trained in highly technological methods,” says Bruce Jordan, ENG assistant dean of development and alumni relations.

EPIC could help fill that void. “We’re hoping to set a standard for the training of engineers for the future manufacturing economy in this country,” says EPIC director Gerry Fine, an ENG professor of the practice.

Funded through the University, ENG alumni and friends, and regional industry, EPIC’s 20,000-square-foot space houses a computer-aided design (CAD) studio, demonstration areas, fabrication facilities, materials testing, and project management software available to engineering students in all specialties — from computer and electrical engineering to biomedical engineering and nanotechnology. The facility has a flexible design and offers students supply chain management software, 3-D printers, robotics, laser processing, and around-the-clock digital access to the studio’s online resources.

A representative from each principal industry sponsor, GE Aviation, Procter & Gamble, PTC, and Schlumberger, will sit on EPIC’s Industrial Advisory Board, whose primary function will be to offer suggestions on how the ENG undergraduate curriculum might be redesigned to better prepare students for employment in the years ahead.

Timothy Jackman (ENG’15) with one of EPIC’s 3-D printers, which he used to create a miniature car from a digital model.

Timothy Jackman (ENG ’15) with one of EPIC’s 3-D printers, which he used to create a miniature car from a digital model.

“We want to create as many options for our graduating students as possible,” Fine says. “By teaching them some of the things that regional industry wants, we think we’re giving our students more options. And we’re making our students more desirable to potential employers.”

Representatives from the principal sponsors will also participate in guest lectures and provide case studies and projects, and the companies will offer internship and employment opportunities to qualified students. 

While other universities have manufacturing-oriented centers, most focus on basic research, but EPIC allows engineering students to put theory into practice by converting their ideas into products that could one day benefit society.

Fine has given tours of the facility to at least five teams from other universities since June. “We’re not aware of anyone who’s invested in this scale and made this commitment to undergraduate education,” he says.

“When I first heard from Dean Lutchen about the idea of EPIC, I was thrilled,” says Michael Campbell (ENG ’94), executive vice president of PTC’s CAD segment, who will serve on EPIC’s advisory board. “I always felt that my engineering education lacked that real-world perspective, that real-world exposure to the challenges, processes, and complexities of collaboration and the sophistication of tools. Now we have a chance to share all of that with students.”

J. David Rowatt, research director and technical advisor at Schlumberger, echoes that sentiment. “There were so many things I didn’t learn in school that I picked up on the job,” he says. “Some of these are clearly being addressed by what EPIC is trying to do,” which is exposing students to the entire engineering process — from conception and manufacturing to working on deadlines and understanding resource constraints.

Greg Morris, strategy and business development leader for additive manufacturing with GE Aviation, says this generation of students grew up in a world where computers and software were second nature, but tinkering under the hood of a car was not. EPIC will provide engineering students with the hands-on experience that gives them an advantage in the marketplace. “I can’t tell you how much that resonates with an employer,” he says.

Both BU and its partners see EPIC as a win-win. ENG faculty and students will benefit from a revamped curriculum and access to global leaders in innovation and manufacturing, while industry partners will interact with the University’s deep bench of cutting-edge researchers and get exposure to a new crop of engineers.

“If we tap into EPIC,” says Bruno De Weer, the vice president of global engineering at Procter & Gamble, “we can find ourselves connected with another hub of innovation that brings the very best.”

The EPIC ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 23, at 750 Commonwealth Ave., followed by a reception and tours for those invited. The event is not open to the public.

-Leslie Friday, BU Today

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)