By Mark Dwortzan
Emeritus Professor Thomas G. Kincaid, a longtime faculty member and former chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, died on January 18 at the age of 77.
He joined the Boston University faculty in 1983 and served as ECE chair from 1983 to 1994. He retired in 2006.
Kinkaid’s research at BU focused on signal and image processing, photonics, dynamic neural networks and nondestructive testing. He taught courses in engineering and in logic design, signals and systems, and advised graduate students pursuing degrees in electrical engineering. Previously, he worked as a researcher for General Electric. A member of the IEEE and its Signal Processing Society, he received his PhD from MIT in 1965.
Throughout his career, Kincaid viewed the cultivation of character and relationships as the foundation of success.
“Tom was a terrific mentor and gentleman and supporter,” said Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen in a message to the ENG faculty. “He had such a calming and gentle yet authoritative demeanor. Boston University benefited greatly from his presence and his leadership.”
As ECE chair, Kincaid increased the size of the department by more than 50 percent, hiring faculty that included three future ECE chairs—ECE Professors Bahaa Saleh (Emeritus), David Castañón (SE) and W. Clem Karl (BME, SE). He also increased the size of the graduate program and focused it on doctoral education.
“Tom was a long, dedicated and impactful member of the ECE department and the College of Engineering,” said Karl. “He was a calm and sure administrator and an able and caring educator.”
A native of Hamilton, Ontario, Kincaid is survived by his wife Elizabeth (Betsy); their three children—Thomas John, Colin and Elizabeth (Mimi)—and their spouses; and nine grandchildren.
A celebration of Kincaid’s life is scheduled for Saturday, January 24 at 11 a.m. at Grace Chapel, 59 Worthen Road, Lexington, Mass; a reception will follow. The family has planned a private burial ceremony. Memorial donations may be made in his name, in lieu of flowers, to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research or to World Vision, Inc.
ECE Researchers Develop Powerful New Software Tools
By Mark Dwortzan
Over the past 15 years, synthetic biology researchers have rewired and reprogrammed genetic “circuits” in living cells and organisms to enable them to perform specified tasks, both to improve our understanding of biology and to solve critical problems in healthcare, energy and the environment, food safety, global security and other domains. While practitioners dream of engineering each new organism as expeditiously as today’s new mobile phone apps are produced, serious obstacles remain. Genetic parts are hard to find and tune, the final behaviors of engineered organisms are difficult to predict, and few tools exist that can handle the scale and complexity of the enterprise.
In recent years, however, two researchers at the College of Engineering, Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME, Bioinformatics) and Research Assistant Professor Swapnil Bhatia (ECE) have joined forces to streamline synthetic biology from concept to design to assembly, encoding solutions in a rich suite of software tools. In a paper published in Nature Biotechnology, they and collaborating researchers at MIT demonstrated how their tools can be used iteratively to help synthetic biologists to specify, analyze and improve large-scale designs for engineered biological organisms.
“Currently, people write down a sequence of genetic parts, one in each column, for each design,” said Bhatia. “You can do this correctly when you have a few designs, but when you want to do it for a 100 designs, you begin to wonder if there’s a more powerful approach. Our algorithms allow researchers to describe whole spaces of designs, including those they might not have thought of because the possibilities are so vast.”
In the paper, Densmore and Bhatia showed the potential of their software tools by describing a network of 16 genes central to engineering nitrogen fixation—a key pathway which, if engineered into plants, could mitigate the need for fertilizer. Using specifications generated by the software, they and their collaborators “rewired” a network of genes extracted from one bacterial species, Klebsiella oxytoca, and transplanted it into another one, E. coli, that’s easier to work with in the desired application.
The researchers, who were funded by a $3.6 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant, thus demonstrated the first instance in which synthetic biologists ported a large gene cluster from one organism into another. It’s a process Bhatia likens to persistently tinkering with an app that runs on an iPhone to make it work on a Kindle, and believes will pave the way for many synthetic biology applications.
“This paper is an excellent example of parallel development of biological and computational tools,” said Densmore. “Recombinant DNA and cloning techniques have improved at a rapid pace, but the state of computational tools for engineering biology has lagged behind. People still use spreadsheets and notebooks for large projects. This has to change.”
Seeking to accelerate that change, Densmore and Bhatia are already focused on developing the next generation of tools for synthetic biology that will automatically learn biological design rules, propose genetic circuit designs, plan DNA assemblies and automate much of the pipetting labor involved in the assembly of engineered biological systems.
By Gabriella McNevin and Donald Rock (COM ’17)
2,820 papers were submitted to the 2014 IEEE International Conference on Image Processing. 1,219 were accepted. 9 were honored as finalists; and two received top accolades. Boston University Professor Vivek Goyal (ECE) and the co-authors of “Computational 3D and Reflectivity Imaging with High Photon Efficiency” received the Best Paper Award.
The conference was held October 27-30 in Paris, and annually draws the world’s leading image and video processing engineers and scientists. It is sponsored by IEEE Signal Processing Society to be a premier forum for new technologies and research in theoretical, experimental, and applied image and video processing.
Assistant Professor Goyal co-authored the paper with his Ph.D. students Dongeek Shin (MIT) and Ahmed Kirmani (MIT), along with MIT Professor Jeffrey H. Shapiro. The paper proposed the field’s most efficient imaging methodology in terms of the number of detected photons, besting the efficiency of “first-photon imaging” research, which was also published by Goyal’s team, in early 2014.
The primary difference between these leading photon-efficient schemes relates to the pixel acquisition time. The new model simplifies the signal collecting process by applying similar theory and algorithms, but with deterministic acquisition durations.
The research team applied the discovery by forming images computationally from very little detected light—about 1 photon per pixel. Modeling and algorithms were implemented to form grayscale photographs of scenes and measurements of 3D structures simultaneously.
In an email correspondence with Goyal, he remarked on the research team’s problem solving efforts. “We applied a rather simple and systematic approach to improve upon the state of the art.” He continued, “I hope that the award encourages others to adopt [our] integrated approach rather than to work on one aspect in isolation.”
Goyal also confided that he was notified of the win by a text message sent by Dr. Philip Chou of Microsoft Research. Chou sent a photo of a co-author holding the prize certificate. “It was a fun way to get the good news.”
IBM & IEEE recognize ECE & SE research contributions that are expected to improve urban life in Boston.
By Gabriella McNevin
Ushered in with the 21st century, are challenges that require real technological innovations. The global population is growing and, like magnets, people are moving to cities. According to the UN, by 2030, 60% of the population will live in a city, and by 2050, 70% (source). City officials are taking measures to adapt to the steadily increasing population. Today, Boston is zeroing in on population sustainability issues that threaten driver safety and drain energy: Inadequate road infrastructure and an antiquated repair system.
As part of a multifaceted collaboration to create technology to solve urban problems, the City of Boston and a Boston University-led team of researchers have developed equipment to improve the local thoroughfare, called “Street Bump.”
IBM and IEEE has recognized “Street Bump” as a significant contribution to Boston, and have presented the developers the second place prize in “IBM Students for a Smarter Planet/IEEE Smarter Planet Challenge: Student Projects Changing the World.” The team’s project, entitled, “Street Bumps and Big Data Analytics: Crowdsourcing Our Way to Better Roads,” demonstrates engineering expertise and a commitment to improving the world.
The team of researchers includes graduate students Theodora Brisimi (ECE), Yue Zhang (SE), Wuyang Dai (ECE), Setareh Ariafar (SE) and Nicholas Baladis (MIT). Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) and Professor Ioannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE, BME) are team advisors. All BU researchers are affiliated with the Center for Information and Systems Engineering.
The project focuses on an iPhone app – “Street Bump” – developed by the City of Boston to collect data on road conditions. The app is used by city employees and many citizens and was designed to facilitate crowdsourcing in collecting relevant road condition data. It uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to detect “bumps” sensed during a trip. The app then transmits the data to the City of Boston. The information can be used to alert repair crews of road damage. The algorithms developed by the BU-led team analyze the data received by the City and classifies the detected bumps into “actionable” and “non-actionable.” Severe bumps like potholes are actionable and can be prioritized in scheduling repairs.
In this work, the team collaborated with The City of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, which provided actual data from the City’s servers. Office Co-Chair Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood have echoed the Office’s website saying, “there is a revolution going on in how cities are designed & built. This new focus on technology infrastructure and sustainable design links how a city is built with how it is managed and experienced.”
“Street Bump” is the second smart city application Professor Casssandras has advised that received national attention. The first app, Smart Parking, also won 2nd place in the “IBM Students for a Smarter Planet/IEEE Smarter Planet Challenge: Student Projects Changing the World” competition in 2011.
BME Prof Advanced Hearing and Acoustics Research
Professor David C. Mountain (BME), 68, died on November 5 in Newburyport after a long illness. An internationally recognized professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University for the past 35 years, Mountain pursued research on auditory function and underwater acoustics, and was a cofounder of Biomimetic Systems, Inc., a Cambridge-based startup advancing acoustic sensors for medical, military and other applications. In 2002 he was inducted as a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering “for significant engineering-driven advances in the structure-function-mechanism relations of auditory physiology, with emphasis on outer hair cells and cochlea.”
As a principal investigator at the Auditory Biophysics and Simulation Laboratory and a key member of the Hearing Research Center, Mountain pursued studies that combined engineering and physiological techniques to model and improve understanding of the hearing process. He especially sought to pinpoint, quantify and model mechanisms of auditory processing in the cochlea, or inner ear, including the amplifying effect of the cochlea’s outer hair cells. He also studied natural acoustic signal sources and acoustic environments in order to better understand how the auditory pathway evolved and to develop computer simulations of natural environments for use as input to his models of the auditory pathway.
Applying many of his insights to real world problems, Mountain studied marine mammal hearing and undersea sound propagation for the Navy, and was the main force behind EarLab, an online ear experiment, modeling and database platform. He had planned to go on sabbatical this spring to study the effects of low-frequency noise from windmills.
As an educator, Mountain took a leading role in the design and evolution of the BME Department’s undergraduate and graduate curricula, and was a passionate advocate for incorporating substantial design content in BME courses. He served for many years as a member of the University’s Faculty Council representing the College of Engineering.
“From the start David clearly cared so much for the department, for the field, for undergraduate and graduate education, for collegiality,” said College of Engineering Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen. “He was a brilliant educator and scientist.”
“David played a pioneering role in the general development of the department, and hearing research specifically, over the past 35 years,” said BME Chair and Professor Sol Eisenberg. “His contributions over the years in so many areas have helped to make us the department we are today. He will be deeply missed.”
A member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, Association for Research in Otolaryngology, and Society for Neuroscience, Mountain authored or co-authored 175 articles, book chapters and other publications. He was also associate editor of Auditory Neuroscience from 1994 to 1997, served as a member of review panels for the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and NASA, and as a co-organizer, panelist or invited speaker at conferences focused on auditory systems and acoustics. Mountain received his BS degree in Electrical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and MS and PhD degrees in Electrical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he met both his wife, Barbara Bereman, and his longtime research colleague, Professor Allyn Hubbard (ECE, BME).
As they pursued their PhDs, Mountain and Hubbard conducted many auditory experiments. “Often, we worked the entire night,” said Hubbard. “If the experiment failed, we usually plugged away, trying to perfect our instrumentation and data collection methods.”
They joined the BU faculty in the fall of 1979, and within nine months received the first government research grant ever awarded to the College of Engineering. “We did much of our handwritten work and brainstorming in the back room of the Dugout,” Hubbard recalled. “I named my son David Allyn, so to never forget the tremendous team we were together.”
Mountain and Hubbard went on to become fellow principal investigators of the Auditory Biophysics and Simulation Laboratory and—along with Professor H. Stephen Colburn (BME) and Professor Herb Voigt (BME)—original core members of the Hearing Research Center.
Raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Mountain resided in the greater Newbury area since 1979, and was very engaged in local civic affairs. He served on the Merrimac Valley Planning Commission, the Newbury Planning Board from 2000 to 2011, and Town of Newbury Board of Selectmen since 2011. A true societal engineer, Mountain was known to apply his science and engineering expertise in selectmen’s meetings to help his colleagues address issues ranging from dune erosion on Plum Island to noise levels associated with a proposed solar array installation.
Mountain was also founder, director and president emeritus of the Parker River Clean Water Association, a successful alliance he formed with neighbors in 1994 that prevented a proposed development along the Parker River. In addition, he co-authored the highly influential Tidal Crossing Handbook: A Volunteer Guide to Assessing Tidal Restrictions, and wrote The Mills of Byfield, on the value of village mills in early New England. Along with his wife, Barbara, he also preserved and restored antique homes. He had several hobbies, including canoeing, camping, fishing, photography and wildlife tracking.
“Dave was an expert sailor and fisherman,” said Voigt. “He once took Allyn Hubbard and me out in his sailboat to go fishing in the Atlantic. He was focused on finding underwater ‘structure’—for that was where the fish were. He found his spot, and he and Allyn started catching many cod while I was still baiting my hook. In an hour we had more fish than we could have hoped for, and then they were gone.”
Mountain is survived by his wife, Barbara Bereman, of Byfield; daughters Carrie Mountain of Boston and Rebecca Mountain of Tucson, Arizona; sisters Jeanne Kay Guelke of Wynndel, British Columbia and Nancy Mountain of Roselle, Illinois; and several nieces and nephews.
Vanderbilt University Dean Philippe Fauchet Visits BU to join the ECE Distinguished Lecture Series
By Gabriella McNevin
“Aside from oxygen, silicon is the most abundant material on earth’s crust,” stated Professor Philippe Fauchet while speaking as part of the ECE Distinguished Lecture Series at Boston University.
On Wednesday, October 29th, Fauchet’s lecture audience sat waiting to learn how silicon has evolved in the last 20 years to become an almost universal material outside electronics. He answered their anticipation with a disclaimer.
“I will not cover the details of the extensive research. I will give a tour.”
Thus, Fauchet began a lecture, entitled ‘Nanoscale Silicon as an Optical Material,’ to share a big picture view of a wide-ranging subject. He provided an overview on the history of silicon research, and insight on how it may be practically applied for mass-market consumption. He reviewed properties of bulk silicon and techniques by which is may be exploited in research.
In the last 20 years, researchers have expanded and repurposed silicon for use in new industries. Professor Fauchet elaborated on breakthrough silicon biosensor technology that can lead to Ebola detection equipment. Early work was considered to be a success, but was not adapted for wide-use in the health care sector. Its detection capacity was not considered sensitive enough.
Currently, Professor Fauchet is working to advance research on silicon biosensors for the detection of viruses such as Ebola. Fauchet and his team are developing technology with increasing sensitivity, and the ability to concentrate affected Ebola viruses.
Professor Philippe Fauchet has been the Dean of the School of Engineering at Vanderbilt University since 2012. He has founded a successful startup, has over 400 publications, and is a Fellow of SPIE, OSA, IEEE, APS, and MRS.
Professor Fauchet concluded the 2014 Fall ECE Distinguished Lecture Series. The 2015 Spring ECE Distinguished Lecture Series will include Professor Ken Loparo (3/4), Professor Luke Lester (3/18), and Professor John Lach (4/1).
By Gabriella McNevin
As a Senior Member, Densmore has the ability to hold executive IEEE positions and serve as a reference for other applicants for senior membership. To be eligible one must have shown significant performance in at least ten years in professional practice. Additionally, three references must be submitted on behalf of the applicant.
Densmore’s research is focused on bio-design automation. He elaborated, “my work uses principles from computer engineering like abstraction, modularity, and standardization to design living systems. Computer software is going to be vital to not only store large amounts of biological material but also to implement algorithms for its specification, design, and assembly.”
Densmore is pleased to receive IEEE validation for interdisciplinary research. “It is great that IEEE is realizing that those working in interdisciplinary fields have an important role to play in the organization and serve as ambassadors for IEEE.”
Douglas Densmore is an Affiliated Investigator in the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), an Affiliate Faculty Member of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Bioinformatics faculty member. Densmore participated in the 2013 National Academy of Engineering (NAE) U.S. Frontiers of Engineering Symposium and received a National Science Foundation CAREER award.
In regards to recognition received from Boston University’s internal programs, Densmore received a 2013 Ignition Award, 2013 College of Engineer Early Career Excellence Award, and was named 2012-2014 Hariri Institute Junior Faculty Fellow. A list of Densmore’s awards, research interest, and selected publications are available on the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering website.
Attendees Celebrate New IEEE Journal Edited by ENG’s Paschalidis
By Mark Dwortzan
Microbes are all around us—even inside us—and that’s a good thing. Left alone, these tiny organisms have a huge impact on everything from human health to wastewater treatment. But with a little engineering, they could do even more. In certain environments, their metabolic processes could be exploited to make biofuels, vaccines and other useful products and services. To tap their potential, Associate Professor Daniel Segrè (Biology, BME, Bioinformatics) and collaborators have developed mathematical models to predict the metabolic interactions that occur among different microbial species under varying environmental conditions, and to design new microbial networks with desired properties.
Sponsored by the IEEE Control Systems Society and the Center for Information and Systems Engineering at Boston University, SCONES celebrated the inaugural March 2014 issue of theIEEE Transactions on Control of Network Systems(TCNS), a new IEEE Transactions journal edited by Professor Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, BME, SE) focused on problems related to the control, design, study, engineering, optimization and emerging behavior of network systems.
“We live in a world that is extremely interconnected,” said Paschalidis, the journal’s editor-in-chief. “This is also true of systems, biological or manmade, that support our modern way of life. Networks, which both connect system components and influence how they function as a whole, are increasingly the focus of leading edge research, and this is the impetus forTCNS and SCONES.”
One author of each paper in the inaugural issue presented at the symposium, along with talks and posters from several other researchers in the field.
Representing major research institutions from around the world, SCONES presenters explored the analysis, control and optimization of electric power, computer, communication, transportation, biological, cyber-physical, social and economic networks. As if bringing the TCNS journal to life, the 23 featured speakers illustrated complex concepts with a flurry of equations, algorithms, graphs and diagrams.
“TCNS aspires to become the premiere destination for mathematically rigorous work in network systems,” said Magnus Egerstedt, an ECE Professor at Georgia Tech and the TCNS deputy editor-in-chief—and the SCONES presenters lived up to that promise.
In addition to Segrè, two other Boston University researchers shared highlights of papers they co-authored in the inaugural issue of TCNS on resource allocation and routing, the selection of optimal path by which to transmit information across the nodes of a network.
Professor Lev Levitin (ECE, SE) presented an alternative to wormhole routing, a widely used routing technique that’s prone to deadlock—multiple messages getting blocked by one another in a vicious cycle—under heavy computer network traffic. Levitin described a series of new, high-performance algorithms that he, Professor Mark Karpovsky (ECE) and ECE Visiting Researcher Mehmet Mustafa developed to break such cycles and prevent deadlock formation during routing and thus preserve network connectivity.
Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) presented an optimal control strategy that he, Tao Wang (SE, PhD’13) and Sepideh Pourazarm (SE, PhD candidate) devised to maximize the lifetime of sensor batteries deployed at each node of a wireless sensor network for surveillance, environmental monitoring or other applications where human intervention may be inconvenient or costly.
“Because every node has limited energy, you have to worry about the battery dying and the network ceasing to function,” said Cassandras, “so you need to focus on battery lifetime.”
Modeling each battery as a dynamic system in which energy does not dissipate in a linear fashion, the strategy uses an algorithm to determine the routing scheme that will minimize that energy loss.
The symposium, which was well-attended and featured many fruitful exchanges between speakers and attendees, signified how well the TCNS journal has been received by the international research community, Paschalidis observed.
“In the first three TCNS issues published in 2014, we have seen papers covering many types of network systems, from networked control and multi-agent systems, to communication, transportation, electric power, biological and social networks,” he noted. “SCONES is playing a key role in coalescing a community of researchers around the journal.”
“When I told my wife I was coming here to speak as a Distinguished Lecturer, she laughed and replied, ‘that just means you are growing more gray hair.’”
Professor David Lilja opened his lecture on “When Close is Good Enough: Exploiting Randomness for Highly Reliable Approximate Computing” with humor before diving into the details of his research findings. Professor Lilja is the Louis John Schnell Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he also serves as the ECE departmenthead,a member of he graduate faculties in Computer Science and Scientific Computation, and a fellow of the Minnesota Supercomputer Institute. Lilja visited Boston University as part of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Distinguished Lecture Series.
In his lecture Professor Lilja related the technological movement towards miniaturized systems and the resulting need to improve energy efficiency and reliability. He proposed to use stochastic techniques for improving the cost-performance of computing operations while ensuring that the resulting solution is within acceptable limits i.e. the approximate result is close enough to the true result. In addition, Professor Lilja also addressed the issue of greater variability, defects and noise in today’s circuits due to the aggressive scaling of device technologies. He demonstrated that the proposed stochastic approach makes the circuits more tolerant to noise. In particular, any bit flips that may occur in the logic circuits do not result in large errors.
Lilja showed that a variety of functions can be implemented using the stochastic approach. He focused on four common image processing applications – edge detection, median filter noise reduction, contrast enhancement and segmentation based on kernel density estimation, and pointed out that energy-efficient approximate image processing solutions using stochastic methods would be highly suitable for cameras, for instance.
Lilja was the second speaker to be featured in the three-part Fall 2014 Distinguished Lecture Series. Next, Philippe Fauchet, Professor of Electrical Engineering, College of Engineering of Vanderbilt University will take part in the series. He will speak on the topic, “Nanoscale Silicon as an Optical Material.” His lecture will be held October 29, 2014 at 4 pm in PHO 210.
By Gabriella McNevin
Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering will bridge disciplines
By Barbara Moran and Sara Rimer, BU Research
This story was originally published on the BU Research website.
For decades, some of the most exciting research at Boston University has been unfolding in a row of buildings hidden on Cummington Mall, designed originally for making carriages instead of studying the life sciences.
Now University President Robert A. Brown is giving science a more prominent address on the University’s main thoroughfare. In late May or early summer 2015, at what is now a parking lot at 610 Commonwealth Avenue, BU will break ground for its new Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering (CILSE), a $140 million, state-of-the-art, nine-story research facility that will bring together life scientists, engineers, and physicians from the Medical and Charles River Campuses. The building will be dedicated to systems neuroscience, cognitive neuroimaging, and biological design. With shared, flexible lab spaces, meeting rooms, and other common areas, it is being designed to encourage the kind of collaborative, interdisciplinary research that will be the hallmark of 21st-century science.
“Today, many of the outstanding challenges in science lie at the boundaries between traditional disciplines or the unchartered spaces between them,” says Brown. These unchartered spaces will be explored at CILSE, a place he says will foster “major interdisciplinary research efforts led by faculty from many departments and schools, but with common interests.”
CILSE will be built adjacent to historic Morse Auditorium and is expected to be finished in late 2016 or early 2017. It will contain lab space for approximately 160 researchers, postdoctoral students, and staff, 270 graduate students, and additional space for future faculty. The architects are from Payette, a Boston firm that has built prizewinning science buildings for major research universities and other institutions around the world.
The 170,000-square-foot building will house the Center for Systems Neuroscience, the Biological Design Center, the Center for Sensory Communication and Neuroengineering Technology, and the Cognitive Neuroimaging Center, with a 3 Tesla fMRI—a fundamental tool for studying the brain’s trillions of neural connections and how they relate to human behavior. The imaging technology will serve faculty from schools and departments across BU’s sprawling neuroscience community—and from other universities around Boston—who study brain topics from how we learn, think, and remember to traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease.
“In the life sciences and engineering, we have world-class faculty. We need facilities to match,” says Gloria Waters, vice president and associate provost for research. “We decided to invest in better lab space that would bring faculty together in a very unique and interdisciplinary environment.”
The new Center for Sensory Communication and Neuroengineering Technology will be directed by Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, a College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering, and will bring together neuroscientists and sensory physiologists who study hearing, speech, and language, as well as mathematicians who investigate neural coding. The center will connect scientists in these areas to enhance technological innovation and develop technologies such as neural prosthetics and brain-computer interfaces.
Chantal Stern, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of psychological and brain sciences and the director of the Brain, Behavior and Cognition program, will direct the Cognitive Neuroimaging Center. She says the building—and especially the new imaging technology—signals the administration’s commitment to first-class research at BU.
The University boasts one of the nation’s largest clusters of researchers in the emerging fields of systems neuroscience, which examines brain function at the cellular, molecular, and cognitive levels, and biological design, which seeks to build new biological systems with the tools and techniques of engineering. These interdisciplinary fields tackle some of the thorniest problems in science and medicine, like the detection and treatment of infectious diseases, treatments for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, how memory works, and the root causes of autism. These problems draw researchers from diverse fields who are currently spread across both campuses.
“One of the great things about BU is that we have spectacular faculty from many different disciplines,” says Waters. “This building will allow us to bring them together in ways that wouldn’t happen if they occupied space in their individual school or college. By placing new groups in proximity to one another, we are hoping to develop collaborations that would not happen otherwise, and ultimately some unique areas of excellence.”
Like many scientists working across disciplines, Douglas Densmore, an ENG assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and of biomedical engineering and a primary investigator in the young field of biological design, has multiple offices and students scattered in buildings across campus. CILSE will allow him to gather his various research projects, and his students, under one roof. “I want students to be able to see each other,” says Densmore. “It will be great to be in a welcoming environment that facilitates collaboration.”
Ask other researchers what tops their wish list for the new building and many of them echo Densmore. Their number-one priority is simple: finally having a place to bring their colleagues together.
“You find neuroscientists and people who define themselves as neuroscientists on both campuses—in psychological and brain sciences, biomedical engineering, biology, at Sargent College, in mathematics, physics, radiology, psychiatry, anatomy, neurobiology, pharmacology—and they’re all in different buildings,” Stern says. She is looking forward to the collaborative projects these researchers might be inspired to undertake once they’re under the same roof.
So how do you encourage biologists to talk to engineers? One way to do that, says principal architect Charles Klee, is by creating lab spaces large enough—the plan for CILSE is 17,000 to 20,000 square feet per research floor—to put two or three principal investigators on each floor. “With people in the same space, you can say, ‘I’m having a problem with my protein sequencer; have you ever seen this?’ Another person can answer, ‘Sure—someone over here can help you with that,’” says Klee.
Scientists from different disciplines may also share lab space on the same floor in some instances. In addition to the abundance of other common spaces, there will be kitchenettes on each research floor and—one of Klee’s favorite ideas for promoting serendipitous, cross-disciplinary encounters—an inviting, open stairway connecting the kitchenettes.
“We understand you’ll talk to someone when you have to,” says Klee. “What we’re looking for is the chance discussion that happens just because you bump into someone. It jars something loose in your mind, causes you to think about something in a new way—that’s very much what this kind of a building is trying to do.”
As science has evolved, so has the design of science buildings. “When I was beginning my career, most buildings were designed to function within single disciplines,” says Brown. “I have seen this change dramatically over the last two decades. Now, almost all universities are focused on allocating quality space to strategically important interdisciplinary research.”
“Whenever they ask if we want a wall or not, we say no wall,” says Densmore. “You need this flexibility or you’re going to paint yourself into a corner.” Densmore imagines a futuristic lab space for his work in biological design, with multiple microfluidic devices, 3-D printers creating custom equipment, and RFID-enabled name tags to track students’ experiments. “When people walk in, they’ll say, ‘Something different is going on here,’” he says.
Other scientists have different ambitions for the building, especially for the Cognitive Neuroimaging Center. “We want to have room to put in an exercise bike, in case we want to study exercise and the brain,” says Tyler Perrachione, a Sargent College assistant professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences and a Peter Paul Career Development Professor. “Or beds, so we can study sleep and the brain. We’ll have the ability to study the biology of the brain in action.”
Perrachione, who plans to use the Cognitive Neuroimaging Center primarily for pediatric imaging, has been working with the architect to make sure it will be welcoming for children. “It turns out when you set up a center that’s friendly for kids,” he says, “it’s friendly for adults, too.”
Perrachione notes that the neuroimaging facility will also include a “mock scanner” (“kind of like a scanner play set,” he says) that will allow special populations—children, people with autism or anxiety, the elderly—to become familiar with the MRI before entering the actual scanner.
Another critically important feature for neuroscientists at CILSE will be the sophisticated testing rooms that will minimize vibrations and shield experiments from electrical noise and electromagnetic interference. These factors can hinder research, whether it involves interviewing human subjects or the painstaking work of recording signals from individual neurons. Some of the lab space will have special floors that minimize everyday vibrations—from, say, footsteps—that could get in the way of research.
“It’s very different than setting up an office building—it’s not just a computer and desk,” says Michael Hasselmo, director of the Center for Systems Neuroscience and a CAS professor of psychological and brain sciences. “A person walking past your lab can ruin your whole experiment.”
When it comes to the exterior, says Klee, the new science building will be “airy, transparent, beautiful.” He says his team is mindful that CILSE should not overshadow iconic Morse Auditorium, which is eligible for historic landmark status. “This will be a quiet building,” he says. “It won’t shout.”
And that, the architect says, seems to suit the researchers. They just want to get inside and do their work. “Research is much more than a job; it’s not a 9-to-5 activity,” he says.
“There’s this kind of passion. They want a facility that will let them do what they want to do. Come hell or high water, it has to function.”
Brown has emphasized that the research inside the building be reflected in its exterior, says Klee. Just as EPIC (the new Engineering Product Innovation Center on Commonwealth Avenue) allows the public to see the hands-on nature of engineering, CILSE’s glass-walled exterior will provide a window onto basic science research at BU.
“This is not a building that wants to be ashamed that it’s a research building,” Klee says. “You’ll be able to see the exhaust fans on the roof, for example. It’s transparent. You can see life in it. A lot of buildings are opaque—you have no idea whether it’s a dorm, an office building, or a bank. We’re giving science a front door on Commonwealth Avenue.”