Category: Graduate Student Opportunities
Computing and embedded systems might not be something you think about everyday, but they’re found in devices we see all the time like MP3 players and traffic lights.
The potential of these systems continues to rise as engineers perfect their design. Imagine driving a car that could recognize traffic and switch lanes to avoid congestion or using a brain pacemaker to treat Parkinson’s disease.
Those were just a few of the possibilities Professor Yehia Massoud, the Head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, mentioned last month when he visited Boston University. He spoke as part of the Electrical & Computer Engineering Department’s Fall 2013 Distinguished Lecture Series.
Massoud was excited about current work being done on computing and embedded systems but said that before engineers are able to make some of the ideas a reality, scientists need to work on creating computing systems that are faster and perform better.
“Size is also important,” said Massoud. “They have to be small and very portable.”
He added that some of the problems engineers face concern overheating and configurability.
“Some of the ways we might solve this include new circuit design techniques, efficient signal processing techniques, developing new technologies, and using smart processing to sufficiently extract information,” said Massoud.
Massoud’s research team has been exploring how to automate analog/RF design and looking at how doing so could improve reliability, power consumption, and performance of embedded systems.
“The ultimate goal is to design a model in which there is an efficient trade-off for speed and accuracy,” he said.
Massoud is the editor of Mixed Signal Letters and an associate editor of the IEEE TVLSI and IEEE TCAS-I. He is a recipient of the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the DAC fellowship, the Synopsys Special Recognition Engineering Award, and Best Paper Awards at the 2007 IEEE International Symposium on Quality Electronic Design and the 2011 IEEE International Conference on Nanotechnology.
Massoud’s talk was the first in the three-part Fall 2013 Distinguished Lecture Series. The next talk features Professor George J. Pappas of the University of Pennsylvania who will speak on the topic, “Differential Privacy in Estimation and Control.” Hear him on October 23, 2013, at 4 p.m. in PHO 211.
-Rachel Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
New Algorithms Could Cut Costs, Add Renewables
When power transmission lines reach their capacity in a particular region during high demand periods, controllers have little choice but to tap local power plants to keep the electricity flowing and prevent blackouts. This practice, which favors expensive, local generation sources such as coal and natural gas over cheaper, typically more remote, renewable sources such as wind farms and solar arrays, adds an estimated $5 billion to $10 billion per year to the cost of running the US power grid. As more and more renewable generation sources join the grid and increase transmission line congestion, that price is expected to rise substantially.
To mitigate this cost, College of Engineering researchers and collaborators at Tufts University and Northeastern University have a plan that could enable controllers to exploit cheaper, renewable generation sources when transmission lines become congested. Supported by a $1.2 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Programs Agency (ARPA-E) in 2012 and an additional $1 million as of September, the researchers are developing algorithms and software that can produce short-term changes in the power transmission network that redistribute power across the network and utilize renewable sources without overloading transmission lines.
They estimate that the algorithms they’re developing will save $3 billion to $7 billion annually and significantly improve the resilience of today’s power transmission network. Based on a fundamental law of physics dictating that electric current is distributed along the paths of least resistance, the algorithms are designed to discover, in real time, preferred reconfigurations of the transmission network.
“By removing a small number of critical transmission lines, you change the relative resistances across alternative network paths, and electric power redistributes itself, relieving the congestion,” said Professor Michael Caramanis (ME, SE), the project’s co-principal investigator along with Research Associate Professor Pablo Ruiz (ME), who is leading the research effort. “If you disconnect the right lines, you can relieve congestion, increase use of inexpensive power sources and lower congestion costs.”
Having already implemented their algorithms in reproducing real-life situations in collaboration with the PJM transmission system, the largest power market in the US covering many eastern states, the researchers – with the recent addition of Professor Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE) – are now fine-tuning their software. Their immediate goal is to provide new ways of integrating wind generation with lower costs while strengthening the power transmission network. But to achieve that goal entails wrestling with a lot of computational complexity. Out of tens of thousands of transmission lines, the software must select a few, perhaps four or five, whose connection or disconnection will minimize the “spilling” or waste of inexpensive wind generation that might occur during high-congestion periods.
“Based on our understanding of power markets, in which prices can vary every five minutes at each node of the network, we can infer which lines would be beneficial to disconnect and which not,” said Caramanis. “When we disconnect a line, we also know how it will change the power flow over every other line, and how much we will gain by relieving the transmission network capacity a little bit. The idea is to optimize the network to reduce costly congestion.”
Over the next two-and-a-half years, the team plans to continue refining its algorithms in collaboration with PJM, two software companies and an energy consulting firm. It will also design tests and procedures to ensure that the dynamic reconfiguration of the transmission network causes no disruption in the security and stability of the power system. If the software is adopted across PJM or other vast transmission networks, controllers seeking to relieve congestion will have the capability to connect and disconnect selected transmission lines every half hour or hour as needed, rather than once or twice a month, as they do now – or even automate the process.
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 (email@example.com)
Summer Pathways opens doors for female high school students
Knowing that text messaging is teenagers’ preferred mode of communication, Tom Little capitalized on that recently to show how BU’s research into smart lighting technology could one day be used to send text messages and other data faster, cheaper, and more securely. His audience? A room full of 11th- and 12th-grade women from area high schools.
Little, the associate director of the National Science Foundation Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center and a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering, was leading one of the two dozen workshops taught during Summer Pathways, a week-long intensive program held at BU this month for 20 young women with an interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
“What you guys have done today is taken a bag of parts to create a transceiver used in optical wireless communications,” Little said, standing at the front of the classroom as the young women looked on. “Throughout this two-hour lab, you’ve created devices that cost very little to produce and make use of light waves instead of radio waves to enable digital transmission, like text messages.”
During their week on campus, the Summer Pathways students visited labs, heard talks from guest speakers, and had opportunities to interact with BU undergraduates, grad students, and faculty from numerous disciplines. Field trips included visits to the Broad Institute and Google’s offices in Kendall Square. The young women also received career and college admissions advice and got a taste of dorm life by living in Warren Towers. The week ended with the students delivering a presentation about what they’d learned to their families and friends.
Summer Pathways was cofounded six years ago by Cynthia Brossman, the founder and administrative director of BU’s Learning Resource Network (LERNet) and Elise Morgan, a College of Engineering associate professor of mechanical engineering and of biomedical engineering. The idea for the program evolved from two annual day-long events that had been in place from 1994 to 2003.
For Brossman – who recently received the John S. Perkins Distinguished Service Award for more than two decades of dedication to BU – Summer Pathways is one of the ways she encourages underrepresented students, especially women, to pursue careers in STEM fields. A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce found that while women fill nearly half of all jobs in the country, they hold fewer than 25 percent of jobs in STEM-related fields. That same report noted that women have seen no employment growth in STEM jobs since 2000. Currently, only one out of every seven engineers is a woman.
In addition to improving those statistics, Brossman hopes to push the young women who attend Summer Pathways into fields they didn’t even know existed by exposing them to areas of science and technology most high school students never get to experience. “Many times young women who come to Summer Pathways have an idea that they want to do something with science, but think the only way to do that is to become a medical doctor,” says Brossman. “We want to show them there are so many other fields out there that they can consider.”
During the lesson with Little (above), the young women huddled in groups of two in a Photonics Center lab to create visible light transceivers. Starting with an empty printed circuit board, they soldered on components like LED lights, resistors, and a small photodiode, which would later enable the LED to pulse on and off rapidly—too fast for the human eye to see—to transmit information to, and receive it from, other enabled devices.
As they soldered the pieces onto the circuit boards, smoke plumes rose from their soldering irons. “I’ve seen people solder art and jewelry before, but never like this,” said 16-year-old Erin Hickey, who is considering pursuing a career in medicine as a general practitioner one day. Standing next to her was Jonathan Bell (ENG ’14), who was on hand to help. “In a lab here at BU, there is a team soldering boards that are two feet across,” he told her. Nearby, Emily Lam (ENG ’14) recommended that the young women occasionally touch their soldering irons to a damp sponge to keep them clean, and occasionally looked over a young woman’s shoulder to double-check her work.
Once the visible light transceivers had been built, the Summer Pathways group carried the green boards down the hall to a computer lab. Working in pairs, each young woman plugged a transceiver into an adjacent computer. After connecting their transceivers to computers using a special file transfer application known as PuTTY and a USB cable, the boards “spoke” to one another and carried a message that allowed the Summer Pathways students to experience wireless optical texting.
Other stops during the week included visits to Kim McCall’s and Joyce Wong’s labs. McCall, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of biology, engaged students in her work of studying programmed cell death in the ovaries of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster by inviting them to extract the flies’ ovaries and staining them. Wong, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering, had her BU students lead the Summer Pathways students through a series of experiments that taught about microfluidics.
Among the Summer Pathways students were Brooke Pierce and Nicole Clancy, who frequently found themselves partnered during the week. For Pierce, the visit to Google proved a highlight. “They showed us the inner workings of their patent-searching feature,” the incoming high school junior from Carver High School said. “I was really impressed by the work ethic there.” Prior to arriving at BU for the program, Pierce thought she wanted to be an engineer, but after a visit to BU’s Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory, part of BU’s Center for Memory & Brain, she says she now wants to learn more about neuroscience.
Clancy, a 17-year-old from Braintree High School, says that while she is leaning toward studying chemical engineering, she hasn’t ruled out biology. “I’ve liked this week because it’s given us a wealth of information on different futures,” she said. “I’m glad I came here because it’s a lot of stuff jam-packed into a week.”
-Amy Laskowski, BU Today
Computer scientist Anita Borg began programming in 1969 and helped pave the way for women working in science and technology by establishing the Institute for Women and Technology and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.
After she passed away in 2003, Google started a scholarship in her memory that is meant to remove any barriers keeping women from entering the computing and technology fields.
“Cassie is a student that is quick to learn, inquisitive, and proactive regarding her education and goals. Her ability to set and carry out her own research agenda sets her apart from average graduate students,” said her advisor, Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE). “It comes as no surprise that she was a finalist for this award and I expect this to be the first of many accolades to come.”
As a finalist, Huang will receive a $1000 scholarship and is invited to attend the annual Google Scholars’ Retreat this summer in New York City. The event provides an opportunity to network with other recipients and participate in developmental activities.
At BU, Huang has been working closely with Densmore, developing computer-aided design (CAD) tools for synthetic biology. Specifically, she is focusing on how to integrate synthetic biology and microfluidics.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time in Professor Densmore’s lab so far,” said Huang. “I like the interactions and collaborations with my lab-mates and the intellectually challenging work.”
To learn more about the award, visit Google’s scholarship page.
-Rachel Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Control Systems Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has chosen Professor Ioannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE) to be the inaugural editor-in-chief of the journal, IEEE Transactions on Control of Network Systems (TCNS).
TCNS will publish high-quality papers on systems with interconnected components, emphasizing topics related to the control of these systems. The scope of the new publication will be broad and include topics such as communication networks, cyber-physical systems, biological networks, electric power networks, and social/economic networks.
“The launch of this journal is exciting because there is quite a bit of work done at BU on networks with innovative and, at the same time, ‘non-traditional’ applications including robot networks, network security, smart cities, and networks arising in biological contexts,” said Paschalidis. “This new journal offers a venue for such work, which has so far been missing.”
The journal will be sponsored primarily by the IEEE Control Systems Society (CSS) as well as the IEEE’s Communications Society, Computer Society, and Robotics and Automation Society.
Paschalidis said that he hopes TCNS will become the premier journal for the emerging and growing network systems field.
“Moreover, having the editorial office located at BU presents opportunities to organize events that bring some of the leaders of this research arena to campus,” said Paschalidis.
The first issue is scheduled to come out in March 2014 and is expected to coincide with a symposium at Boston University that same month. The journal will be published quarterly.
The IEEE is a professional association dedicated to technological innovation and excellence. The group consists of more than 425,000 members from more than 160 countries.
Submissions for the inaugural issue will be accepted beginning in July until September 20. The journal will seek articles that describe previously unpublished contributions to network systems research. Visit sites.bu.edu/tcns for more information.
-Rachel Harrington (email@example.com)
It’s not uncommon to find hospital patients unable to speak to their nurses and doctors as a result of language barriers or speech-debilitating medical issues.
Three alumni – Nick Dougherty (ECE ’12), Eric Hsiao (ECE ’12), and Gregory Zoeller (ECE ’12) – have been working to solve that problem with the creation of an app called Verbal that allows patients to communicate with picture-based icons. By touching one of the images, patients can let their nurses know that they require help – whether they need water or want to use the restroom.
In April, the team presented their app at the Boston University Institute of Technology Entrepreneurship & Commercialization (ITEC) New Venture Competition. The alumni competed against almost four dozen teams and took home the People’s Choice Award, which included a $1,000 cash prize.
“This was a great experience for us,” said Dougherty. “Other than a few courses at BU, we don’t have a lot of business experience yet. By participating, we were able to get a lot of helpful feedback about our business strategy.”
The initial idea for Verbal stemmed from a Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering senior project with Professor Emeritus Theodore Morse (ECE) and won both the ECE Entrepreneurial Award and College of Engineering Societal Impact Capstone Project award last year. Since then, the three alumni have shadowed nurses at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and perfected their design.
“For us, the main focus of Verbal is helping people,” said Dougherty. “Competitions like ITEC’s are helping us move closer toward that goal.”
Verbal was up against some tough competition at ITEC. Cellanyx Diagnostics, a startup that aims to improve results for prostate cancer patients by combining nanomedicine and predictive diagnostics, took the top prize. The team is made up of Brad Hogan (GRS ’13), Kevin Yu (BME ’10) and Jonathan Varsanik.
“Coming from a scientific background, it really helped to come to ITEC and learn more about the business side,” said Hogan.
Cellanyx has used proprietary matrix biology, microfluidics, and nanomedicine to provide quantitative live-cell in vitro diagnostic service to physicians and hospitals.
As part of the win, Cellanyx receives $20,000 rental credit from Cummings Properties to provide a space for their business as well as legal advice from WilmerHale and many additional mentoring opportunities.
“We were super excited about winning, and this will be very beneficial to our company moving forward,” said Hogan. “We’re eager to move into our summer startup space.”
Additional winners at the ITEC competition included second place team, ScanKart, and third place team, Aeolus Building Efficiency. ScanKart is an integrated mobile commerce and marketing platform for businesses designed by Kavita Mehta (GSM ’12), Guarav Tanna (GSM ’13), Okeno Palmer, and Guarav Mehta. Aeolus, designed by David Cushman (GSM ’14), Jonathan Ellermann (GSM ’13), Benjamin Smith (GSM ’13), Ryan Cruz (ME ’13), Michael Gevelber and Donald Wroblewski, provides software-based optimization of airflow in large commercial office buildings.
-Rachel Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“The Verbal Advantage” – January 2013
Auto technology has come a long way over the years and includes recent advances ranging from night vision to automatic high-beam controls. With these new developments come more physical wires that will increase the cost, weight, and maintenance of a car.
“In the future, as much as four kilometers of wires may be necessary for a car to operate,” said Wei Si (PhD ’15). “On top of that, these wires could weigh as much as 40 kilograms, an amount that would have a bad effect on fuel consumption.”
To solve this potential problem before it happens, Si and Morteza Hashemi (PhD ’16) have been working with Electrical & Computer Engineering Professors David Starobinski and Ari Trachtenberg, as well as General Motors Research, to determine if using wireless sensor networks (WSN) might be a greener way to construct tomorrow’s vehicles.
Some research has already been done on wireless car sensors and electronic control units (ECU) arranged in a single-hop model, but the BU research team thinks this can be improved.
“[In existing models], if some sensor-to-ECU links experience high power loss, then the quality of service degrades,” they wrote in an abstract about their work. Instead, they’re working on a multi-hop model that uses different sensors to cooperate and relay information in the car.
“Our results show that the transmission rate of previous models can be as low as 78 percent while our network performs at higher than 95 percent,” they wrote in their abstract, adding that their design provides energy savings as well.
Spending more than three years of work on the project, the researchers’ efforts are paying off. After competing in Scholars Day, the annual Boston University graduate student research symposium, Hashemi and Si have won both the Center for Reliable Information Systems and Cybersecurity Award as well as the Provost’s Award.
“We were very proud of Morteza and Wei for this accomplishment,” said Trachtenberg. “They had stiff competition from some very good researchers.”
Trachtenberg and Hashemi both said that they think their research stood out because it was easy to understand and could be applied to a real-life issue.
“One of the critical skills we try to teach is being able to talk about your research to those outside of your field,” said Trachtenberg. “They did a very good job in presenting their work in a way that was clear to a non-engineering audience.”
Still, finding success wasn’t always easy. The students were met with many challenges, including having only three weeks to test their work on a Cadillac Escalade and quickly discovering their initial design needed to be altered significantly.
“Sometimes, we’d stay up all night working,” said Hashemi, “but we’ve learned a lot along the way and hope the learning process continues.”
After seeing the long hours his students are putting into the project, Starobinski has noticed that the Ph.D. candidates are gaining confidence in their research, too.
“This project involves possessing a good understanding of various fields including wireless networks and low system processing,” said Starobinski. “They’ve done a great job using what they’ve learned in courses and applying it to a real-world application.”
-Rachel Harrington (email@example.com)
Just fifteen years ago, internet browsing usually involved leaving the room to kill time as a dial-up modem slowly connected you to the world wide web. The process might have been painful but we didn’t know any better.
Fast forward to 2013 and these past connection speeds seem archaic. Still, that doesn’t stop some researchers from asking the question – can we be faster?
Professor Keren Bergman of Columbia University is one of those researchers asking that and she believes the answer is yes.
“It’s all about communication,” she said. “How do you get all of this data to talk to each other in the most effective way?”
In April, Bergman visited Boston University’s Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series. She offered insight into one of her areas of expertise, optically enabled data.
During the lecture, Bergman discussed how recent advances in chip-scale silicon photonic technologies have the potential for developing optical interconnection networks that provide communications that are highly efficient and improve upon computing performance-per-Watt.
“With optical interconnects, it’s possible to build a better system that you couldn’t with electronics,” said Bergman.
As part of her work with the Lightwave Research Laboratory, some of Bergman’s other research centers around fiber optics through which data can be sent in the form of light waves.
“Compared to electronic routers, you can send a tremendous amount of data using photonic interconnects for computing platforms,” she said.
At this time, the fiber optic network isn’t configured in a way that’s particularly efficient, but according to Bergman, it has the potential to carry data faster than traditional copper wires.
In addition to teaching at Columbia, Bergman is an IEEE and Optical Society of America Fellow and serves as co-Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE/OSA Journal of Optical Communications and Networking.
Bergman’s talk was the third in the three-part Spring 2013 Distinguished Lecture Series. The lectures will resume again in Fall 2013.
-Rachel Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
College of Engineering PhD students Patrick Gregg (ECE), Daniel Reynolds (BME) and Benjamin Weinberg (BME) have received National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships. The prestigious award provides a $30,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for up to three years to outstanding full-time U.S. graduate students deemed likely to contribute significantly to the advancement of science and engineering in the U.S.
The nation’s oldest fellowship program directly supporting graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) is highly competitive: this year only 2,000 fellowships were awarded out of more than 13,000 applicants. Since the GRFP’s inception 60 years ago, it has funded several graduate students who went on to become Nobel Prize winners and industry and government leaders.
“The success of our graduate students in the NSF Fellowship competition is further evidence of the quality of our doctoral programs and the recognition our research efforts are receiving,” said Professor M. Selim Ünlü (ECE, BME, MSE), associate dean for Research and Graduate Programs. “I congratulate our students for capturing these prestigious and highly competitive grants.”
Gregg, a second-year graduate student, is working with Associate Professor Siddharth Ramachandran (ECE, MSE) on a new method to modify current optical communications systems to provide increased bandwidth, so more information can be transmitted over the same volume of optical fiber.
“One of the current problems with optical communications systems today is the so-called ‘capacity crunch,’ which is dictated by the projected increasing demand for bandwidth and the limitations of current technology,” said Gregg, who with Ramachandran is advancing a potential solution in which light beams that twist forward like a spiral are simultaneously transmitted through an optical fiber.
Reynolds, a first-year graduate student focused on biomaterials research, is considering a project to grow cancer cells on biomaterial scaffolds as a way to simulate the tumor environment in the laboratory setting.
“These engineered tumor constructs provide an advantageous platform on which to investigate basic cancer biology as well as to test anticancer drug efficacy,” explained Reynolds, who is also interested in using biomaterials to improve the delivery of such drugs to tumor cells.
Weinberg, a first-year graduate student, aims to answer major scientific questions and create new therapeutic strategies through genetic reprogramming of mammalian organisms using synthetic biology tools.
“With the fellowship, I plan to engineer novel synthetic genetic circuits in mammalian brains for precise optical control of neural activity,” he said. “This method can be utilized to systematically analyze the causal role of each cell type in neural circuit computation, cognition and pathology, and develop gene therapy-based treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders.”