By Gabriella McNevin
Professor Dimitris Pavlidis (ECE) received the 2015 Distinguished Educator Award from the IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society (MTT-S). The award recognizes an individual who has achieved outstanding success in the field of microwave engineering and science as an Educator, Mentor, and Role Model for Microwave Engineers and Engineering Students. The award consists of a recognition plaque, a certificate and an honorarium of $2,500. Pavlidis was conferred at the IEEE International Microwave Symposium the week of 17-22 May 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Pavlidis has pursued microwave research while remaining active in both academia and the microwave engineering industry. He boasts citation in more than 550 publications, and his work with semiconductor devices and circuits have an extraordinary impact on high-speed, high-frequency and photonic applications.
Early in Pavlidis career, he recognized the importance of mentoring engineering students, and in improving microwave engineering academic programs. In 1989 he introduced the first comprehensive Microwave Monolithic Integrated Circuits (MMIC) course, of many, that would be taught around the world. The MMIC course (IEEE Trans. on Education, 1989) was followed by courses covering design, processing and characterization of high frequency components; also, microwave and millimeter-wave circuits and devices. The courses have been well received by students, because they are structured to shed light on the fundamental principles of each topic, and simultaneously provide information on cutting-edge applications.
Pavlidis’ decorated academic career is complemented by achievements in the field of microwave engineering. Pavlidis was involved in pioneering University Research Centers like the Space Terahertz Center and the High-Frequency Microelectronics Center and played a key role in establishing Nanofabrication facilities.
Pavlidis is recognized for a dedication to advancing global microwave engineering efforts. He was appointed to be the Chair of the High Frequency Electronic Department at the Technical University of Darmstadt (TUD) and Director of International Relations at the Institute of Electronics, Microelectronics and Nanotechnology (IEMN). In this capacity, Prof. Pavlidis created an entirely new facility for high frequency micro-/nano-electronics at TUD that served for education and research.
He introduced double degree teaching programs between the universities of Georgia Tech. and the University of Lille1 that have been supported by the US Department of Education/EU Directorate General for Education and Culture (ATLANTIS Program) and Partner University Fund (PUF Program). He initiated major programs for graduate education through transatlantic mobility of students and obtaining of double degrees from US and European institutions. These involved consortia consisting of the universities of Darmstadt, Lille1, Imperial College, Michigan, Illinois, Georgia Tech and UC Irvine and funded by the Funds for Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and the European Union under joint US-EU initiatives. He has also coordinated and contributed to the initiation of CINTRA, a new international laboratory in Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University for research and education in micro/nano technology and high frequency electronics and optoelectronics. This laboratory is sponsored by the CNRS French Agency, and encourages graduate and postdoctoral students gain experience in Singapore. He played a key role in promoting microwave to Terahertz engineering, chaired and assisted in the organization of numerous international and IEEE meetings and was the general TPC Chair of the 2010 European Microwave Conference.
Ultimately, Prof. Pavlidis has trained and inspired several generations of students by providing them with the tools for setting up extremely successful careers in science and engineering.
Pavlidis has guided students to become highly influential Professors at top schools (Purdue; Seoul National University; Central University Taiwan; Nanyang University, Singapore) as well as key managers and senior scientists in industry (Northrop Grumman, TRW, IQE, Raytheon, Tyco, Freescale, Thales Alenia Space, EADS, Skyworks, Intel, Global Foundries, Samsung, ITRI).
His contributions to Education continue as the Program Director of the National Science Foundation’s Program on “Electronic, Photonic and Magnetic Devices”, Coordinator of future emerging technologies such as the “Beyond Graphene” (2DARE) program, and ECCS Coordinator of the Materials Genome (DMREF) program and various ERC Centers. In his present capacity, he is focused on boosting innovative potential by integrating the education of future scientists, engineers, and educators into a broad portfolio.
ECE alums’ class project earns spot at Black Hat USA 2015
By Joel Brown, published in BU Today
The Square Reader, used by millions of businesses in the United States, could at one point be converted in less than 10 minutes into a skimmer that could steal and save credit card information, according to three recent ENG grads. Their findings will be presented today at the Black Hat USA 2015 cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas.
Computer engineering grads Alexandrea Mellen (ENG’15), John Moore (ENG’15), and Artem Losev (ENG’15) discovered the vulnerability last year in a project for their Cybersecurity class, taught by Ari Trachtenberg, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering.“The beauty of the hardware attack itself was that there would be no sure way to know if it was the merchant with the Square Reader that actually took your information,” Mellen says.
The trio also found that Square Register software could be hacked to enable unauthorized transactions at a later date.
“The merchant could swipe the card an extra time at the point of sale,” says Moore. “You think nothing of it, and a week later when you’re not around, I charge you $20, $30, $100, $200… You might not notice that charge. I get away with some extra money of yours.”
Moore, who was valedictorian of his ENG class, says the three reported the vulnerabilities to Square last fall, and the company quickly moved to close them. Square also sent Moore a $500 “bounty” for the software hack.
Moore says there is no evidence that either of the vulnerabilities has been used to scam credit card holders, but warns that the group’s findings raise red flags for the fast-growing mobile commerce field in general.
“This isn’t just about Square,” he says. “Over the past six years, mobile point-of-sale has really taken off…and all of these providers are offering new hardware and software to process payments, and customers are trusting their credit card information to new devices that haven’t been tested as much as traditional point-of-sale devices. They’re interacting with the personal cell phone of the merchant in a lot of cases. There’s just a lot going on.”
The three turned their class project into a paper that submitted to the Black Hat conference and waited two months before learning it had been accepted, which was a huge thing, “because Black Hat is the premiere information security conference in the world,” Mellen says. The weeklong event draws everyone from hackers to government officials. Mellen and Moore will give a 25-minute presentation on their work at the conference, where they get free passes to the briefings at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, worth $2,195.
Trachtenberg says students have derived papers from class projects before, but none were undergraduates and none of the conferences have had the stature of Black Hat. “This is a conference with a very high impact,” he says. “There are 10,000 security professionals that pay a lot of money to come to this conference and listen to the latest interesting security research.”
Vulnerabilities in payment software present more of an inconvenience than a financial risk, he says, at least for consumers who check their credit card statements regularly, because losses are generally covered by the credit card companies.
“The bigger reason to be scared is that Square had security in mind from the very beginning and designed these to be secure,” he says. “They should have known better than to have left these kind of holes. It kind of bodes poorly for other vendors who might not be taking security quite as seriously and what kind of problems they might be having.”
Square doesn’t disclose how many businesses use its software or how much revenue it derives by taking a small percentage of their transactions, but Bloomberg quoted one analyst as estimating that the company took in $300 million in merchant fees in 2013.
Mellen and Moore say they made Square aware of the two potential problems late last fall, and the company was receptive to their warning.
Through the winter and spring, Square staffers discussed possible solutions and their difficulties with Moore on a page on the HackerOne platform, and they eventually settled on a solution that would alert the company if the hack was ever used.
Square did not respond in detail and declined to discuss specific solutions on the record with BU Today, but a spokesperson offered a statement: “With so many sellers relying on Square to run their business, we’ve made protecting them a priority. We protect sellers by encrypting transactions at the moment of swipe, tokenizing data once it reaches our servers, and monitoring every transaction to detect suspicious behavior. We’ve also recently migrated the small percentage of remaining sellers who use an out-of-date, unencrypted card reader to new hardware. Today, those unencrypted card readers no longer work. We’re always making advances in security, and we appreciate John Moore’s research, which encouraged us to speed up our deprecation plans.”
All three alums have other plans now. In September, Mellen will return to running her own company, Terrapin Computing LLC in Cambridge, which sells four iOS apps. Moore will start work as a software engineer for Google, and Losev will continue his computer science education at New York University.
Moore says another lesson to draw from their experience has nothing to do with hackers or credit cards and everything to do with the classroom.
“Don’t be afraid to take on a project that goes a little bit above and beyond what’s required,” he says. “We could have done a project that was a lot simpler and easier, but instead we decided to do something that was quite challenging for us. We learned a lot in the process. We put in a lot more time than we expected, and it ended up paying off in the long run.”
Additional press coverage on ECE alums cyber security discovery:
One of Six Teams Selected
By Gabriella McNevin
ANDESITE, a task force within Boston University’s Small Satellite Program, qualified to launch a self-designed satellite into orbit. The ANDERSITE team is one of six that qualified for the final round of the US Air Force University Nanosat Program competition.
The ANDESITE satellite is on the forefront of an international movement to advance our understanding of “space weather” and its effects on society. Space weather arises from interactions between the Earth’s plasma environment and the impinging solar wind. These interactions can damage satellites, harm astronauts in space, render GPS information erratic and unreliable, disrupt ground-space communications, and even cause electricity blackouts on Earth. In 2013, the White House raised inadequate space weather forecasting to the global agenda, citing the significant “threat to modern systems posed by space weather events” and “the potential for “significant societal, economic, national security, and health impacts.”
The ANDESITE satellite has been designed to deploy a network of magnetic sensors from a central mother ship. The ejected sensors will operate collectively as a space-based wireless mesh network with the aim of studying fine-scale variations in Earth’s geomagnetic environment caused by space weather events. The ANDESITE satellite’s scientific and technological innovations place it at the cutting edge of the burgeoning cubesat movement.
ANDESITE is a unique interdisciplinary university-wide collaboration. The team of 16 students is comprised of Astronomy, Electrical, Computer, and Mechanical Engineering scholars. The group is under the guidance of two faculty advisors, Joshua Semeter (ECE/Photonics) and Ray Nagem (ME). Research Engineer Aleks Zosuls also provides support and acts as a liaison with the Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC).
The qualifying competition took place in the Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico in February 2015. Now, the qualifiers must shift their focus from satellite fabrication to implementation. The University Nanosat Program will provide Air Force technical guidance and $110,000 to support each of the remaining six competitors.
After returning to Boston from New Mexico, ANDESITE advisor Professor Semeter recalled, “it was a stressful experience for the students with an exciting outcome.”
The University Nanosat Program provides hands-on experience for graduate and undergraduate students and an opportunity to create and launch a satellite with a specific research capacity. The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, Air Force Office of Scientific Research and American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics developed the program in 1999.
Prysm’s custom video walls use proprietary LPD technology
By Mark Dwortzan
After Amit Jain earned his first bachelor’s degree, in physics, chemistry, and math, in India, his older brother hired him to help out at the audiotape manufacturing company he owned in Kolkata. Despite knowing nothing about how to assemble audiotapes, Jain jumped right in and was soon running the factory floor.
That training later proved invaluable. During his senior year at the College of Engineering, Masud Mansuripur, then an associate professor of electrical engineering (now at the University of Arizona), made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: he would hire Jain as a research assistant and teach him everything he knew about optics if he decided to stay at ENG for graduate study. Jain (ENG’85,’88) accepted, and became one of the first ENG students to graduate with a master’s in electrical engineering with a focus on optics.
Fast forward to 2005. When investors asked Jain and his business partner, Roger Hajjar (ENG’88), to shift from optical networking to large displays, they came up with a new display technology that wound up transforming the industry—despite the fact that neither had prior knowledge of the field.
Jain and Hajjar cofounded Prysm, Inc., and their new display technology laid the foundation for the Silicon Valley–based designer and manufacturer of video wall systems now used across the globe by leading technology, retail, financial services, and media companies, governments, and universities, among them Beijing TV, CNBC, General Electric, and ENG.
“I have learned to never be afraid of trying new things and to go with my gut,” says Jain, 53, now Prysm CEO (Hajjar is CTO). “When we started Prysm, Roger and I had no fear of entering a new industry and no baggage from previous companies on what couldn’t be done—just ideas that could be applied in a new context. Within 18 months we came up with the concept for a new display technology, built a prototype, and shipped our first product.”
Today Prysm designs, assembles, installs, and provides software support for large, modular, interactive video walls of nearly any size, brightness, or resolution, customized to users’ needs, as well as 117-inch and 190-inch standard video walls used in collaboration rooms. The custom video walls enable architects, designers, and brand managers to provide unique, engaging, immersive experiences in lobbies, conference centers, control rooms, stores, and other environments. The collaborative walls empower teams in multiple locations to boost their productivity through real-time interactions, whether through touch or gesture, or by posting, sharing, and editing content uploaded from smartphones, tablets, or other mobile devices.
At the heart of Prysm’s video walls is the company’s proprietary laser phosphor display (LPD) technology, which features a solid-state ultraviolet laser engine, phosphor panel, and advanced optics. Mirrors direct beams from the laser engine across the phosphor panel, which in turn emits red, green, or blue light to form image pixels. The process occurs on multiple 25-inch tiles that fit together to make up a single integrated wall. Compared to conventional LED- and LCD-based technologies, LPD video walls deliver superior image quality, viewing angles, energy efficiency, and environmental impact—resulting in a lower ownership cost. With an an eco-friendly manufacturing process and nontoxic materials and requiring no consumables, they use up to 75 percent less energy than competing large-format display technologies and give off far less heat, eliminating the need for electrical system or HVAC upgrades.
“The Prysm video wall…delivers astounding image quality and ultrawide 178-degree viewing angles,” says Yao Hong, a sales director at the State Grid Corporation of China, which uses a curved, 80-foot-wide-by-11-foot-high wall to monitor the electrical grid system of China’s Jiangsu province. “These attributes combined with the tremendous scalability of LPD technology provide an ideal display solution for the command and control environment.”
Chris Van Name, a regional vice president at Time Warner Cable, chose Prysm to impress customers and minimize environmental impact. “Prysm’s video wall creates a significant ‘wow’ factor for any customer visiting our store and enables us to showcase our technologies in TV, broadband internet, and digital phone in a brilliant and beautiful fashion,” he says.
For Jain, Prysm represents the pinnacle of a 20-year career of growing successful technology-related businesses. Before cofounding Prysm, he was CEO of Bigbear Network and cofounder and CEO of Versatile Optical Networks, which was acquired by Vitesse Semiconductor Corporation; he led the Vitesse Optical Systems Division as vice president and general manager. Previously, he had held several management positions in start-ups and large companies, such as Terastor, Optex Communications, and Digital Equipment Corporation.
Throughout his career, Jain has drawn on expertise in both engineering and business and on lessons learned from an extended family, many also entrepreneurs. While working for his brother in the audiotape business, he imagined inventing technologies rather than just assembling them on the factory floor, so he came to ENG in 1983 to earn a second bachelor’s degree, in electrical engineering.
He learned not only engineering, but also how to communicate effectively to large groups as the first undergraduate teaching assistant of Kenneth Lutchen, a biomedical engineering professor at the time and now dean of ENG.
“Because I already had a bachelor’s degree, Ken gave me the opportunity to teach classes while still an undergraduate,” recalls Jain. “As I faced up to 40 friends and peers, I learned how to explain complex ideas clearly and concisely.”
Fortunately, he had already developed a penetrating voice, capable of drawing attention. “My projectile voice comes from survival of the fittest,” he says. “I have 48 cousins and am second from the bottom in age, so you needed a powerful voice to get your point across.”
After earning both undergrad and grad degrees at BU and an MBA at the University of Maryland, Jain became well-versed in the technological, communications, entrepreneurial, and other skills that are the hallmark of the societal engineer (basically, one who has a sense of purpose and appreciation for how engineering education and its experiences are superior foundations for improving society), a concept he embraces both as CEO of Prysm and as a member of the ENG Dean’s Leadership Advisory Board.
His close relationships with his family and his 200-plus employees, he says, are critical to his success and those relationships are anchored by his religion, Jainism, some of whose tenets—Don’t kill. Ask forgiveness. Respect different views—appear on a card he carries in his pocket.
“Everyone has a viewpoint,” he says. “The important thing is to listen to all views in order to make the right decisions.”
A version of this article appeared in Engineer.
By Gabriella McNevin
One hundred and fifty-one teams from 6 continents were admitted into the preliminary round of the ASC 15 (ASC15) Student Supercomputer Challenge, which was held in Taiyuan City, China. Sixteen teams were accepted into the final round, only one of which was from a university in the United States.
A group of five Boston University students specializing in supercomputing, entered the competition as The Boston Green Team. The students- Winston Chen (CE ’16), Nicolas Hinderling (CS ‘17), Huy Le (CS ’16 ), Quentin Li (CE ‘15), and Scott Woods (CS ‘16)- met through a student organization, BUILDS, which serves as the Association of Computer Machinery local university chapter. Boston University Professor Martin Herbordt (ECE) and MIT Professor Kurt Keville advise the team.
The preliminary round of the competition, involving a remote cluster located in Japan, consisted of a three-tier challenge. To advance, the teams were measured by performance metrics like LINPACK testing, NAMD, and their input on the Square Kilometre Array project.
On April 10 the Boston Green Team was notified that they were invited to the ASC15 Finals, held at Taiyuan University of Technology. The teams were given four days to solve six supercomputing application challenges. Ultimately, the top prize went to the Tsinghua University team, and Nanyang Technological University from Singapore broke the world record for their performance on LINPACK.
The ASC Student Supercomputer Challenge is organized by Asia Supercomputer Community, Inspur Group, and the Taiyuan University of Technology. The competition began four years ago, and has since become the world’s largest supercomputer contest.
The ASC Student Supercomputer Challenge is organized by Asia Supercomputer Community, Inspur Group and the Taiyuan University of Technology. Initiated four years ago, the competition has since become the world’s largest supercomputer contest.
“ASC15 has encouraged more and more college students to learn, understand and love the cutting-edge technology of supercomputers,” said Lv Ming, president of Taiyuan University of Technology. “[It] will significantly boost interdisciplinary academic study and talent cultivation in universities, sparking creativity and innovation in students.”
The next student cluster competitions will take place on November 15-20 in Austin, Texas. Students interested in BUILDS are encouraged to subscribe to the mailing list and follow the group on Facebook.
First ENG Dean Put College on Path to Prominence
By Mark Dwortzan
Arthur T. Thompson, the first dean of Boston University College of Engineering, died on May 9 at the age of 96.
Serving with distinction from 1964 to 1974, Thompson laid the foundation for the College’s accreditation, instituted novel degree programs and considerably expanded the College’s undergraduate and graduate offerings. His achievements helped pave the way for the College to become one of the world’s finest training grounds for future engineers and platforms for innovation in synthetic biology, nanotechnology, photonics and other engineering fields. Since 1964, the College’s position in the US News & World Report’s annual survey of US engineering graduate programs has surged from unranked to the top 20 percent nationally.
In 1963, Boston University hired Thompson, then a longtime associate dean of engineering at Penn State University, to become dean of the College of Industrial Technology (CIT). At the time, CIT offered only three degree programs—in technology, aeronautics and management—and occupied a single, four-story building, but Thompson was bullish about CIT’s future. Reflecting on that time during an interview conducted last year in advance of the College’s 50th anniversary, Thompson noted that “the soil was rich for this little technical school to grow.”
He pledged to develop engineers with “the capacity for responsible and effective action as members of our society” at dedication ceremonies on February 27, 1964, when CIT was officially renamed as the Boston University College of Engineering. His primary mission was to transform CIT into an accredited engineering program.
During his deanship, the new Aerospace, Manufacturing and Systems Engineering departments received accreditation. The College also instituted the nation’s first BS degree program in bioengineering and expanded to five BS and three MS programs in five fields.
“Dean Thompson took some major risks and took on the responsibility of starting a small engineering college in the shadow of a very large, world-class college across the river, and did it successfully,” said Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen.
“Art had defined the College—he recruited people willing to start with nothing,” recalled Professor John Baillieul (ME, SE). Key appointments included Richard F. Vidale, who would later head the Systems Engineering program, and Merrill Ebner, who headed the Manufacturing Engineering program.
“Thompson and [Ebner] came up with this idea of manufacturing engineering,” said Louis Padulo, who served as dean from 1975 to 1985. “They had the two first accredited programs in the country in systems engineering and manufacturing engineering—way ahead of their time. The real strength, almost like in any startup, is to do something innovative.”
Thompson left the College in 1974 having accomplished the mission he had signed up for a decade earlier. “I felt I had completed my job because the school had taken off, we were accredited and applications were coming in,” he said.
After serving Boston University as engineering dean, associate vice president and professor of engineering, Thompson became provost at Wentworth Institute of Technology.
He was a fellow of the American Society for Engineering Education and of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, and a Registered Professional Engineer. In addition, he was a trustee emeritus at Colby College and Wentworth and served on the Academic Board of the US Merchant Marine Academy and as a trustee of Norwich University. His honors include the Education Award of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal of the US Army, in which he served during World War II.
Thompson received an arts degree from Colby College, an engineering degree from Penn State, amaster’s degrees in engineering from Harvard University and a master of business administration degree from the University of Chicago. He was also awarded honorary doctorates from Colby, Norwich and Wentworth.
Most recently residing in Newton, Thompson was predeceased by his wife of 70 years, Virginia (Deringer) Thompson, and survived by daughters Deborah A. and Harriet T. Thompson of Newton; granddaughter Ashima Scripp and husband Robert Bloomfield of Windham, NH; and great grandson Thatcher Bloomfield.
A memorial service will be held at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 79 Denton Road, Wellesley on Friday, June 12 at 11 a.m. For tributes and guest book, visit www.duckett-waterman.com.
More information about Dean Thompson’s role in launching the College of Engineering can be found in the brochure ENG @ 50: Moving Society Forward.
College of Engineering Celebrates New Graduates
By Jan A. Smith
There has never been a better time to be an engineer, because society has never needed these skills more urgently. This was the overarching message in speeches delivered at the College of Engineering’s undergraduate and graduate Commencement ceremonies on May 16.
In the morning, Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen welcomed the 268 graduating seniors and their families by acknowledging their accomplishment in completing what he described as the most challenging curriculum at Boston University.
“The single most important skill in life is the ability to work really hard,” he said. “There isn’t a student in any other college on this campus who has worked as hard as you to earn your place at today’s commencement. Now begins the opportunity to apply what you’ve learned and move society forward.”
Atri Raychowdhury (ECE’15), past Class of 2015 president and this year’s BU IEEE student chapter vice president, echoed this sentiment in his student address. He exhorted all to keep their passion for engineering strong. “Let us use our education to solve the Grand Challenges of society. This truly is our responsibility as Societal Engineers,” he noted to resounding cheers. “The end of our time here marks the beginning of a new journey.”
“Now is the best and most exciting time to be an engineer,” said Commencement speaker Dr. Angela M. Belcher, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy at MIT’s Biological Engineering Laboratory and leader of a research team that engineers viruses to grow and assemble materials for energy, electronics and medicine. “From clean energy and the environment to healthcare, education, food and water, there has never been a time when we have had more opportunities to make an impact.”
Belcher, who founded Cambros Technologies and Siluria Technologies, has been cited by Rolling Stone, Time and Scientific American for her work’s impact on society.
Dean Lutchen presented Department Awards for Teaching Excellence to asst. professor Ahmad Khalil (BME), lecturer Osama Alshaykh (ECE) and assoc. professor Raymond Nagem (ME), who also received Outstanding Professor of the Year Award. The Faculty Service Award went to professor Joyce Wong (BME).
Later in the day, Lutchen presented 68 Master of Science and 60 Master of Engineering degrees, and presided over the hooding of 18 PhD students.
Farzad Kamalabadi (ECE, MS’94, PhD’01) professor of ECE and Statistics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), exhorted the new masters and PhD graduates to combine science with policy work. “The world faces multiple problems of diminishing resources, which are all intertwined with social and economic stability,” he said. “You are poised to address these vital questions from a fresh, solutions-oriented perspective. But you can’t do it from within the scientific community alone. We need more engineers in Washington, Brussels, and the other policy centers of the world. It is crucial that the engineering leaders of the future – you – play central roles in social policy.”
By Mark Dwortzan
The College of Engineering has funded four new projects through the Dean’s Catalyst Award (DCA) grant program, each focused on technologies that promise to make a significant impact on society. ENG and collaborating faculty will receive $40,000 per project to develop novel techniques to advance these technologies.
Established by Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen in 2007 and organized by a faculty committee, the annual DCA program encourages early-stage, innovative, interdisciplinary projects that could spark new advances in a variety of engineering fields. By providing each project with seed funding, the awards give full-time faculty the opportunity to develop collaborations and generate initial proof-of-concept results that could help secure external funding.
This year’s DCA-winning projects could yield new applications in healthcare and energy.
Professor Janusz Konrad (ECE) and Associate Professor Jordana Muroff (SSW) will explore ways to automate the assessment of hoarding, a complex psychiatric disorder and public health problem characterized by persistent difficulty and distress associated with discarding of possessions. Current assessment methods of hoarding are subjective and time-consuming, as they require patients and/or clinicians to complete questionnaires or select images. To overcome these drawbacks, Konrad and Muroff plan to develop an objective, automatic, image-based, real-time hoarding assessment algorithm running on a smartphone or tablet. Such technology could enable cost-effective, precisely-targeted mental healthcare for hoarding disorder patients.
Professors Elise Morgan (ME, BME, MSE), Katya Ravid (MED) and Louis Gerstenfeld (MED) will test whether blocking a metabolic receptor associated with the growth of new blood vessels (angiogenesis) can help mitigate the destructive progression of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a debilitating disease characterized by joint pain and stiffness. In patients with RA, angiogenesis occurs in the membrane surrounding the joint in an uncontrolled way, thus advancing the destruction of joint tissues. If blocking this receptor proves successful, this research could lead to the development of a new class of pharmacological therapies for RA patients that, unlike current treatments, do not lose their effectiveness over time.
Associate Professor Srikanth Gopalan and Assistant Professor Emily Ryan (both ME, MSE) observe that power generation and energy storage devices such as fuel cells and lithium ion batteries have not found more widespread applications because the micro-structured electrodes they typically use do not provide sufficient energy capacity and power density to make these devices commercially attractive in a broader class of applications. To overcome this shortcoming, the researchers plan to develop a novel molten salt-based fabrication technique for nanostructured electrodes, which have the potential for unprecedented improvements in both energy capacity and power densities.
Professor Joyce Wong (BME, MSE) and Associate Professor Glynn Holt (ME) aim to perform a definitive proof-of-concept experiment to establish the potential for the use of microbubbles and ultrasound to noninvasively break blood clots. Clots are a major problem in the medical device industry because they can form on device surfaces, which can then lead to pulmonary embolisms if the clots end up in the lung or a stroke in the brain. Building on past studies by Wong, the researchers will conduct experiments aimed at developing a commercial “clot-busting” microbubble that binds to clots and breaks them in the presence of focused ultrasound.
$4.5M NSF CPS Frontier Award to Fund BU-Led Project
By Mark Dwortzan
Researchers have long sought to enable collections of living cells to perform desired tasks that range from decontaminating waterways to growing tissue in the lab, but their efforts have largely relied on trial and error. Now a team of scientists and engineers led by Boston University is developing a more systematic approach through a deft combination of synthetic biology and micro-robotics. Supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) five-year, $4.5 million Cyber-Physical Systems Program (CPS) Frontier grant, the researchers aim to engineer bacterial or mammalian cells to exhibit specified behaviors, and direct a fleet of micro-robots to corral the engineered cells into working together to perform desired tasks.
Drawing on experts in control theory, computer science, synthetic biology, robotics and design automation, the team includes Professor Calin Belta (ME, ECE, SE), the lead principal investigator, and Associate Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME, Bioinformatics) from the BU College of Engineering; University of Pennsylvania Professor Vijay Kumar; and MIT Professor Ron Weiss, who directs the Institute’s Synthetic Biology Center; and members of SRI International.
“We came up with the idea of bringing robotics in to control in a smart way the emergence of desired behavior patterns among collections of engineered cells,” said Belta, who will develop algorithms to catalyze such behavior. “Our ultimate goal is to automate the entire process from engineering individual cells to controlling their global behavior, so that any user could submit requests from the desktop.”
If successful, the research could yield new insights in developmental biology, lead to greater standardization and automation in synthetic biology, and enable a diverse set of applications. These range from nanoscale robots that can manipulate objects at the micron (one-millionth of a meter) level to chip-scale technologies that transform stem cells into tissues and organs for human transplantation or drug design.
The team’s first main challenge is to advance a synthetic biology platform—what it calls a Bio-Design Automation (BDA) workflow system—that can predictably engineer cells to sense their environment, make decisions, and communicate with neighboring cells. To produce such “smart cells,” Densmore will use and enhance software he’s developed to specify, design and assemble gene networks (also known as gene circuits) with desired functions, and insert them in living cells.
The complex behaviors we wish to engineer are too difficult to manually specify and analyze,” said Densmore. “Design software makes this project manageable as well as formally captures the process so that it can be used in the future to enable new discoveries.”
The second challenge is to design micron-scale, mobile robots that can affect cells’ interactions so that they ultimately bring about a specified global behavior. Composed of organic and inorganic material and controlled by magnetic fields and light, each micro-robot interacts and communicates with individual cells at specified locations and times, implementing control strategies needed to achieve the desired global behavior. For example, the micro-robots could be controlled to optimize tissue formation from stem cells by triggering desired chemical reactions within the cells.
Finally, the researchers will test how well the micro-robots are able to direct the emergent, global behavior of collections of engineered bacterial cells and mammalian cells. They’ll attempt to form Turing patterns—dots and patches of varying sizes—in E. coli and hamster ovarian cells, and liver tissue from human stem cells. In the process, they will employ a magnetic manipulation system developed by SRI to control multiple robots with sub-millimeter precision.
Project leaders also plan to develop associated educational activities for high school students; lab tours and competitions for high school and undergraduate students; workshops, seminars and courses for graduate students; and specific initiatives for underrepresented groups. At BU, the Technology Innovation Scholars Program will develop hands-on design challenges and disseminate them in Boston schools.
Designed to address grand challenge research areas in science and engineering and limited to one or two multi-university teams per year, NSF CPS Frontier Awards support large-scale engineered systems built from, and dependent on, the seamless integration of computational algorithms and physical components.
Project Enhances Learning for Students with Disabilities
By Mark Dwortzan
The students who attend Boston’s William E. Carter School come with major mental and physical disabilities, making learning a challenge. Seeking to enhance the learning environment at the school, the principal, Marianne
Kopaczynski, came up with the idea to install automated announcing systems that would deliver a personalized greeting for each student upon taking a specific action when entering a room. Her rationale: the technology would help the students, who range in age from 12 to 22, to make associations between cause and effect, developing their cognitive skills while making them feel welcome.
Now an ECE senior design team has designed and built three such devices and installed them in the school, to the delight of students and teachers alike. Each student takes a card (an RFID tag), taps it on the device, triggering a greeting from a teacher or parent, such as “Hi [student’s name], welcome to Art.”
In recognition of this achievement, the College of Engineering has named the team as first-place winners of the annual Societal Impact Capstone Award, which honors outstanding senior design projects aimed at improving the quality of life. Team members are Yicheng Pan, Sihang Zhou, Alexis Weaver, Sinan Eren and Jose Bautista.
“What possibly could be more societal than to provide a system to make a student who struggles with severe physical and mental challenges just to smile, make them feel comfortable, and at the same time help them understand cause and effect?” said Associate Professor of the Practice Alan Pisano (ECE), who advised the team and runs the ECE Senior Design Program.
To develop the system, the ECE seniors drew on their knowledge and skills in remote sensing, circuit design, application and database development and user interface development. Adhering to all applicable safety standards and taking advantage of resources at the Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC), they produced custom handheld and wearable RFID tags for each student; a desktop application and database to enter each student’s identification information; and a rugged, durable, user-friendly interface that can be updated and maintained by the school.
“For our students to acquire a skill, repetition is needed in everything we do,” said Kevin Crowley, an instructor at the Carter School who was a 2015 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year semifinalist. “The technology is easy to use, helps establish a consistent routine and will benefit our school greatly.”
Two previous ECE senior design teams took on the principal’s challenge but were unsuccessful.
“This team succeeded where prior teams failed, even solving last-minute problems and working around the clock to fix them,” said Pisano. “They visited the school on many occasions and stand ready to provide support if any operational issues arise. We plan to do additional projects for the school next year.”
The 2015 Societal Impact Capstone Award second place winners are “Pressure Profile for Kidney Stone Removal” by Nikolaos Farmakidis, Alexandros Oratis, Syed Shabbar Shirazi, John Subasic and See Wong, who assisted a Massachusetts General Hospital physician in determining the most suitable surgical procedure for medium kidney stone removal.