Finding better ways to produce clean energy, fight infection, attack cancer
By Sara Rimer, BU Research
Imagine the state-of-the-art 21st-century life sciences and engineering lab. It would bring together forward-thinking researchers from the hottest fields in bioengineering. These scientists would combine genomic technologies like DNA sequencing and synthesis, 3-D printers, and robots to make new molecules, tissues, and entire organisms. They would tinker in pursuit of cutting-edge questions like these: How do you guide cells to regenerate and build new tissue? How do you reprogram bacteria to fight infection—or reengineer the body’s immune system to attack tumors so they disappear? How do you organize the circuitry inside a cell so it sends all the right signals for optimal health?
This is the lab that Christopher Chen, a College of Engineering Distinguished Professor and one of the world’s leading experts in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, began dreaming up last summer with three ENG faculty who are young stars in synthetic biology—Ahmad (Mo) Khalil, Douglas Densmore, and Wilson W. Wong.
Now this dream is on its way to becoming a reality. The University is launching the new Biological Design Center (BioDesign Center), with Chen as the director and Khalil, an ENG biomedical engineering assistant professor and an Innovation Career Development Professor, as associate director. The other two core faculty members at the outset will be Densmore, an ENG electrical and computer engineering assistant professor and a Junior Faculty Fellow with the Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, and Wong, an ENG biomedical engineering assistant professor and a recipient of a National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award.
Through advances in genomics and stem cell research, many of the molecular and cellular building blocks of life have been cataloged. A central challenge is to understand, control, and reengineer how these component parts fit together to bring about functional biological systems that define life and solve important societal problems, ranging from producing clean energy to fighting infection and attacking cancer. That is the fundamental quest that brought Chen, Khalil, Densmore, and Wong together and that will drive the new center.
“Unlocking the underlying design logic of biological systems will revolutionize our approach to medicine, energy, and the environment,” Chen says, describing their shared vision. “Spanning synthetic biology, cell and tissue assembly, and systems biology, the Biological Design Center is positioned to lead this revolution.”
Up until now, he says, fields such as synthetic biology and tissue engineering have arisen as separate disciplines. Synthetic biology involves designing and synthesizing genes, genetic and signaling networks, and genomes to predictably control cellular behavior. Tissue engineering involves trying to manipulate and combine cells and extracellular materials to induce the assembly of tissues.
“But we realized that even though these two fields may involve slightly different tools,” Chen says, “they belong under one roof.”
Kenneth R. Lutchen, dean of ENG, was immediately excited about the possibilities when Chen broached the group’s idea.
“This is a unique approach to using engineering principles to understand and exploit biology,” Lutchen says. “Very few people are using bioengineering techniques and methods to help discover fundamental principles that govern how biological systems work, especially on multiple levels, from the gene level up to multiple organs.”
Chen, who earned an MD at Harvard Medical School and a PhD at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, arrived at BU in 2013 from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding director of the Center for Engineering Cells and Regeneration. Khalil, Densmore, and Wong had all been recruited to the University a few years earlier and were already collaborating.
“Chris is a very dynamic, visionary engineering scientist who is highly respected throughout the biomedical engineering community,” Lutchen says. “He brings a very deep sense of how to connect visionary research to medical and clinical questions. He has the depth and breadth of understanding the engineering challenges, the biological challenges, and the medical challenges as well as a sense of how things are connected between the gene level and the synthetic and systems biology level up to the level of multiple organ systems.”
Creating a community with no walls
Chen and his core faculty members will begin working together out of their existing labs in nearby buildings along Cummington Mall until they can move the BioDesign Center into laboratory space on several floors at what will be the Center for Integrated Life Sciences and Engineering (CILSE) building. Construction on the 610 Commonwealth Avenue building will begin late this spring and is expected to be completed within two years. Four to six new researchers—all exceptional innovators, says Chen—will be added to the center’s faculty over the next several years.
Housing the group at the CILSE, says Gloria Waters, University vice president and associate provost for research, “is a prime example of the goals of the new building—bringing together great scientists from different fields and breaking down the barriers to collaboration.”
Chen’s work spans tissue engineering and mechanobiology, which combines engineering and biology to study how physical forces and changes in cell or tissue mechanics affect development, physiology, and disease. He is a pioneer in the use of 3-D printing to help create organs using a patient’s own cells.
“One of the areas I’m interested in is regeneration,” Chen says. “How do you get cells not to go down the path of inflammation or dying or pathologic response? How do you guide them to go into a regenerative response where they might heal tissue?”
Khalil’s research involves using synthetic biology to understand and engineer genetic circuits that govern important cellular decisions and behaviors. Densmore, who is a Kern Faculty Fellow and the director of the Cross-Disciplinary Integration of Design Automation Research group, automates the specification, design, assembly, and verification of synthetic biological systems using techniques from computer design and manufacturing. Wong’s research focuses on ways to reprogram the body’s immune system to target and kill tumors.
The idea for the center was born when Chen, Khalil, Densmore, and Wong got together over a working lunch early last summer. The chemistry among the group flowed.
“We were talking about what kind of science we each want to do,” Chen says. “We realized how much commonality we shared in terms of the general concept of trying to understand how biological systems operate through the process of trying to control them. We just developed different kinds of tools to manipulate these systems. At that point we realized we should be working in one space rather than doing things separately.”
“It was clear to me, within a few minutes of speaking to Chris,” says Khalil, “that he fundamentally shares the synthetic biology philosophy, which is a desire to understand the rules of building complex and functional biological systems, regardless of whether one uses molecular parts, cellular components, or other raw biological materials.”
To achieve their vision, the BioDesign Center will mix and match researchers from multiple academic fields, undergraduates, graduate students, and innovators from industry. Their lab will have no walls. They will create a community, sharing tools, resources, and ideas with scientists across the University and beyond. They will invent, discover, experiment.
“The idea of tinkering is key,” Khalil says.
They want the center to be a leader in reinventing biological education, engaging students by framing concepts around understanding the logic of how things work. And they want students to learn through hands-on work—by making things and doing things in the lab.
“Classically, biology in high schools and colleges is often taught as a facts-based field,” says Chen. “We think that being able to actively tinker with a biological system—for example, making cells do things they weren’t intended to do—is how one learns more deeply about how these systems work. And the process of being able to do an experiment to see if an idea makes sense is part of the learning cycle for us as scientists, but also for students. The center will be a place where that cycle will be fostered amongst students as well as researchers.”
Khalil says he views the BioDesign Center as an experiment and an opportunity to shape the future of synthetic biology. For all its excitement and vast potential, he says, “if this discipline looks largely the same in five years, then it will have been a failure.”
It is his opinion, he says, that “we will have succeeded when this engineering approach to biology is adopted by all life science researchers—both to understand living systems and to exploit biology as a new technology for addressing societal problems.”
A version of this article originally appeared on the BU Research website.
The work promises to modernize a range of industries & common commercial products
By Gabriella McNevin
Professor Enrico Bellotti (ECE) and his PhD students Adam Wichman and Ben Pinkie won the Ignition Award for research in “High sensitivity optical detectors in light starved applications.” The Boston University Office of Technology Development sponsors the Ignition Award to help launch promising new technologies into the marketplace.
Recipients of the Ignition Award are entered into a program. which supports further research and enables investigators to develop technology that will be well received in the consumer marketplace. “Ignition Awards help bring new technologies to a mature enough state” states the Boston University Technology Develop office, “where they can be licensed, spun off as a new venture, or create a new, non-profit social enterprise.”
The Ignition Award will help develop Bellotti’s infrared detector prototype. The technology is based on a novel architecture, originally invented by Adam Wichman, that overcomes the deficiencies of existing technologies. Dr. Bellotti has been interested in infrared detectors for several years, dating back to his investigations into the physics of avalanche photon detectors, for which he won an NSF Early Career Award in 2005.
Benjamin Pinkie and Adam Wichman joined Bellotti in 2012, and have been the driving forces in executing a fresh approach to image detection.
The team’s invention will lead to more sensitive infrared detectors that can operate using less power and at higher temperatures. As a result, they will not require the same cooling devices that are needed for the current generation of infrared cameras. This feature may enable novel applications especially for portable devices where weight and power consumption are at a premium.
By Mark Dwortzan
Cithara — a robotic device that plays a guitar as well as, or better than, some humans — won the $3,000 first prize at the College of Engineering’s third annual Imagineering Competition.
Held April 17 at Ingalls Engineering Resource Center, the competition drew entries from seven undergraduate engineering students or student teams that applied creativity and entrepreneurial skills to advance technologies aimed at improving quality of life. Developed in the Singh Imagineering Lab and other on-campus facilities, this year’s projects were designed to do everything from untying your shoelaces to delivering timely information to your bathroom mirror.
Competitors presented their work before a panel of five judges—Associate Dean for Administration Richard Lally, Associate Professor Daniel Cole (ME), Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME, Bioinformatics), Coulter Program Director Greg Martin (BME) and Ali Shajii, president and CEO of Emphysys, a science and engineering consulting firm. The judges assessed each project for originality, ingenuity and creativity; quality of design and prototype; functionality; and potential to positively impact society.
Striking the Right Chord
To emulate how a human plays guitar, Cithara combines an off-the-shelf guitar (acoustic or electric) with two components powered by Arduino microcontrollers: a slider mechanism that presses frets at designated locations and a robotic arm that strums or plucks selected strings. Named for the Latin word for “guitar,” Cithara converts musical notes—input as tablature, which represents the precise fingering of the instrument within a specified timeframe—into machine instructions that encode the exact coordinates where the slider and arm should be positioned.
The two mechanical engineering juniors who designed the system, Mehmet Akbulut and Evan Lowell, obtained about 80 percent of their materials from the Imagineering Lab (where Akbulut works as a manager), and engineered some parts using a 3-D printer. Though neither plays the guitar, they came up with the idea when Akbulut received a guitar as a gift and sought to make good use of it.
“They’re good engineers, so what do they do?” said Shajii. “They build a robot around the guitar.” But Akbulut and Lowell envision Cithara as more than just a whimsical outlet for their engineering savvy.
“In the future we hope that instead of having to pay for a live artist, you could purchase this instrument and it would provide long-term, low-cost music,” said Lowell. “It’s also a great educational tool; we hope someone could use it to teach themselves guitar.”
The panel was particularly impressed by Akbulut and Lowell’s concept, approach, integrated hardware/software design, demo and PowerPoint presentation.
“This project combined mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering expertise with real-time control and precise timing requirements into one system,” said Densmore. “It was inherently demonstrable and fun, and poses numerous additional research questions.”
Probing, Augmenting and Controlling Our Surroundings
The second prize winner, Osi Van Dessel (ME’17), received $1,500 for his project, “Scanner Probe,” a tele-operated mobile robot that maps its surroundings using LIDAR, a technology that bounces pulsed laser light off of targeted objects to determine how far away they are. The Scanner Probe consists of a robot base, turret and two LIDAR sensor units that swivel back and forth to collect data and wirelessly transmit it to a computer, where a software program converts the data into a map in real time.
LIDAR is typically used in large-scale research and industrial applications from self-driving cars to satellite systems that can cost thousands to millions of dollars, but Van Dessel aims to make the technology cheaper and more accessible for home-based robotic applications.
“To have robots prevalent throughout society would require a big step in reducing the cost but still keeping the fidelity that a laser range-scanning unit can give you,” said Van Dessel. “Typically a laser range-finding unit is $10,000 per unit plus another $10,000 for the robot, or $20,000 for one complete system. Mine costs $350, and that was achievable through a few reductions in the requirements for my LIDAR system.”
Two teams tied for third prize, each receiving $1,000 for their efforts.
Benjamin Rawstron (CE/EE’18) was recognized for his project, a concept for a user-friendly, home automation network that enables users to monitor and control multiple household devices. With an overarching goal of configuring the network’s hardware so it can be updated anytime via the Internet, Rawstron designed a garage monitoring station that checks for safety and security threats such as high carbon monoxide levels and break-ins.
Timothy Geraghty (ME’16), Chris Ingalls (CAS/CS’15), Vani Patel (SMG/Marketing’16), Peter Tranoris (ME’16) and Anthony Tran (ME’16) were recognized for their project, Sensa X, a concept for a highly interactive, smart bathroom mirror that displays the weather, traffic, news, date/time, daily calendar entry and other information that’s useful to know during one’s morning wakeup routine. They plan to enable the info to be accessed by voice command and personalized in the presence of a user’s smartphone.
Other entries included a smartcard that provides secure access to a patient’s medical and health insurance records; an automated system for tying and untying shoelaces; and a crowdsourcing platform to help college students pay for their education.
Sponsored by John Maccarone (ENG’66), the competition was designed to reinforce the ideal of creating the Societal Engineer by spotlighting student efforts to design, build and test new technologies that promise to positively impact society.
Imagineering Lab programming is supported by the Kern Family Foundation and alumni contributions to the ENG Annual Fund.
BU group develops technology for nonprofits
By Rich Barlow, BU Today
Steering low-income students to college and on to better lives has become a kind of national mission. To that end, six BU students, laptops flipped open, huddle in a fluorescent-lit lounge at the Engineering Product Innovation Center. Their screens show the engineering product they’re innovating: pictures of a smartphone app listing steps in the college application process and notices of meetings related thereto.
The end users will be high schoolers at San Francisco’s St. Ignatius College Preparatory, which runs a program for “minority students and students who are going to be first-generation college-bound,” explains Eugene Kwan (ENG’17). An alum of the traditionally white and well-off school, he’s helping design the app, intended in part to replace St. Ignatius’ email alerts to its low-income students. “High school students aren’t very good at checking emails half the time,” he says, a problem licked by phone apps: “Everyone’s on their phone.”
Kwan, his team, and a dozen BU peers laboring this chilly Wednesday night at other tables are all with the Global App Initiative (GAI), a three-year-old BU student group founded to develop free mobile apps for nonprofit groups. St. Ignatius “helped me, so I just want to help them and give back,” says Kwan, who hopes to wrap the app later this year.
Another GAI team recently built an app listing public drinking fountains and businesses offering walk-in water in Boston for the sustainability group BeCause Water, which tries to discourage people from toting environmentally unfriendly plastic water bottles. Yet other students, working for North Carolina’s Freedom Family Foundation, are creating a mobile check-in and sign-up system for clients of the group, which provides counseling, health, and social services to at-risk families.
Those and other far-flung clients demonstrate the aggressive outreach members have done in the three years since GAI’s launch. Many GAI members were “very dedicated to nonprofits prior to Boston University” and have asked colleagues there if they need apps, says Veena Dali (CAS’16), vice president of client relations. “We just look online for nonprofits that could be interested,” says Dali, who then emails likely candidates. GAI leaders also advertise the group at the occasional nonprofit and tech conferences they’re asked to speak at.
No computer coding knowledge is required to join GAI, which offers workshops and online tutorials, or nontechies can opt for administrative duties. “I would say easily 90 percent of our club starts without any programming experience,” says GAI president Santiago Beltran (ENG’17).
“Knowing how to make apps that people use every day seems like a very valuable skill,” says Kwan, who learned coding through GIA. Jeff Kennedy (ENG’16), who worked last semester on the BeCause Water app, says that project was “about building your résumé and maybe doing something good for a local group.”
“For anyone who wants to learn more about app development, or just basic programming concepts, this is a really good way to get some exposure,” says Kennedy. “I would say in many ways better than some classes, because often classes can be very theoretical. You understand the theory behind the idea, but not how you actually construct a product.”
What’s in it for clients? “For a nonprofit like us, it’s extremely important that we can find affordable mobile app development work,” says Matt Thomas, chairman of the board of BeCause Water. (Beltran says commercially developed apps run thousands of dollars.) “You can’t beat the price” with GAI, Thomas says. “We’re very happy” with the quality of the Android phone app that Kennedy developed for his group, he adds.
The chance to do good drew neuroscience major Dali to GAI. “What really appealed to me was the fact that I got to work with nonprofits,” she says. Getting coding experience and the chance to work with fellow students in a non–class setting clinched the deal for her.
For Beltran, GAI tapped his twin passions for engineering and service work; during high school, the St. Louis resident created a nonprofit that brought technology to students. With GAI, he says, “you’re learning and using those skills—and you’re also using them for a really good cause.”
$145,000 Contribution Focuses on Improving High School Graduation Rates
By Jan Smith
The College of Engineering has received a $145,000 contribution from AT&T to create a two-year engineering and technology program for an urban high school population, and to document its impact on high school graduation rates.
The funding from AT&T will enable undergraduate Inspiration Ambassadors from the College’s Technology Innovation Scholars Program (TISP) to deliver classroom and after-school engineering activities at the Josiah Quincy Upper School (JQUS) in Boston beginning in September.
Gretchen Fougere, associate dean for Outreach and Diversity for the College of Engineering, noted, “This contribution validates the extraordinary vision driven by the College and likely impact of TISP. It will provide the resources to apply formal methods to measure our program’s success and to advance its national impact.”
Fougere, who leads TISP, noted, “We are creating a diverse pipeline of secondary students who are motivated to graduate from high school because of their raised appreciation and understanding of STEM and engineering. This contribution will enable us to provide all the benefits of TISP engineering outreach: fun design activities, after-school robotics, and summer enrichment and scholarships and deliver our relatable role-models to a partner high school in Boston. We continue to engage students of all backgrounds and abilities and both inspire and prepare them for post-secondary success.”
AT&T’s support is a part of AT&T Aspire, the company’s signature education initiative focused on high school success and career readiness. With an unwavering commitment to data-driven education outcomes, AT&T Aspire has impacted more than 1 million students since its launch in 2008.
“We’re committed to investing in efforts that prepare the next generation of Americans for success in the increasingly competitive global economy, and the mentorship provided by Boston University’s Technology Innovation Scholars Program is a perfect example of the enrichment that our local urban students need and deserve,” said Patricia Jacobs, president of AT&T New England. “We applaud BU and TISP for their passion for the issue and their proven track record of readying local students for success in college and in their careers. We’re particularly excited that Josiah Quincy students will have the chance to explore telecommunications projects with their BU mentors.”
The AT&T contribution will help measure the impact of this deep dive of TISP in one high school. A cohort of 9th grade students at JQUS will benefit from the program through 10th grade. JQUS students are a diverse and underserved population representative of many urban public schools where improving high school graduation rates and proficiency with math and science are concerns.
Richard Chang, co-headmaster at Josiah Quincy Upper School, said, “We are very excited to welcome Boston University’s Inspiration Ambassadors into our classrooms to make mathematics, science and engineering concepts come to life for our students. Engaging students in these real-world projects with college students of similar backgrounds will be significant motivators for them to focus on mathematics and science coursework and to attend college.”
TISP’s mission is to inspire and prepare a diverse workforce for 21st century technology-related fields. Each year, the program professionally trains and manages 50 select BU undergraduate engineers as “Inspiration Ambassadors,” who share their passion for and understanding of technology and engineering design with youth nationwide.
Inspiration Ambassadors visit middle and high school classrooms to provide information and experiences that demonstrate how engineers improve our quality of life and solve the problems that resonate with younger students. In Boston, the Ambassadors guide students in the engineering design process as teams innovate to create technologies associated with communications, energy, the environment and healthcare. In Boston area schools, for example, these design challenges relate to cellphone towers, wind turbines, fuel cells, robotics, and coding and app development. The technologies and engineering are derived from cutting-edge engineering research at BU and corporate supporters like AT&T.
The Inspiration Ambassadors, select undergraduate engineers majoring in biomedical, mechanical, electrical, or computer engineering, also mentor many after-school FIRST ® robotics teams, creating competitive robots in a short design cycle. The College has a rich partnership with FIRST®, with Dean Kamen and John Abele on the Dean’s Leadership Advisory Board, and scholarships and TISP available to FIRST ® participants.
Validation and Impact Research
Since its launch in 2011, the Inspiration Ambassadors have reached more than 13,200 young people in 26 states and six countries. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the program has had a direct and favorable impact on underprivileged youth, influencing many to seek out STEM coursework in high school, to graduate from high school, and even to pursue and secure university placements and scholarships. Five have received full scholarships for study at BU’s College of Engineering or other schools. Several of the former high school students reached and mentored are now Ambassadors themselves.
The AT&T grant will enable the program to empirically measure and document that impact, while also providing a test case with a dedicated cohort of students over two years. Lasting impact will drive further scaling and nationwide replication. The College has a comprehensive approach to creating a continuous flow of Societal Engineers, which is now endorsed and supported by $375,000 in gifts and pledges from esteemed ENG alumni, such as Girish Navani and John J. Tegan III, and the Argosy, Ingalls and Kern Family Foundations. The grant from AT&T comes on the heels of other recent corporate support from NASA and Accenture. The combined funding will go far to advance the College’s mission to create a continuous flow of diverse graduates ready for college STEM majors and the workforce.
Data Scientist and Physician Team Up to Reduce Preventable Hospitalizations
By Suzanne Jacobs
Yannis Paschalidis, a data scientist, has built a career on making things run smoothly and efficiently—transportation systems, communication networks, supply chains, sensor networks—and now he’s taking on perhaps his most ambitious challenge yet: the US health care system.
It all started about three years ago. Paschalidis, a professor and Distinguished Faculty Fellow at Boston University’s College of Engineering (ENG), read in a study by the US Department of Health and Human Service’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) that in 2006, the US spent about $30.8 billion on hospitalizations that could have been prevented through better patient care, healthier patient behavior, or improved ambulatory services.
“I was reading a lot of things about the sorry state of the health care system in the US and how inefficient it is, and I thought it’s an opportunity to do something,” says Paschalidis, who also directs BU’s Center for Information & Systems Engineering. “I thought people like me that have a quantitative, more optimization-oriented background could contribute something.”
And so, having never worked in medicine before, Paschalidis teamed up with William G. Adams, a Boston Medical Center (BMC) physician and BU School of Medicine professor of pediatrics. With a team of graduate students and nearly $2 million from the National Science Foundation, the two set out to build a piece of software that could automatically flag patients at increased risk for medical emergencies by using data from their electronic health records (EHRs). They decided to start with heart diseases, which alone cost the US more than $9.5 billion in preventable hospitalizations in 2006, according to the AHRQ study.
To understand how Paschalidis works, think of how an autopilot controls an airplane. As a plane flies, autopilot software takes in data about its position and uses that data to adjust the plane’s trajectory as necessary. It’s a constant flow of data intake, analysis, and feedback. Similarly, when Paschalidis sets out to improve, say, a network of sensors, he and his research team write computer software that takes in data about how the system is working and then finds ways to correct or improve it.
In this project, hospital patients are the systems.
Fortunately, EHRs offer plenty of data—test results, diagnoses, prescriptions, emergency room (ER) visits, previous hospitalizations, demographic information. It’s far too much for doctors and nurses to comb through manually, but enough to feed an algorithm that automatically processes the information and flags at-risk patients. The software works by sifting through records of patients who were previously hospitalized and learning which risk factor—a certain number of chest complaints or an unusual level of a particular enzyme in the heart, for example—might have been red flags. The algorithm then uses those red flags to warn of future hospitalizations.
The challenge for Paschalidis was understanding how to properly use medical data and how to incorporate this kind of software in an actual hospital. That’s where Adams comes in.
A pediatrician and medical informatician (someone who uses information technology to improve health care), Adams has spent the past 20 years thinking about how to use data from EHRs to improve patients’ health outcomes, especially among families in Boston’s urban communities. He’s also one of the lead scientists at BU’s Clinical & Translational Science Institute (CTSI), one of 60 such sites across the country that aim to accelerate medical advances by encouraging researchers in disparate fields to collaborate on medical research.
“This is a perfect example of translational research collaboration,” Adams says. “Yannis and his lab have exceptional skills in data mining that we don’t have, but we have extraordinary data and clinical expertise.”
To use that data, Paschalidis and his team first needed a crash course in medical terminology to make sure they understood what they were working with. Much of EHR data is contained in a kind of “clinical language” that only doctors understand, Adams says. Sometimes, he says, even the same term can have different meanings, depending on the context in which the doctor records it. For example, a diagnosis of hypertension (high blood pressure) can be recorded as either a diagnosis made during a visit or a problem on the patient’s problem list. Both could be recorded with the same code (ICD-9 401.9), but users would need to know to look further to decide which of the two meanings the data represents. Cleaning up “messy” data—figuring out what it means, what to use, and how to represent it in the software—is time-consuming but important, Paschalidis says. “If you fit garbage to an algorithm,” he says, “you’ll get garbage as output.”
The researchers remove any identifying information from the EHRs using open-source software from a National Institutes of Health-funded center at Harvard University called i2b2 (Informatics for Integrating Biology & the Bedside).
Once the data is cleaned up and anonymized, Paschalidis and his graduate students can enter it into their software. The algorithm they built classifies patients as either at risk or not at risk for heart-related hospitalizations within one year. An elderly patient or someone who visited the ER in the previous year, for example, might be at risk, while a younger person who hasn’t been to the hospital in a few years might not be at risk. How the algorithm will ultimately present this information to doctors is still under development.
To test the software, Paschalidis and his students collected the EHRs of just over 45,500 patients from BMC. They used about 60 percent of the records to train their so-called machine learning software, teaching it which factors had put patients at risk for hospitalizations in the past. Then, they used the remaining data to test the software’s ability to make predictions. They found that it could correctly predict up to 82 percent of heart-related hospitalizations, while falsely predicting hospitalizations in about 30 percent of patients who weren’t actually at risk. Paschalidis says that it’s possible to reduce the number of false predictions, but doing so would correspondingly lower the number of accurate predictions. A false prediction rate of 10 percent, for example, would correspond to an accurate prediction rate of 65 percent.
“In medicine, we’re constantly trying to balance between something that’s concerning and something that might be a false positive,” Adams says. In many cases, however, the recommendations that would come of a false positive—healthy eating, exercise, an extra check-in with the doctor, extra visits from a nurse—could still benefit the patient. And, Paschalidis says, preventing hospital visits that each cost thousands of dollars is worth the occasional unnecessary checkup that only costs a couple hundred dollars.
Adams and Paschalidis published their findings about the machine learning software’s success in predicting heart-related hospitalizations in March 2015 in the International Journal of Medical Informatics. Their co-authors included Venkatesh Saligrama, an ENG professor of electrical and systems engineering; Wuyang Dai and Theodora Brisimi, ENG PhD students working with Paschalidis; and Theofanie Mela, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“If coupled with preventive interventions, our methods have the potential to prevent a significant number of hospitalizations by identifying patients at greatest risk and enhancing their patient care before they are hospitalized,” the researchers write in the study. “This can lead to better patient care, but also to substantial health care cost savings. In particular, if even a small fraction of the $30.8 billion spent annually on preventable hospitalizations can be realized in savings, this would offer significant results.”
Ultimately, Adams says, having this kind of ongoing, automated analysis within electronic medical records could not only help doctors, nurses, and case managers monitor their patients more effectively, it could also elucidate disease risk factors previously undetected by doctors.
“All of us know that a serious problem like diabetes is always going to increase your likelihood of being admitted to the hospital,” Adams says, “but the trick is to determine whether it’s about the thing that’s happening to your diabetes or something else unrelated to your diabetes that has substantially increased the likelihood of being hospitalized. The machine learning software has the potential to learn new associations.” These could be associations between some clinical features that make it more likely for the patient to develop serious complications from diabetes.
In the coming year, Paschalidis and Adams will be interviewing doctors, trying to figure out how best to put this kind of predictive software to work in an actual hospital.
“I’m confident that it will work,” Paschalidis says. “The issue is, what is the best way of incorporating something like that in the practice? Will the doctors use it or ignore it?”
Eventually, Paschalidis says, he’d like to expand the software to predict other, non-heart-related hospitalizations. He’s also currently working with BMC’s surgery department on software designed to flag patients at risk for readmission within 90 days, so hospitals could perhaps monitor those patients more closely. The 90-day window is of particular interest to hospitals because Medicare doesn’t reimburse for readmissions within that timeframe.
Down the road, Paschalidis says, it might also be possible to use data from wearable technologies in addition to EHR data. The data is there, he says; it’s just a matter of getting access to it.
“We carry these smartphones and now these smart watches and all of these fitness trackers and other devices that know much more than the hospital knows about our state of health,” he says. “You now have a much richer record about the patient, and the richer the record is, the better prediction you can make.”
Throughout his career, Paschalidis has put his data analysis skills to use in a lot of different areas. For the past three years, he’s been applying those skills to developing sensor networks for “smart cities.” He says he thinks he’ll be working in health care for a while.
“I feel that health care is an important area,” he says, “and the contributions that you make are somehow more tangible in terms of the potential outcome.”
White House pledge to address major global challenges of the 21st century
By Jan Smith
College of Engineering Dean Kenneth Lutchen is one of 122 deans presenting a letter of commitment to President Barack Obama this week to educate a new generation of engineers expressly equipped to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing society in the 21st century.
These “Grand Challenges,” identified through initiatives such as the White House Strategy for American Innovation, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenges for Engineering, and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, include complex yet critical goals such as engineering better medicines, making solar energy cost-competitive with coal, securing cyberspace, and advancing personalized learning tools to deliver better education to more individuals.
In his commitment letter Dean Lutchen explained how the College of Engineering’s long-standing focus on creating Societal Engineers addresses the Grand Challenges.
“Societal Engineers have the passion and attributes to integrate people from all disciplines and lead organizations to address society’s challenges and improve lives,” he wrote. “In addition to their discipline strength, Societal Engineers’ attributes include broad communication skills, systems thinking, global awareness, and a passion and understanding of the entrepreneurial process, the role public policy plays in technology innovation, and strong social consciousness. These attributes, which echo those of the National Academy of Engineering’s Engineer of 2020, are developed with the specific courses and programs that will translate into creating Grand Challenge Scholars.”
The Grand Challenge, organized by the National Academy of Engineering, is supported by 122 signing schools, each of which has pledged to graduate a minimum of 20 students per year who are specially prepared to lead the way in solving such large-scale problems. The Grand Challenge goal is to train more than 20,000 formally recognized “Grand Challenge Engineers” over the next decade.
Grand Challenge Engineers will be trained through special programs at each institution that integrate five educational elements: a hands-on research or design project connected to the Grand Challenges; real-world, interdisciplinary experiential learning with clients and mentors; entrepreneurship and innovation experience; global and cross-cultural perspectives; and service-learning.
“The NAE’s Grand Challenges for Engineering are already inspiring more and more of our brightest young people to pursue careers that will have direct impacts on improving the quality of life for people across the globe,” said NAE President C.D. Mote, Jr. “Imagine the impact of tens of thousands of additional creative minds focused on tackling society’s most vexing challenges. ‘Changing the world’ is not hyperbole in this case. With the right encouragement, they will do it and inspire others as well.”
Nine ENG Faculty Among Those Promoted
By Rich Barlow, BU Today
Beholding creation, Christopher Schneider longs to understand the forces—evolution, environment, history—that have woven the astounding tapestry of living things. He researches how animal ecology acts with those forces in a given region, especially the tropics, to create new species and maintain biodiversity. His teaching, he says, aims to give students “direct experience with organisms in nature.”
Which is why they must tread carefully around alligators.
Schneider’s research and his instructional prowess, including a field trip to Florida for a herpetology class last spring, helped to make him one of 21 Charles River Campus faculty members elevated to full professor recently—in Schneider’s case, in the College of Arts & Sciences biology department.
Director of BU’s Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology, Schneider has contributed to our understanding of biodiversity (he led the discovery several years ago of more than 100 species of tree frogs. He also trumpets the peril that biodiversity faces from climate change and the conversion of wild habitats to farming and other uses. “We are living in an age during which our actions threaten the world with the sixth great mass extinction in the history of life,” he says, adding that such disaster could be avoided if humans can only adopt more sustainable lifestyles. “Time,” however, “is not on our side,” he says.
While Schneider studies the vast interconnectedness of nature, Kamil Ekinci views the infinitesimally minute world of nanotechnology. Ekinci—now Professor Ekinci (ME, MSE) at the College of Engineering—earned his promotion in part by developing techniques to build nanoscale devices and to measure extremely small signals coming from these devices. His work, which promises many practical uses, including biomedicine, won him a National Science Foundation CAREER Award and a visiting fellowship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology.
Several new professors are known for pushing the boundaries of traditional academic responsibility. Michael Reynolds, elevated at the College of Fine Arts—doesn’t confine himself to his BU charges. Trying to reverse a decline in string instrument instruction in the late ’90s, Reynolds, an accomplished cellist and member of the Muir String Quartet, founded the Classics for Kids Foundation, which gives matching grants for instruments to schools and art groups nationally, especially for underserved kids. “Strong music programs have a very positive ripple effect on a school’s academics and student behavior,” he says.
At BU, Reynolds teaches his students ensemble management and entrepreneurship in music: “I spend a lot of time talking with them about finding best fits down the road for them, whether it be performing, teaching, arts administration, the growing world of musical entrepreneurship, or all of the above.” Winner of a Grammy and other awards, he knows what he’s talking about, having performed almost 2,000 concerts around the world (and a PBS broadcast from the White House during the Reagan administration).
As well as Christopher Schneider, Kamil Ekinci, and Michael Reynolds, the other promoted professors are:
Thomas Berger, CAS professor of international relations
Berger studies German and Japanese politics, focusing on nationalism, identity, and security. His War, Guilt and World Politics after World War II was named one of 2013’s best books by Foreign Affairs magazine. He is now writing a comparative study of alliance politics. His articles and essays have appeared in such publications as International Security, Review of International Studies, German Politics, and World Affairs Quarterly.
Sean Elliott, CAS professor of chemistry
Elliott helped pioneer the study of electron transfer in metal-requiring proteins, using electrochemistry and spectroscopy. His dozens of journal articles, papers, and international talks are widely cited. He has won an NSF CAREER Award, two Research Corporation for Science Advancement Collaborative Innovation awards, BU’s Gitner Award, and the CAS Templeton Award for innovation and excellence in teaching.
Robert Pollack, CAS professor of mathematics and statistics
Pollack is an internationally known numbers theorist whose research is NSF-funded and whose papers have been published worldwide in the Annals of Mathematics, lnventiones Mathematicae, and Duke Mathematical Journal. He won BU’s Gitner Award for Innovation in Teaching with Technology.
Leonid Reyzin, CAS professor of computer science
Reyzin is an internationally known cryptography researcher studying the minimal assumptions needed for provably secure communication (such as user authentication and network security). He has helped to develop cryptography standards and consulted for industry. He won an NSF CAREER Award and the CAS Neu Family Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Daniel Segré, CAS biology and ENG bioinformatics and biomedical engineering
Segré uses theoretical and computational modeling and experimental tests to unravel cellular metabolism in microbes, yielding biomedical advances. With almost $8 million from the NIH, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense, he has written dozens of articles in leading publications and was a DuPont Horizons in Biotechnology distinguished speaker.
Irene Zaderenko, CAS professor of romance studies
Zadarenko specializes in the prose and medieval epic poetry of Spain, especially the Poema de mio Cid. She wrote two books on the poem and many journal articles on Spain’s Middle Ages. She is a regular on the lecture-and-panel circuit at conferences in the United States, Spain, Argentina, Italy, Mexico, and Canada.
Christopher Daly, College of Communication professor of journalism
Daly teaches reporting techniques and ethics to budding journalists. He writes a blog for learners of diverse backgrounds. He has written many scholarly essays, thousands of magazine and newspaper articles, and several books, including the centuries-spanning history Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism (2012).
Calin Belta, ENG professor of mechanical engineering and systems engineering
Belta helps answer important questions in engineering and systems biology with work in robotics and control, for which he develops computational tools, including network systems. A senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Belta is an associate editor of the SIAM Journal on Control and Optimization and has received an Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Award and an NSF CAREER Award.
Edward Damiano, ENG professor of biomedical engineering
Damiano, famous for his development of a “bionic pancreas” for Type 1 diabetes sufferers, specializes in endocrinology and biomechanics. Last November’s University Lecturer, Damiano has raised more than $14 million for his research from such donors as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. He has written dozens of journal articles and organized numerous seminars.
Martin Herbordt, ENG professor of electrical & computer engineering
Herbordt, a scholar of computer architectures and high-performance computing, researches accelerating algorithms that can be used in areas such as bioinformatics and computational biology. He created a commercially successful software package, has written widely cited articles and presentations, and received NSF, NIH, and industry grants, as well as IBM’s Faculty Award.
Catherine Klapperich, ENG professor of biomedical engineering and materials science & engineering
Klapperich integrates systems science and engineering to design diagnostic, cancer screening, and treatment-monitoring tools for underserved groups. A Kern Innovation Faculty Fellow, she directs the NIH-funded Center for Future Technologies in Cancer Care and the Laboratory for Diagnostics and Global Healthcare Technologies. She is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering.
Elise Morgan, ENG professor of mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, and materials science & engineering
Morgan studies how mechanical signals contribute to the development, adaptation, degeneration, and regeneration of bone and cartilage. She has written dozens of widely cited journal articles and presentations. Her research and teaching awards include a Young Investigator Award from the International Osteoporosis Foundation and last year’s ENG Faculty Service Award.
Roberto Paiella, ENG professor of electrical & computer engineering and materials science & engineering
Paiella studies photonics and materials science and develops semiconductor structures and efficient devices, such as lasers, green light LEDs, and infrared detectors, that emit stronger light. He has won grants from the NSF, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Department of Energy. A senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, he sits on the editorial board for Scientific Reports.
Muhammad Zaman, ENG professor of biomedical engineering and materials science & engineering
Zaman specializes in the interface of cell biology, mechanics, systems biology, and medicine, using computational and experimental tools to understand and ultimately prevent cancer metastasis. He is equally devoted to the delivery of modern medical technology to the developing world. The recipient of numerous NIH grants and a recent Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professorship, he has authored two books, seven book chapters, and dozens of widely cited articles on the properties of cell clusters and improved global health.
Martin Amlin, CFA professor of music
Amlin composes and plays classical music on the piano, chairs the school’s composition and theory department, and directs BU’s Tanglewood Institute Young Artists Composition Program. Internationally known for his work with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the Boston Pops, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Amlin has recorded works for major labels and received many grants.
Joshua Fineberg, CFA professor of music
Fineberg, a preeminent scholar and composer of electronic music, combines acoustical research with psychological aspects of music perception to create aural landscapes, a sense of place created by music that’s similar to people’s visual sense of place. Winner of international prizes and fellowships, Fineberg founded and directs BU’s Center for New Music. He has authored a book on contemporary music as well as music performed and recorded by leading American and European new music artists.
Edward Riedl, School of Management professor of accounting
Riedl studies the effect of international accounting and fair value accounting on accuracy in financial reporting. He has written for leading journals, and he sits on the editorial board for The Accounting Review. He is associate editor for the Journal of International Accounting Research. Last year, Riedl cochaired the American Accounting Association’s annual conference, the world’s largest gathering of accounting researchers.
Marshall Van Alstyne, SMG professor of information systems
Van Alstyne studies information economics, communications markets, intellectual property, and the effects of technology and information on society and productivity. He has two patents involving encryption technology and cocreated the concept of “two-sided networks” (in which products and services link two groups, as, for instance, a credit card links buyers and sellers.) The winner of an NSF CAREER Award, he has written for Science, Nature, Harvard Business Review, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
“We are incredibly proud of this talented group of faculty and the work they’ve been able to accomplish during their time here at BU,” says Jean Morrison, University provost. “Whether publishing seminal writings that challenge and expand our understanding of the world around us, discovering brighter, more efficient ways to deliver light, or engineering sophisticated, low-cost tools to diagnose and treat illness in underserved populations, all are helping to redefine their fields of inquiry and impacting countless lives through their research and teaching. They go to the very heart of our mission as a research university, and we are glad to see them continuing their careers here.”
By Gabriella McNevin
NexGen Arrays develops light-based virus detection tests that have potential to improve the health care industry. Alumnus David Freedman (ECE ’09, @DScottFreedman) is the company Co-Founder & CEO.
Recently, Freedman connected with representatives from the National Science Foundation (NSF) while attending the 2015 International Consumer Electronic Show® (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada. NSF filmed their conversation. The video underlines that NexGen Arrays is developing tests to rapidly identify viruses that cause hemorrhagic fevers, including Ebola, Lassa, and Marburg. Nexgen Arrays is also developing additional healthcare tests with clinical collaborators in the area of Oncology and Diabetes.
As highlighted in the NSF video conversation, NexGen Arrays tests are used at the patient’s health care site, resulting in actionable clinical information. This feature is a huge deviation from standard sensitive diagnostic tests. Typically, diagnostic tests are less timely because they require the support of a full lab that is often located at a separate location.
The technology that NexGen Arrays is commercializing sprouted from novel biomedical optics research that was performed in Professor M. Selim Unlu’s (@MSelimUnlu) laboratory. NexGen Arrays is working in collaboration with Becton Dickerson (BD), John Connor from the BU School of Medicine and the BU Photonics Center. The mission has received funding from the NSF Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center, and the National Institute of Health (NIH) and industrial partners.
As a post-doctoral researcher for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Freedman led the development of prototype development in 2011-2012 as part of an NSF Accelerated Innovative Research (NSF-AIR) grant. The NSF-AIR program led Freedman to participate in the NSF Innovation Corps (I-CORPS) program in 2013 to determine the commercial potential of Nexgen Arrays light-based technology. The future of Nexgen Array looks bright to Freedman, who established the company in 2014, “I’m excited for 2015. We’re growing rapidly, and are positioning ourselves for great commercial success.”
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Projects Address Everyday Problems with Embedded Technology
By Mark Dwortzan
Two Electrical & Computer Engineering senior design teams have been named finalists in the Intel-Cornell Cup 2015 competition, which challenges science and engineering college students to conceive of, design and demonstrate the next great embedded technology application. One team’s project, C.A.R.R. System (Cyclist Alert Real-time Response), notifies drivers of potential collisions with approaching cyclists. The other, GrowBox, is an automated hydroponic device that enables users to grow an edible plant, virtually carefree.
The C.A.R.R. System and GrowBox teams will attend talks, network with leading engineering firms and showcase their work along with 20 other finalists from across the country on May 1-2 at NASA Kennedy Space Center. They’ll vie for the competition’s grand prize, $10,000 or one of up
to seven $2,500 awards, all of which include an invitation to exhibit in Intel’s booth at the Maker Fair in New York City or San Mateo, California.
Having survived an hour-long, online semifinal round in February to make it to the finals, both teams subsequently received
$1,500, Intel Atom boards and other equipment, and access to technical experts at Intel and other sponsoring companies to develop their systems.
“Both teams are passionate about their projects and are dedicated to using their engineering skills for the betterment of society,” said Associate Professor of the Practice Alan Pisano(ECE), the lead faculty member for the ECE Senior Design Project course. “They are continually seeking ways to improve their designs, and it’s rare not to see them in the lab working on aspects of their projects.”
Concerned about the rising number of annual bicycle accidents in Boston and other metropolitan areas, the C.A.R.R. System team aims to equip motorists with a bike detection system that consists of cameras attached to both side-view mirrors and a real-time image-processing algorithm. When the system pinpoints a potential or impending collision through the algorithm, it displays and announces a warning on an alerting device that’s easily mountable on the dashboard. Issued within about 200 milliseconds from the moment of detection, the warning indicates which side of the vehicle is on a collision course with an approaching cyclist. In a recent test producing one hour of sample footage, the system successfully identified 92.55 percent of cyclists present, with an overall accuracy of 83.65 percent.
Testing out several designs and detection algorithms, the team settled on a dual camera system with a single, centralized alert hub, and an algorithm that provided the most accuracy and fastest response time.
“After living in Boston for four years, we are very aware of the dangers that exist on the road for drivers and cyclists alike,” said C.A.R.R. team member Omar Rana (CE). “We wanted to create a product that could fit both old and new vehicles, be easy to install and remove, and theoretically reach the market at an affordable price.”
Seeking to help would-be vegetable gardeners who lack the space, time or requisite green thumb to grow their own food, the GrowBox team has designed an automated system that can see to a plant’s needs and report on its status through a combination of sensors, actuators and image processing software. If human intervention is required, an iOS app will notify the user with instructions. GrowBox consists of a hydroponic subsystem that periodically floods the plant with water and nutrients; red, white and blue LEDs tuned to provide optimal lighting conditions for the plant; a backend subsystem that controls all sensors, actuators and lights; and a cloud-based database that backs up all sensor and image data. GrowBoxes are designed to be stackable so a user could grow a column of vegetables in a compact space.
The team’s biggest challenge has been to create and maintain the water/nutrient solution that’s needed to sustain the plant. To solve the problem, they found a nutrient mixture that keeps pH, electrical conductivity and other essential GrowBox parameters constant.
“Together, we developed ideas for the GrowBox and the reduction of the user’s role in the growth of a plant,” said Sasha Rosca (CE), who came up with the idea for the project. “Once the automation technology is developed, it can be implemented in large grow houses around the world to provide people with food year-round.”