Many engineers have great ideas for products, but unfortunately, they don’t often have a background in business that will allow them to bring their designs to market.
To help with this problem, two Boston University research teams recently participated in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps), a program that encourages scientists and engineers to broaden their focus beyond lab work through entrepreneurship training.
“We had been trying to bring some of our ideas to a commercial state when we heard about the program,” said David Freedman, a BU research associate in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. “It seemed like a great fit for us.”
Freedman and postdoctoral associate, George Daaboul, had been working closely with Professor Selim Ünlü’s (ECE, BME, MSE) research group trying to determine how their technology, IRIS, used to detect viruses and pathogens, might be applied in doctors’ offices, hospitals, and emergency care centers. They soon decided that forming an I-Corps team would allow them to evaluate the commercial potential.
Teams receive $50K in grant money and consist of an Entrepreneurial Lead (Daaboul), a Principal Investigator (Freedman), and a business mentor. The researchers asked BU lecturer and entrepreneur, Rana Gupta (SMG), to take on the latter role.
Also participating from BU were Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE) and Research Assistant Professor Swapnil Bhatia (ECE). They pitched Lattice Automation, technology that will allow technology by the Cross-disciplinary Integration of Design Automation Research (CIDAR) group to transition into commercial products. Ultimately, they hope to create software that will help synthetic biologists work more efficiently.
“Our technology is building upon state-of-the-art techniques in computer science, electrical engineering, and bioengineering,” explained Densmore.
Over eight weeks in the fall, participants attended workshops in Atlanta, Ga., met with researchers from the 21 teams, followed an online curriculum, and spoke with up to 100 different potential consumers of their technology – a process known as “customer discovery.”
Through this experience, Freedman and Daaboul quickly learned that introducing a new technology to customers might not be the right approach for their research.
“We decided instead to focus on the pains customers had with existing technologies and hone in on how we could alleviate those,” said Freedman.
Added Daaboul: “Finding out what people really needed before developing a technology really allowed for a much different perspective than what I’m used to.”
Much of the knowledge gained through I-Corps will be used to advance science and engineering research. Some products tested during the workshops even show immediate market potential by the conclusion of the curriculum.
“I would recommend this program to anyone working in science or industry,” said Freedman. “Not only did this change how we think about our research, we also learned how to better tell our narrative.”
-Rachel Harrington (email@example.com)
It’s been a bitter winter in Boston, but that didn’t keep students and faculty from making their way toward the Photonics Building Colloquium Room on January 22. Anxious undergraduate students looking for research opportunities mingled among the 28 tables of Boston University researchers at the recent ECE Undergraduate Research and Lab Job Fair hoping to find opportunities to gain hands-on engineering experience.
The story of the research fair goes back four years ago when Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen spoke to matriculating freshman about the importance of research. While listening to the talk, Professor Mark Horenstein (ECE) realized that while entering students were being encouraged to engage in research, no one was telling them how.
In response, Horenstein started the annual ECE Undergraduate Research and Lab Job Fair as a way for undergraduates and faculty to explore mutual interests related to research and for students to ask about available research positions. The event also provides a public forum in which faculty can showcase what is happening in their laboratories. “This is a get-to-know-you meet-and-greet event,” says Horenstein.
Watching presentations and submitting resumes to BU faculty and graduate students, about 75 students attended this year. Two sophomores, Dean De Carli (EE ’16) and Matthew Owney (EE ’16), were scouting for summer and fall positions.
“Even though I didn’t get any research jobs, I was able to connect with the faculty,” said second-time attendee, De Carli. Owney added that he is looking for any opportunity since it’s his first time attending the fair.
Horenstein tells younger attendees, such as Alexandra Miller-Browne (CE ’17), that it’s important to “build up your skills as time goes on; don’t get discouraged.”
People on the other side of the table have a similar thought process. Dr. Traci Haddock, Executive Director of the Center for Synthetic Biology at BU, says, “Most students have no experience, but we will take anyone who is interested.” For example, she is looking for students to help develop the iGEM team’s website and build genetic devices this summer.
Third-time veteran, Associate Professor Robert Kotiuga, changes his presentation every year but remains steadfast in his belief that though people will always possess different areas of expertise, “it is important to be passionate about the project.”
Every year since the program’s initiation, the event has turned out eager attendees, and 2014 was no exception. Students continue to return each year, hoping to gain experience and take advantage of the department’s available opportunities.
-Chelsea Hermond (SMG ’15)
Several new faces are walking the halls of Boston University’s Photonics Center this year after the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering welcomed three new faculty members in 2013-14.
Gray, who specializes in information theory, statistical signal processing, and quantization theory and algorithms, has received a long list of accolades since earning his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in 1969.
Among his honors, Gray is a member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and a Fellow of the Institute for Mathematical Statistics and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). He has also received the IEEE Jack S. Kilby Signal Processing Medal, the IEEE Information Theory Society Claude E. Shannon Award, and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM).
In addition to his post at BU, Gray holds the title of Emeritus Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, where he authored more than a dozen textbooks.
Like Gray, Goyal also specializes in statistical signal processing and holds the title of IEEE Fellow after being recognized last year.
Goyal’s additional research interests include computational imaging, information representation, quantization, and human decision making and perception.
Though he is new to BU, Goyal is familiar with Boston, having previously taught at MIT just across the river.
“I’m excited to join BU because it is a perfect place to work at the intersection of information sciences and photonics. Both are great strengths of BU ECE,” he said.
Goyal believes that a central focus of future information processing research will be on addressing problems that exist outside of engineering, and he is eager to work across department boundaries.
“For such pursuits, it is a privilege to be part of a university with world-class programs ranging from economics to health,” he said.
A previous winner of the NSF CAREER Award, Goyal is already off and running at BU. Research he conducted with colleagues at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics on imaging methods that could potentially improve remote sensing and microscopy was recently published in the journal, Science.
Also new to the department is Bhatia, a familiar figure in BU ECE since he started as a postdoctoral associate, working closely with Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE). Bhatia was drawn to BU instead of a career in industry because of both the university’s emphasis on student learning and the prospect of working on synthetic biology research.
“When Doug talked to me about the postdoc position, he also pointed me to people in the field, and I saw some of [BU Biomedical Engineering Professor] Jim Collins‘s talks on YouTube,” said Bhatia. “It was all fascinating and I could see the potential impact of the field and the role of computer science in making it happen.”
Currently, Bhatia specializes in algorithms in biology, discrete mathematics and theoretical computer science, and network and storage systems.
Prior to working at BU, Bhatia, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of New Hampshire in 2010, received their Richard Lyczak Memorial Teaching Award and Teaching Achievement Award.
Now that class is back in session, look for Gray, Goyal and Bhatia – plus the rest of the ECE faculty – this semester.
-Rachel Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Features tour of ENG’s new design, manufacturing studio
The Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC) hadn’t yet opened for its inaugural semester, and it already had a wait list of students eager to register for classes in the sleek, glass-fronted Commonwealth Avenue building that not too long ago was the Guitar Center. That bodes well for the College of Engineering and the University officials and corporate sponsors who made the new facility possible.
ENG will host EPIC’s ribbon-cutting ceremony this Thursday, January 23. Among those present will be President Robert A. Brown, ENG Dean Kenneth Lutchen, local dignitaries, and key corporate partners, including representatives from principal industry sponsors GE Aviation, Procter & Gamble, PTC, and Schlumberger.
Lutchen, who is also an ENG professor of biomedical engineering, says that EPIC’s opening “now begins the opportunity for us to transform our engineering education at the undergraduate level to really create a much more powerfully enabled graduate who understands the process of designing products from conception to deployment.”
Those skills are particularly important, and valuable, now that manufacturing is making a comeback in the United States. US manufacturers have added at least 500,000 new workers since the end of 2009, energy costs have dropped, and labor costs in competing countries such as China and India have been inching upward.
Companies like Apple and GE are bringing high-tech facilities back home from overseas. While a positive development, “the problem is now there aren’t enough engineers trained in highly technological methods,” says Bruce Jordan, ENG assistant dean of development and alumni relations.
EPIC could help fill that void. “We’re hoping to set a standard for the training of engineers for the future manufacturing economy in this country,” says EPIC director Gerry Fine, an ENG professor of the practice.
Funded through the University, ENG alumni and friends, and regional industry, EPIC’s 20,000-square-foot space houses a computer-aided design (CAD) studio, demonstration areas, fabrication facilities, materials testing, and project management software available to engineering students in all specialties — from computer and electrical engineering to biomedical engineering and nanotechnology. The facility has a flexible design and offers students supply chain management software, 3-D printers, robotics, laser processing, and around-the-clock digital access to the studio’s online resources.
A representative from each principal industry sponsor, GE Aviation, Procter & Gamble, PTC, and Schlumberger, will sit on EPIC’s Industrial Advisory Board, whose primary function will be to offer suggestions on how the ENG undergraduate curriculum might be redesigned to better prepare students for employment in the years ahead.
“We want to create as many options for our graduating students as possible,” Fine says. “By teaching them some of the things that regional industry wants, we think we’re giving our students more options. And we’re making our students more desirable to potential employers.”
Representatives from the principal sponsors will also participate in guest lectures and provide case studies and projects, and the companies will offer internship and employment opportunities to qualified students.
While other universities have manufacturing-oriented centers, most focus on basic research, but EPIC allows engineering students to put theory into practice by converting their ideas into products that could one day benefit society.
Fine has given tours of the facility to at least five teams from other universities since June. “We’re not aware of anyone who’s invested in this scale and made this commitment to undergraduate education,” he says.
“When I first heard from Dean Lutchen about the idea of EPIC, I was thrilled,” says Michael Campbell (ENG ’94), executive vice president of PTC’s CAD segment, who will serve on EPIC’s advisory board. “I always felt that my engineering education lacked that real-world perspective, that real-world exposure to the challenges, processes, and complexities of collaboration and the sophistication of tools. Now we have a chance to share all of that with students.”
J. David Rowatt, research director and technical advisor at Schlumberger, echoes that sentiment. “There were so many things I didn’t learn in school that I picked up on the job,” he says. “Some of these are clearly being addressed by what EPIC is trying to do,” which is exposing students to the entire engineering process — from conception and manufacturing to working on deadlines and understanding resource constraints.
Greg Morris, strategy and business development leader for additive manufacturing with GE Aviation, says this generation of students grew up in a world where computers and software were second nature, but tinkering under the hood of a car was not. EPIC will provide engineering students with the hands-on experience that gives them an advantage in the marketplace. “I can’t tell you how much that resonates with an employer,” he says.
Both BU and its partners see EPIC as a win-win. ENG faculty and students will benefit from a revamped curriculum and access to global leaders in innovation and manufacturing, while industry partners will interact with the University’s deep bench of cutting-edge researchers and get exposure to a new crop of engineers.
“If we tap into EPIC,” says Bruno De Weer, the vice president of global engineering at Procter & Gamble, “we can find ourselves connected with another hub of innovation that brings the very best.”
The EPIC ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 23, at 750 Commonwealth Ave., followed by a reception and tours for those invited. The event is not open to the public.
-Leslie Friday, BU Today
Boston University students have big ideas – whether they’re aiming to prevent cyber attacks or using GPS data to improve cattle herding. As good as their work is though, they don’t always know the best way to present their research.
Ph.D. students, Yasaman Khazaeni, Greg Castanon, and Jing Wang, initially came up with the idea for the event last semester and hoped it would give their classmates a chance to practice speaking in front of a large audience.
“One of the main issues we have as students becomes clear at conferences,” said Khazaeni. “We’ve done great research but don’t present it well.”
Often times, she added, engineering students come from international backgrounds and don’t have enough confidence to present in English.
“By speaking in front of a friendly audience, as opposed to a conference where you’d know few people in the audience, your classmates and professors can offer feedback and really help you smooth out your final presentation,” said Khazaeni.
Khazaeni, who helped choose 14 students to present out of a pool of 23 applicants, said that the event also allowed CISE students to learn from classmates and discover more about the projects they’ve been working on.
Among those she learned from were Ph.D. students, Morteza Hashemi and Delaram Motamedvaziri, who took home the Best CISE Presenter awards.
Hashemi, who is advised by Professor Ari Trachtenberg (ECE, SE), spoke about his project, Coded Data Sharing in Intra-Car Wireless Sensor Networks. He has been working with Trachtenberg, Professor David Starobinski (ECE, SE), Ph.D. student, Wei Si, and General Motors Research to determine if using wireless sensor networks (WSN) might allow for a greener way to construct tomorrow’s vehicles. The work previously won the Center for Reliable Information Systems and Cybersecurity Award as well as the Provost’s Award at Scholars Day last year.
Advised by Professor Venkatesh Saligrama (ECE, SE), Motamedvaziri spoke about her work, “Poisson Statistics and the Future of Internet Marketing.”
“The effectiveness of search engine marketing is dropping while the power of social media marketing is rising,” she explained. “Mathematics would suggest that social media is now the better advertising strategy.”
She said that though her research focused on total hits advertisements received, she’d like to expand her work in the future by looking at data concerning how long a person stayed on a website.
“Ultimately, we’re more interested in seeing transactions occur as opposed to clicks,” said Motamedvaziri.
Also honored at a reception at the BU Castle following the presentations were Setareh Ariafar, the Most Attentive CISE Student, and Professor David Castañón (ECE, SE), awarded for his contributions to CISE. Because 20 students attended all fourteen presentations, the most attentive of them was chosen by raffle.
In case any students left the workshop having doubts about their speaking skills, Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) closed the day by offering some advice, including “never overestimate the intelligence of your audience” and “the maximum pieces of information that should appear on a slide is two.”
“Giving a good talk is a difficult thing,” he said. “It’s as much of an art as a science.”
-Rachel Harrington (email@example.com)
BU to be compensated for technology in popular electronics products
Technology giants Apple, Amazon, and Sony are among 25 companies that have settled lawsuits filed by BU alleging infringement of a professor’s patented technology for producing blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
The settlement, whose dollar amounts have not been disclosed, was negotiated with RPX, a San Francisco firm that acquires patent rights for corporate clients to help them avoid lawsuits. RPX will pay BU a licensing fee for the patents, which will be available to all RPX members. About a dozen firms that aren’t RPX members remain in litigation with the University.
The suits, filed last year, involved the use of gallium nitride thin films, patented in the 1990s by Professor Theodore Moustakas (ECE, MSE). The films facilitate the production of high-quality blue LEDs, which are used in an array of electronics products, from flat-panel displays on handheld devices to televisions and general lighting. Many popular consumer products incorporate the technology, the University says, including the iPhone 5, the iPad, and the Kindle Paperwhite 6”.
“This settlement, as well as the licensing of the patents previously by other blue LED manufacturers, is recognition of the importance of my work in the development of this novel technology,” said Moustakas.
Vinit Nijhawan, managing director of BU’s Office of Technology Development, said the settlement “acknowledges Ted’s patent as being a key part of the blue LED industry, which is estimated at about $11 billion annually.
“This is really a victory for him,” said Nijhawan. “It acknowledges him as one of the key inventors behind the blue LED.”
BU said it sued the companies to safeguard the research and invention of one of its faculty members. “We’re protecting our intellectual property,” Provost Jean Morrison said when the suits were announced last year. “The creation of new knowledge is fundamental to our mission. Ted Moustakas created a process that significantly improves the performance of these products. It’s incredibly important for a university to defend its intellectual property.”
Before filing the lawsuit, the University retained a law firm specializing in intellectual property. Nijhawan says the law firm hired independent experts, who confirmed BU’s suspicions of patent infringement. The University tried to negotiate licensing royalties with several product manufacturers, but was rebuffed, leading to the suits, Nijhawan said.
“Our faculty are increasingly working with industry and finding practical applications for their work,” said Gloria Waters, vice president and associate provost for research. “We will protect their intellectual property as they do so.”
-Rich Barlow, BU Today
Telecommunications companies – those that allow us to talk on the phone, communicate over the Internet and watch cable television – used to operate under the notion that there was an infinite amount of fiber bandwidth available to transmit these signals. Then we moved into the Y2K era.
“There was a big explosion of data around the year 2000,” said Larry A. Coldren, the Fred Kavli Professor of Optoelectronics and Sensors at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Computers were also getting faster and faster at this time and the demand for bandwidth was rising quickly.”
Coldren and his team had started looking at photonic integrated circuits (PICs), devices that allow signals to travel on optical waves on semiconductor chips, back in the 1980s and discovered that they could viably be produced much like analogous electronic integrated circuits (ICs) that generally use electrical wires for transferring data.
Last month, he spoke about his research during Boston University’s Electrical & Computer Engineering Distinguished Lecture Series. He suggested that PICs could be the key component in the future of telecommunications.
Just a couple of decades ago, wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM) was introduced to meet the demand for more fiber bandwidth. This method allowed a number of signals to be simultaneously transferred on a single optical fiber. However, at the terminals where the WDM channels must be either combined or separated, the optical and electronic equipment became more and more complex as the channel count and signal speed increased. That’s where Coldren’s research comes into play.
“PICs have the potential of improved performance, reliability and cost while also reducing the size, weight and power of the equipment,” said Coldren.
PICs for various applications have been made using indium phosphide, silica on silicon, polymer technologies, and silicon photonics. Electronic ICs, however, usually use silicon as a dominant ingredient. Coldren’s team currently focuses on a monolithic indium phosphide integration platform.
“Ultimately, we may find that the best results will come from a hybrid solution using more than one of these materials,” said Coldren.
Today, PICs are widely deployed commercially and outperform many discrete device approaches, but Coldren is optimistic that they can work even better in the future and hopefully result in more environmentally friendly supercomputers and data centers.
“Our efforts have always been focused on making PICs very efficient and very fast,” said Coldren. “Now we need to look at how they can be used to create more green data centers.”
Assistant Professor Jonathan Klamkin (ECE), who introduced Coldren at the lecture, previously had an opportunity to study with Coldren while earning his Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara.
“I benefitted immensely from his guidance and even use his books in my class here,” Klamkin said. “It’s a pleasure having him on our campus.”
Prior to teaching, Coldren worked at Bell Labs, where he studied surface-acoustic-wave signal processing devices and tunable coupled-cavity lasers. He continued his work at UC Santa Barbara, where he has developed more widely-tunable DBR lasers and efficient, high-speed vertical-cavity-surface-emitting lasers (VCSELs) in addition to his PIC research.
Coldren is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Optical Society (OSA) and the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE).
Coldren’s talk was the third in the three-part Fall 2013 Distinguished Lecture Series. The seminars will resume in Spring 2014.
-Rachel Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
NSF Research Program Helps ENG Vets Shape Careers
US military personnel return from active duty with highly marketable knowledge and skills, but many find it difficult to quickly parlay their experience into well-paying jobs. To help rectify the situation, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funds the Veteran’s Research Supplement (VRS) program, which allows veterans at selected colleges and universities to participate in industrially relevant research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) — fields in which job openings far outpace the supply of qualified US applicants.
Since the inception of VRS in 2011, the College of Engineering’s NSF Industry/University Collaborative Research Center for Biophotonic Sensors & Systems has welcomed the opportunity to engage veterans in research through this program.
“Vets come to us with an unusually strong work ethic and high confidence but often lack the experience to be comfortable in taking on a big research project,” said BU Photonics Center Director and Professor Thomas Bifano (ME, MSE). “VRS gives them the opportunity to take on such projects and pursue careers in research, which is the main engine of our economy.”
So far two veterans have thrived in faculty-supervised summer projects funded by VRS, emerging not only with new research skills but also a more well-defined career path.
Cliff Chan: From Technician to Engineer
Cliff Chan, who deployed four times in the Middle East and Southeast Asia as an Air Force Guidance and Control Specialist, came to BU seeking to take his skillset to the next level. With a B.S. in mathematics and computer science from the University of California, San Diego, two years developing software for an electronic health records company, and four years maintaining aircraft control systems for the Air Force under his belt, Chan aspired to learn how to design the kinds of technologies he came across during his military service.
To transform himself from a technician to an engineer, he sought a way to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering in a reasonable timeframe without having to start from scratch, and he found it in the College of Engineering’s Late Entry Accelerated Program (LEAP). Like all LEAP students, Chan spent his first year taking undergraduate engineering courses to get up to speed, but got his first taste of engineering design the following summer (2011), thanks to the VRS program. Working for three months in Professor Jerome Mertz’s (BME) Biomicroscopy Lab within BU’s Center for Biophotonic Sensors and Systems, he developed software that enables microscopes to provide high-contrast images of biological samples in real time.
“The project was a real transition for me, as I had to solve a problem by first figuring out what I needed to learn, and then how to apply it,” recalled Chan, who was used to getting more explicit instructions in the Air Force and had never worked in a research lab. “It opened up my eyes to another world.”
Subsequently hired to work full-time in the Biomicroscopy Lab while completing his Master of Engineering in electrical engineering, Chan has continued to advance microscopy techniques aimed at improving medical diagnostic imaging. The experience has led him to consider working in research and development for defense and other industries, conducting experiments and designing devices with real-world applications.
It has also prepared him to work through the inevitable unexpected challenges that arise in advancing new technologies.
“What I like about Cliff is that he’s undaunted,” said Mertz. “He wants to learn everything that’s out there to tackle his work. The problems we faced were much more complex than I had anticipated, but Cliff’s efforts definitely kept us on track, and kept us progressing.”
Chris Stockbridge: From Defusing Roadside Bombs to Protecting Future Soldiers
Chris Stockbridge returned to civilian life after five years as an officer and combat engineer in the Army that included two tours of duty in Iraq. During each deployment he came to appreciate the engineering behind technologies used to protect soldiers, including devices used to search for and destroy roadside bombs. Equipped with those experiences and a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the US Military Academy at West Point, he applied to the PhD program in mechanical engineering at BU with the goal of working as a civilian engineer at a national military research lab.
“I came to BU to study micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), particularly those which could be of great value in military applications, and because I knew that the Photonics Center has a strong relationship with the US Army Research Laboratory,” said Stockbridge.
Supported last summer by the VRS program to serve as the lead student in an NSF-funded project in Bifano’s Precision Optics Research Lab, he began fabricating MEMS for a new deformable mirror design for use in the Keck and other very large telescopes. Aimed at supplying the telescopes with mirrors that have more pixels for finer imaging control, his work could enable astronomers to make observations that shed light on the origin of the universe and the existence of life on extra-solar planets.
“The primary benefit to me from this project was spending more time doing hands-on MEMS fabrication work,” said Stockbridge, who had already spent two years working on the design of deformable mirrors in Bifano’s lab. “While I would prefer to work more in design after graduation, the hands-on skills are important for getting an appreciation of each process step that goes into building a MEMS mirror.”
As he has cultivated those skills, Stockbridge has proven to be an invaluable asset in Bifano’s lab.
“Chris is a consummate engineer who seems to thrive on tackling problems that are both thorny and hard, and I can see in his work the experience and training that he gained while serving in the Army,” said Bifano. “He is a natural collaborator, and all of the other students in my lab and in the labs of my close colleagues have come to rely on him for his strong sense of mechanical design and for his eagerness to help those around him. Chris will make a great professional engineer.”
-Rachel Harrington (email@example.com)
New Laser Technique Boosts Accuracy of DNA Sequencing Method
Low-cost, ultra-fast DNA sequencing would revolutionize healthcare and biomedical research, sparking major advances in drug development, preventative medicine and personalized medicine. By gaining access to the entire sequence of your genome, a physician could determine the probability that you’ll develop a specific genetic disease or tolerate selected medications. In pursuit of that goal, Associate Professor Amit Meller (BME, MSE) has spent much of the past decade spearheading a method that uses solid state nanopores — two-to-five-nanometer-wide holes in silicon chips that read DNA strands as they pass through — to optically sequence the four nucleotides (A, C, G, T) encoding each DNA molecule.
Now Meller and a team of researchers at Boston University — Professor Theodore Moustakas (ECE, MSE) and research assistants Nicolas Di Fiori (Physics, PhD ’13) and Allison Squires (BME, PhD ’14) — and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology — have discovered a simple way to improve the sensitivity, accuracy and speed of the method, making it an even more viable option for DNA sequencing or characterization of small proteins.
In the November 3 online edition of Nature Nanotechnology, the team demonstrated that focusing a low-power, commercially available green laser on a nanopore increases current near walls of the pore, which is immersed in salt water. As the current increases, it sweeps the salt water along with it in the opposite direction of incoming samples. The onrushing water, in turn, acts as a brake, slowing down the passage of DNA through the pore. As a result, nanoscale sensors in the pore can get a higher-resolution read of each nucleotide as it crosses the pore, and identify small proteins in their native state that could not previously be detected.
“The light-induced phenomenon that we describe in this paper can be used to switch on and off the ‘brakes’ acting on individual biopolymers, such as DNA or proteins sliding through the nanopores, in real time,” Meller explained. “This critically enhances the sensing resolution of solid-state nanopores and can be easily integrated in future nanopore-based DNA sequencing and protein detection technologies.”
Slowing down DNA is essential to DNA or RNA sequencing with nanopores, so that nanoscale sensors, like sports referees, can make the right call on what’s passing through.
“The goal is to hold a base pair of DNA nucleotides in the nanopore’s sensing volume long enough to ‘call the base’ (i.e, determine if it’s an A, C, G or T),” said Squires, who fabricated nanopores and ran experiments in the study. “The signal needs to be sufficiently different for each base for sensors in the nanopore to make the call. If the sample proceeds through the sensing volume too quickly, it’s hard for the sensors to interpret the signal and make the right call.”
Other methods designed to slow down DNA in nanopores change the sensing properties of the pore, making it more difficult to ensure accuracy of detected base pairs. Shining laser light on the nanopore alters only the local surface charge, an effect that’s completely reversible within milliseconds by switching the laser off.
As an added bonus, the researchers found that the sudden increase in surface charge and resulting flow of water reliably unblocks clogged nanopores, which can take a long time to clean, significantly extending their lifetime.
Meller and his team characterized the amount of increase in current under varying illumination in many different-sized nanopores. They next aim to explore in greater detail the mechanism underlying the increase in surface current when the green laser is applied to a nanopore, information that could lead to even more sensitivity and accuracy in DNA sequencing.
The research is funded by a $4.2 million grant from the National Institute of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute under its “Revolutionary Sequencing Technology Development — $1,000 Genome” program, which seeks to reduce the cost of sequencing a human genome to $1,000.
Imagining intelligent traffic lights, parking spaces, buildings and appliances
Last year, the Daily Beast named Boston the country’s smartest metropolitan area. The website was referring to the people of Boston, of course, not the city itself. But what if the city itself were smart? What if technology, designed by the smart people who work in Boston, could help us save time and energy and spare us from daily frustrations? We talked to some BU researchers who are studying, designing, and building the technology for a more enlightened city.
Because the cost of electricity fluctuates throughout the day, depending on demand, smart meters that are currently available tell homeowners exactly how much energy they use and at what cost, encouraging them to delay energy-intensive activities until a time of day when demand and costs are low. Supported by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant, Professor Michael Caramanis (ME, SE), Professor John Baillieul (ME, SE) and two MIT faculty members are collaborating on a study of how these and larger-scale measures could result in a smarter electricity grid. In the United States, we lose about 8 percent of energy because it travels long distances between points of generation to use. Caramanis thinks the loss could be greatly reduced if we got our energy from closer and cleaner sources. A smarter grid could help us do that.
Security officers could sort through billions of hours of video footage and spot unusual events, such as someone attempting to enter a building in the middle of the night, using specially designed cameras with embedded algorithms. Professor Janusz Konrad (ECE) and Venkatesh Saligrama (ECE, SE) have developed the technology, supported by more than $800,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies.
BU engineers have designed software that, once uploaded to a building’s HVAC system, would measure airflow room by room and revise it to meet minimum standards, decreasing energy costs while keeping occupants happy. The invention earned Associate Professor Michael Gevelber (ME, SE), Adjunct Research Professor Donald Wroblewski (ME) and ENG and School of Management students first prize and $20,000 in this year’s MIT Clean Energy Competition. The team plans to develop and market the software through its newly formed company, Aeolus Building Efficiency.
Smarter Traffic Lights
A smart traffic lighting system would mine GPS information from cars and smartphones and count the number of vehicles waiting at red lights. If there is no approaching traffic, it would switch lights from red to green. Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) is testing this system on a model mini-city in his lab.
Cassandras, working with research assistant Yanfeng Geng (PhD, SE ’13), has developed the BU Smart Parking application, which can be downloaded to a smartphone from the iPhone App Store by searching “BU smartparking.” Drivers tell the app when and where they want to park, prioritizing price and location, and the app searches for available spaces, all of which are networked to the device. When the app identifies a spot that meets the search criteria, it tells the driver where to go. At the same time, a light installed above the spot turns from green to red. When the driver who made the reservations approaches, the light turns yellow. The catch? At the moment the system works only in BU’s 730 Commonwealth Avenue garage, but Cassandras hopes to expand it to private parking facilities throughout Boston.
The next-generation lightbulb could enhance sleep quality, send data like a Wi-Fi hotspot does, or help visitors navigate large buildings through a network of visible cues, while operating more efficiently. This technology is made possible by combining LEDs, sensors, and other control systems within a single hybrid bulb that needs 40 to 70 percent less energy than existing compact fluorescent lights or LED lightbulbs. It is being developed by Professor Thomas Little (ECE, SE), associate director of the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center, working with researchers at the center under an $18.5 million National Science Foundation grant. Little is collaborating with colleagues from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of New Mexico.
Refrigerators and hot water heaters are duty-cycle appliances, meaning they need to run only two to three times each hour. Caramanis thinks they could be designed to communicate with the electricity grid and run when electrical demand is lowest during that time period. Alternatively, if either of these appliances is connected to a home photovoltaic unit, it could be programmed to detect when a passing cloud blocks the sun and choose to cycle at a later time. Caramanis says this technology is mostly being tested in pilot settings. A New Jersey-based company called FirstEnergy has installed temperature sensors and communication controllers that turn on and off the hot water heaters of thousands of consumers in relation to low or high energy costs in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland region.
Smarter Central Control
Imagine a network of sensors that would collect and send data to a centralized processor, which could order a garbage pickup or warn drivers of traffic jams. Cassandras, Professor Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE), codirector of the Center for Information & Systems Engineering, and Professor Assaf Kfoury (CS), are testing a miniature version of this network in Cassandras’ lab, with help from a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
-Leslie Friday (Videos by Joe Chan), BU Today