By Bhumika Salwan (Questrom ’16)
ECE Associate Professor Ayse Coskun and Assistant Professor Manuel Egele were awarded $189,000 for their research in data analytics with Sandia National Laboratories for improving energy efficiency and security of high performance computing (HPC) systems. Sandia Labs is one of the nation’s premier science and engineering laboratories for national security, with strategic areas in nuclear weapons, defense systems and assessments, energy and climate, and international, homeland, and nuclear security.
Professor Ayse Coskun’s research group at Boston University is widely-cited, with expertise in the topics of energy-efficient computing, computer system modeling and simulation, design of intelligent scheduling and power management techniques, and green computing in data centers and HPC systems. Professor Manuel Egele is an expert on systems and software security whose research has been published at top-tier peer reviewed conferences including NDSS and CCS.
Their project aims to identify which data collected out of HPC systems would be useful for identifying performance characteristics, inefficiencies, and malicious behavior. It will then design methods to leverage these data to design runtime strategies to improve efficiency and security. Professors Coskun and Egele’s research teams will first collect data on real HPC clusters at Sandia Labs and at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC). They will then analyze that data to determine the most relevant, minimum set of metrics that are good indicators of energy and normal system behavior, and construct models that can predict performance variations and anomalous behavior resulting from security breaches or fraudulent activities.
The knowledge gained through this project will aid users and admins in answering questions such as the following: How much resources (e.g., how many cores or what size of memory) do I need for my application? Why does the performance of my application wildly vary across different runs? What information can we provide to system administrators to enable more efficient problem diagnosis? Can we determine whether software applications are behaving “normally”?
By Gabriella McNevin
Professor Dimitris Pavlidis (ECE) received the 2015 Distinguished Educator Award from the IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society (MTT-S). The award recognizes an individual who has achieved outstanding success in the field of microwave engineering and science as an Educator, Mentor, and Role Model for Microwave Engineers and Engineering Students. The award consists of a recognition plaque, a certificate and an honorarium of $2,500. Pavlidis was conferred at the IEEE International Microwave Symposium the week of 17-22 May 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Pavlidis has pursued microwave research while remaining active in both academia and the microwave engineering industry. He boasts citation in more than 550 publications, and his work with semiconductor devices and circuits have an extraordinary impact on high-speed, high-frequency and photonic applications.
Early in Pavlidis career, he recognized the importance of mentoring engineering students, and in improving microwave engineering academic programs. In 1989 he introduced the first comprehensive Microwave Monolithic Integrated Circuits (MMIC) course, of many, that would be taught around the world. The MMIC course (IEEE Trans. on Education, 1989) was followed by courses covering design, processing and characterization of high frequency components; also, microwave and millimeter-wave circuits and devices. The courses have been well received by students, because they are structured to shed light on the fundamental principles of each topic, and simultaneously provide information on cutting-edge applications.
Pavlidis’ decorated academic career is complemented by achievements in the field of microwave engineering. Pavlidis was involved in pioneering University Research Centers like the Space Terahertz Center and the High-Frequency Microelectronics Center and played a key role in establishing Nanofabrication facilities.
Pavlidis is recognized for a dedication to advancing global microwave engineering efforts. He was appointed to be the Chair of the High Frequency Electronic Department at the Technical University of Darmstadt (TUD) and Director of International Relations at the Institute of Electronics, Microelectronics and Nanotechnology (IEMN). In this capacity, Prof. Pavlidis created an entirely new facility for high frequency micro-/nano-electronics at TUD that served for education and research.
He introduced double degree teaching programs between the universities of Georgia Tech. and the University of Lille1 that have been supported by the US Department of Education/EU Directorate General for Education and Culture (ATLANTIS Program) and Partner University Fund (PUF Program). He initiated major programs for graduate education through transatlantic mobility of students and obtaining of double degrees from US and European institutions. These involved consortia consisting of the universities of Darmstadt, Lille1, Imperial College, Michigan, Illinois, Georgia Tech and UC Irvine and funded by the Funds for Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and the European Union under joint US-EU initiatives. He has also coordinated and contributed to the initiation of CINTRA, a new international laboratory in Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University for research and education in micro/nano technology and high frequency electronics and optoelectronics. This laboratory is sponsored by the CNRS French Agency, and encourages graduate and postdoctoral students gain experience in Singapore. He played a key role in promoting microwave to Terahertz engineering, chaired and assisted in the organization of numerous international and IEEE meetings and was the general TPC Chair of the 2010 European Microwave Conference.
Ultimately, Prof. Pavlidis has trained and inspired several generations of students by providing them with the tools for setting up extremely successful careers in science and engineering.
Pavlidis has guided students to become highly influential Professors at top schools (Purdue; Seoul National University; Central University Taiwan; Nanyang University, Singapore) as well as key managers and senior scientists in industry (Northrop Grumman, TRW, IQE, Raytheon, Tyco, Freescale, Thales Alenia Space, EADS, Skyworks, Intel, Global Foundries, Samsung, ITRI).
His contributions to Education continue as the Program Director of the National Science Foundation’s Program on “Electronic, Photonic and Magnetic Devices”, Coordinator of future emerging technologies such as the “Beyond Graphene” (2DARE) program, and ECCS Coordinator of the Materials Genome (DMREF) program and various ERC Centers. In his present capacity, he is focused on boosting innovative potential by integrating the education of future scientists, engineers, and educators into a broad portfolio.
One of Six Teams Selected
By Gabriella McNevin
ANDESITE, a task force within Boston University’s Small Satellite Program, qualified to launch a self-designed satellite into orbit. The ANDERSITE team is one of six that qualified for the final round of the US Air Force University Nanosat Program competition.
The ANDESITE satellite is on the forefront of an international movement to advance our understanding of “space weather” and its effects on society. Space weather arises from interactions between the Earth’s plasma environment and the impinging solar wind. These interactions can damage satellites, harm astronauts in space, render GPS information erratic and unreliable, disrupt ground-space communications, and even cause electricity blackouts on Earth. In 2013, the White House raised inadequate space weather forecasting to the global agenda, citing the significant “threat to modern systems posed by space weather events” and “the potential for “significant societal, economic, national security, and health impacts.”
The ANDESITE satellite has been designed to deploy a network of magnetic sensors from a central mother ship. The ejected sensors will operate collectively as a space-based wireless mesh network with the aim of studying fine-scale variations in Earth’s geomagnetic environment caused by space weather events. The ANDESITE satellite’s scientific and technological innovations place it at the cutting edge of the burgeoning cubesat movement.
ANDESITE is a unique interdisciplinary university-wide collaboration. The team of 16 students is comprised of Astronomy, Electrical, Computer, and Mechanical Engineering scholars. The group is under the guidance of two faculty advisors, Joshua Semeter (ECE/Photonics) and Ray Nagem (ME). Research Engineer Aleks Zosuls also provides support and acts as a liaison with the Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC).
The qualifying competition took place in the Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico in February 2015. Now, the qualifiers must shift their focus from satellite fabrication to implementation. The University Nanosat Program will provide Air Force technical guidance and $110,000 to support each of the remaining six competitors.
After returning to Boston from New Mexico, ANDESITE advisor Professor Semeter recalled, “it was a stressful experience for the students with an exciting outcome.”
The University Nanosat Program provides hands-on experience for graduate and undergraduate students and an opportunity to create and launch a satellite with a specific research capacity. The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, Air Force Office of Scientific Research and American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics developed the program in 1999.
Master’s students can now specialize in these fast-growing fields
By Janet A. Smith (ENG) and Amy Laskowski (BU Today)
In an effort to train its graduate students in rapidly expanding fields, this fall the College of Engineering will begin offering three new master’s degree specializations in the fields of data analytics, cybersecurity, and robotics.
“The corporate sector has voiced frustration with the shortage of trained engineers in key sectors of the innovation economy,” says Kenneth Lutchen, dean of ENG. “By combining a master’s degree in a foundational engineering discipline with a specialization in a fast-growing, interdisciplinary field, students will be well positioned to meet this need and impact society. This unique combination should greatly enhance the power of their degrees in the marketplace.”
The specialization programs are open to all master’s degree candidates in ENG. Students who opt to add a specialization will select at least four of their eight required courses from a list specific to that field. Specializations will be noted with the degree title on students’ final transcripts.
Classes for the fall 2015 semester begin September 2, and master’s degree students who are interested in focusing on one of the three fields should contact the Graduate Programs Office for more information.
Two years ago, the Harvard Business Review noted that jobs in the field of data analytics are expected to continue to increase. Glassdoor.com reports that the average data scientist salary is currently $118,700. ENG’s new data analytics specialization will emphasize decisions, algorithms, and analytics grounded in engineering application areas. Students choosing to specialize in data analytics can expect to find jobs in finance, health care, urban systems, commerce, pharmaceuticals, and other engineering fields.
Recent, brazen cyber attacks on companies such as Target and Sony Pictures as well as the data breach thought to originate in China that compromised the records of 21.5 million Americans who had applied for government security clearances over the past 15 years highlight the growing importance of cybersecurity.
ENG’s cybersecurity specialization will teach students security-oriented theory and train them in practical cybersecurity applications including software engineering, embedded systems, and networking. It will also provide a context for cybersecurity threats and mitigation strategies ranging from protecting corporate and government systems, to home and building automation accessories and medical devices.
Global spending on robotics is predicted to increase to $67 billion by 2025 from just $15 billion in 2010. Today, robotics are used in everything from prosthetics and telemedicine to autonomous vehicles, feedback control systems, and brain-machine interface. The new ENG specialization will prepare master’s students for careers in research and development and deployment and operation of advanced individual or multi-coordinated robotic systems.
Tom Little, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering and systems engineering and associate dean of educational initiatives, says these new specializations are meant to be complementary to the numerous existing master’s degree programs. Come fall, someone getting a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, for instance, could specialize in cybersecurity, and learn how to prevent a car’s computer system from being hacked.
“These are all very exciting areas that are emerging,” Little says. “ENG is active in doing research, but also active in developing the next generation of scientists and engineers who can contribute to companies who want to build applications that have an impact.”
Students Can Amplify Expertise in a High-Value Career Path
By Jan A. Smith
Motivated by emerging economic sectors, the College of Engineering has created new Master’s degree specializations in the high-impact, interdisciplinary fields of Data Analytics, Cybersecurity and Robotics. The specializations are designed to meet the demand for highly skilled professionals in these rapidly expanding fields.
“The corporate sector has voiced frustration with the shortage of trained engineers in key sectors of the innovation economy,” said Dean Kenneth Lutchen. “By combining a Master’s degree in a foundational engineering discipline with a Specialization in a fast-growing, interdisciplinary field, students will be well positioned to meet this need and impact society. This unique combination should greatly enhance the power of their degrees in the marketplace.”
Enormous quantities of data are driving rapid growth in the field of data analytics. The College’s approach to data science emphasizes decisions, algorithms, and analytics grounded in engineering application areas. This specialization is intended to yield graduates who will fulfill a variety of innovation needs for applications in finance, healthcare, urban systems, commerce, pharmaceutical and other engineering fields.
“Big Data engineers are critical pioneers and sorely needed in every industry,” said George Anton Papp, vice president for Corporate Development at Teradata, Inc. “The massive amounts of data being collected create enormous opportunities to innovate data architecture and analysis to solve pressing real-world problems.”
The Cybersecurity field is expanding exponentially, with career paths growing twice as fast as other information technology jobs. This Specialization will foster security-oriented software skills and enable an understanding of cybersecurity applications in software engineering, embedded systems, and networking. It will also provide a context for cybersecurity threats and mitigation strategies ranging from protecting corporate and government systems to home and building automation accessories and medical devices.
“Demand for cybersecurity professionals continues to outstrip supply and is a major concern to organizations in every sector,” noted Proteus Digital Health Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer George Savage. “In our industry, it’s critical to protect the highly personal health data of consumers, providers, and insurers as we enter the digital and personalized health era powered by the smart phone in each of our pockets.”
The Robotics industry is predicted to grow to $67 billion by 2025 with applications in everything from prosthetics and telemedicine to autonomous vehicles, feedback control systems, brain-machine interfaces, and the Internet of Things. Robotics is inherently interdisciplinary, combining elements of electrical, computer, biomedical, systems, and mechanical engineering. The Specialization will prepare Master’s students for careers in research and development, deployment and operation of advanced individual or multi-coordinated robotic systems.
“There is enormous need for engineers skilled in robotics and the cross-disciplinary applications of robotics,” said Michael Campbell, executive vice president, CAD Segment at PTC. “While the field today is very much concerned with applications in manufacturing, autonomous vehicles, healthcare, and military uses, we anticipate the field expanding into everything from education to home entertainment.”
Available to all Master’s Degree candidates, the Specialization options have been designed so that students can access from every Master’s degree program. Students who opt to add a Specialization – which is noted on their degree title and transcript – choose at least four of their eight courses from a list specific to each Specialization.
Prysm’s custom video walls use proprietary LPD technology
By Mark Dwortzan
After Amit Jain earned his first bachelor’s degree, in physics, chemistry, and math, in India, his older brother hired him to help out at the audiotape manufacturing company he owned in Kolkata. Despite knowing nothing about how to assemble audiotapes, Jain jumped right in and was soon running the factory floor.
That training later proved invaluable. During his senior year at the College of Engineering, Masud Mansuripur, then an associate professor of electrical engineering (now at the University of Arizona), made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: he would hire Jain as a research assistant and teach him everything he knew about optics if he decided to stay at ENG for graduate study. Jain (ENG’85,’88) accepted, and became one of the first ENG students to graduate with a master’s in electrical engineering with a focus on optics.
Fast forward to 2005. When investors asked Jain and his business partner, Roger Hajjar (ENG’88), to shift from optical networking to large displays, they came up with a new display technology that wound up transforming the industry—despite the fact that neither had prior knowledge of the field.
Jain and Hajjar cofounded Prysm, Inc., and their new display technology laid the foundation for the Silicon Valley–based designer and manufacturer of video wall systems now used across the globe by leading technology, retail, financial services, and media companies, governments, and universities, among them Beijing TV, CNBC, General Electric, and ENG.
“I have learned to never be afraid of trying new things and to go with my gut,” says Jain, 53, now Prysm CEO (Hajjar is CTO). “When we started Prysm, Roger and I had no fear of entering a new industry and no baggage from previous companies on what couldn’t be done—just ideas that could be applied in a new context. Within 18 months we came up with the concept for a new display technology, built a prototype, and shipped our first product.”
Today Prysm designs, assembles, installs, and provides software support for large, modular, interactive video walls of nearly any size, brightness, or resolution, customized to users’ needs, as well as 117-inch and 190-inch standard video walls used in collaboration rooms. The custom video walls enable architects, designers, and brand managers to provide unique, engaging, immersive experiences in lobbies, conference centers, control rooms, stores, and other environments. The collaborative walls empower teams in multiple locations to boost their productivity through real-time interactions, whether through touch or gesture, or by posting, sharing, and editing content uploaded from smartphones, tablets, or other mobile devices.
At the heart of Prysm’s video walls is the company’s proprietary laser phosphor display (LPD) technology, which features a solid-state ultraviolet laser engine, phosphor panel, and advanced optics. Mirrors direct beams from the laser engine across the phosphor panel, which in turn emits red, green, or blue light to form image pixels. The process occurs on multiple 25-inch tiles that fit together to make up a single integrated wall. Compared to conventional LED- and LCD-based technologies, LPD video walls deliver superior image quality, viewing angles, energy efficiency, and environmental impact—resulting in a lower ownership cost. With an an eco-friendly manufacturing process and nontoxic materials and requiring no consumables, they use up to 75 percent less energy than competing large-format display technologies and give off far less heat, eliminating the need for electrical system or HVAC upgrades.
“The Prysm video wall…delivers astounding image quality and ultrawide 178-degree viewing angles,” says Yao Hong, a sales director at the State Grid Corporation of China, which uses a curved, 80-foot-wide-by-11-foot-high wall to monitor the electrical grid system of China’s Jiangsu province. “These attributes combined with the tremendous scalability of LPD technology provide an ideal display solution for the command and control environment.”
Chris Van Name, a regional vice president at Time Warner Cable, chose Prysm to impress customers and minimize environmental impact. “Prysm’s video wall creates a significant ‘wow’ factor for any customer visiting our store and enables us to showcase our technologies in TV, broadband internet, and digital phone in a brilliant and beautiful fashion,” he says.
For Jain, Prysm represents the pinnacle of a 20-year career of growing successful technology-related businesses. Before cofounding Prysm, he was CEO of Bigbear Network and cofounder and CEO of Versatile Optical Networks, which was acquired by Vitesse Semiconductor Corporation; he led the Vitesse Optical Systems Division as vice president and general manager. Previously, he had held several management positions in start-ups and large companies, such as Terastor, Optex Communications, and Digital Equipment Corporation.
Throughout his career, Jain has drawn on expertise in both engineering and business and on lessons learned from an extended family, many also entrepreneurs. While working for his brother in the audiotape business, he imagined inventing technologies rather than just assembling them on the factory floor, so he came to ENG in 1983 to earn a second bachelor’s degree, in electrical engineering.
He learned not only engineering, but also how to communicate effectively to large groups as the first undergraduate teaching assistant of Kenneth Lutchen, a biomedical engineering professor at the time and now dean of ENG.
“Because I already had a bachelor’s degree, Ken gave me the opportunity to teach classes while still an undergraduate,” recalls Jain. “As I faced up to 40 friends and peers, I learned how to explain complex ideas clearly and concisely.”
Fortunately, he had already developed a penetrating voice, capable of drawing attention. “My projectile voice comes from survival of the fittest,” he says. “I have 48 cousins and am second from the bottom in age, so you needed a powerful voice to get your point across.”
After earning both undergrad and grad degrees at BU and an MBA at the University of Maryland, Jain became well-versed in the technological, communications, entrepreneurial, and other skills that are the hallmark of the societal engineer (basically, one who has a sense of purpose and appreciation for how engineering education and its experiences are superior foundations for improving society), a concept he embraces both as CEO of Prysm and as a member of the ENG Dean’s Leadership Advisory Board.
His close relationships with his family and his 200-plus employees, he says, are critical to his success and those relationships are anchored by his religion, Jainism, some of whose tenets—Don’t kill. Ask forgiveness. Respect different views—appear on a card he carries in his pocket.
“Everyone has a viewpoint,” he says. “The important thing is to listen to all views in order to make the right decisions.”
A version of this article appeared in Engineer.
College of Engineering Celebrates New Graduates
By Jan A. Smith
There has never been a better time to be an engineer, because society has never needed these skills more urgently. This was the overarching message in speeches delivered at the College of Engineering’s undergraduate and graduate Commencement ceremonies on May 16.
In the morning, Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen welcomed the 268 graduating seniors and their families by acknowledging their accomplishment in completing what he described as the most challenging curriculum at Boston University.
“The single most important skill in life is the ability to work really hard,” he said. “There isn’t a student in any other college on this campus who has worked as hard as you to earn your place at today’s commencement. Now begins the opportunity to apply what you’ve learned and move society forward.”
Atri Raychowdhury (ECE’15), past Class of 2015 president and this year’s BU IEEE student chapter vice president, echoed this sentiment in his student address. He exhorted all to keep their passion for engineering strong. “Let us use our education to solve the Grand Challenges of society. This truly is our responsibility as Societal Engineers,” he noted to resounding cheers. “The end of our time here marks the beginning of a new journey.”
“Now is the best and most exciting time to be an engineer,” said Commencement speaker Dr. Angela M. Belcher, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy at MIT’s Biological Engineering Laboratory and leader of a research team that engineers viruses to grow and assemble materials for energy, electronics and medicine. “From clean energy and the environment to healthcare, education, food and water, there has never been a time when we have had more opportunities to make an impact.”
Belcher, who founded Cambros Technologies and Siluria Technologies, has been cited by Rolling Stone, Time and Scientific American for her work’s impact on society.
Dean Lutchen presented Department Awards for Teaching Excellence to asst. professor Ahmad Khalil (BME), lecturer Osama Alshaykh (ECE) and assoc. professor Raymond Nagem (ME), who also received Outstanding Professor of the Year Award. The Faculty Service Award went to professor Joyce Wong (BME).
Later in the day, Lutchen presented 68 Master of Science and 60 Master of Engineering degrees, and presided over the hooding of 18 PhD students.
Farzad Kamalabadi (ECE, MS’94, PhD’01) professor of ECE and Statistics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), exhorted the new masters and PhD graduates to combine science with policy work. “The world faces multiple problems of diminishing resources, which are all intertwined with social and economic stability,” he said. “You are poised to address these vital questions from a fresh, solutions-oriented perspective. But you can’t do it from within the scientific community alone. We need more engineers in Washington, Brussels, and the other policy centers of the world. It is crucial that the engineering leaders of the future – you – play central roles in social policy.”
By Mark Dwortzan
The College of Engineering has funded four new projects through the Dean’s Catalyst Award (DCA) grant program, each focused on technologies that promise to make a significant impact on society. ENG and collaborating faculty will receive $40,000 per project to develop novel techniques to advance these technologies.
Established by Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen in 2007 and organized by a faculty committee, the annual DCA program encourages early-stage, innovative, interdisciplinary projects that could spark new advances in a variety of engineering fields. By providing each project with seed funding, the awards give full-time faculty the opportunity to develop collaborations and generate initial proof-of-concept results that could help secure external funding.
This year’s DCA-winning projects could yield new applications in healthcare and energy.
Professor Janusz Konrad (ECE) and Associate Professor Jordana Muroff (SSW) will explore ways to automate the assessment of hoarding, a complex psychiatric disorder and public health problem characterized by persistent difficulty and distress associated with discarding of possessions. Current assessment methods of hoarding are subjective and time-consuming, as they require patients and/or clinicians to complete questionnaires or select images. To overcome these drawbacks, Konrad and Muroff plan to develop an objective, automatic, image-based, real-time hoarding assessment algorithm running on a smartphone or tablet. Such technology could enable cost-effective, precisely-targeted mental healthcare for hoarding disorder patients.
Professors Elise Morgan (ME, BME, MSE), Katya Ravid (MED) and Louis Gerstenfeld (MED) will test whether blocking a metabolic receptor associated with the growth of new blood vessels (angiogenesis) can help mitigate the destructive progression of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a debilitating disease characterized by joint pain and stiffness. In patients with RA, angiogenesis occurs in the membrane surrounding the joint in an uncontrolled way, thus advancing the destruction of joint tissues. If blocking this receptor proves successful, this research could lead to the development of a new class of pharmacological therapies for RA patients that, unlike current treatments, do not lose their effectiveness over time.
Associate Professor Srikanth Gopalan and Assistant Professor Emily Ryan (both ME, MSE) observe that power generation and energy storage devices such as fuel cells and lithium ion batteries have not found more widespread applications because the micro-structured electrodes they typically use do not provide sufficient energy capacity and power density to make these devices commercially attractive in a broader class of applications. To overcome this shortcoming, the researchers plan to develop a novel molten salt-based fabrication technique for nanostructured electrodes, which have the potential for unprecedented improvements in both energy capacity and power densities.
Professor Joyce Wong (BME, MSE) and Associate Professor Glynn Holt (ME) aim to perform a definitive proof-of-concept experiment to establish the potential for the use of microbubbles and ultrasound to noninvasively break blood clots. Clots are a major problem in the medical device industry because they can form on device surfaces, which can then lead to pulmonary embolisms if the clots end up in the lung or a stroke in the brain. Building on past studies by Wong, the researchers will conduct experiments aimed at developing a commercial “clot-busting” microbubble that binds to clots and breaks them in the presence of focused ultrasound.
$4.5M NSF CPS Frontier Award to Fund BU-Led Project
By Mark Dwortzan
Researchers have long sought to enable collections of living cells to perform desired tasks that range from decontaminating waterways to growing tissue in the lab, but their efforts have largely relied on trial and error. Now a team of scientists and engineers led by Boston University is developing a more systematic approach through a deft combination of synthetic biology and micro-robotics. Supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) five-year, $4.5 million Cyber-Physical Systems Program (CPS) Frontier grant, the researchers aim to engineer bacterial or mammalian cells to exhibit specified behaviors, and direct a fleet of micro-robots to corral the engineered cells into working together to perform desired tasks.
Drawing on experts in control theory, computer science, synthetic biology, robotics and design automation, the team includes Professor Calin Belta (ME, ECE, SE), the lead principal investigator, and Associate Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME, Bioinformatics) from the BU College of Engineering; University of Pennsylvania Professor Vijay Kumar; and MIT Professor Ron Weiss, who directs the Institute’s Synthetic Biology Center; and members of SRI International.
“We came up with the idea of bringing robotics in to control in a smart way the emergence of desired behavior patterns among collections of engineered cells,” said Belta, who will develop algorithms to catalyze such behavior. “Our ultimate goal is to automate the entire process from engineering individual cells to controlling their global behavior, so that any user could submit requests from the desktop.”
If successful, the research could yield new insights in developmental biology, lead to greater standardization and automation in synthetic biology, and enable a diverse set of applications. These range from nanoscale robots that can manipulate objects at the micron (one-millionth of a meter) level to chip-scale technologies that transform stem cells into tissues and organs for human transplantation or drug design.
The team’s first main challenge is to advance a synthetic biology platform—what it calls a Bio-Design Automation (BDA) workflow system—that can predictably engineer cells to sense their environment, make decisions, and communicate with neighboring cells. To produce such “smart cells,” Densmore will use and enhance software he’s developed to specify, design and assemble gene networks (also known as gene circuits) with desired functions, and insert them in living cells.
The complex behaviors we wish to engineer are too difficult to manually specify and analyze,” said Densmore. “Design software makes this project manageable as well as formally captures the process so that it can be used in the future to enable new discoveries.”
The second challenge is to design micron-scale, mobile robots that can affect cells’ interactions so that they ultimately bring about a specified global behavior. Composed of organic and inorganic material and controlled by magnetic fields and light, each micro-robot interacts and communicates with individual cells at specified locations and times, implementing control strategies needed to achieve the desired global behavior. For example, the micro-robots could be controlled to optimize tissue formation from stem cells by triggering desired chemical reactions within the cells.
Finally, the researchers will test how well the micro-robots are able to direct the emergent, global behavior of collections of engineered bacterial cells and mammalian cells. They’ll attempt to form Turing patterns—dots and patches of varying sizes—in E. coli and hamster ovarian cells, and liver tissue from human stem cells. In the process, they will employ a magnetic manipulation system developed by SRI to control multiple robots with sub-millimeter precision.
Project leaders also plan to develop associated educational activities for high school students; lab tours and competitions for high school and undergraduate students; workshops, seminars and courses for graduate students; and specific initiatives for underrepresented groups. At BU, the Technology Innovation Scholars Program will develop hands-on design challenges and disseminate them in Boston schools.
Designed to address grand challenge research areas in science and engineering and limited to one or two multi-university teams per year, NSF CPS Frontier Awards support large-scale engineered systems built from, and dependent on, the seamless integration of computational algorithms and physical components.
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.