By Sara Elizabeth Cody
On Thursday, April 14, Professor M. Selim Ünlü (ECE, BME, MSE), recipient of the 2016 Charles DeLisi Award and Distinguished Lecture, presented “Optical Interference: From Soap Bubbles to Digital Detection of Viral Pathogens” to a packed room of students, faculty and researchers.
The first named endowed lecture in the history of the College of Engineering, the Charles DeLisi Award and Distinguished Lecture recognizes faculty members with extraordinary records of well-cited scholarship, and outstanding alumni who have invented and mentored transformative technologies that impact our quality of life.
When Ünlü arrived at BU in 1992, he was inspired by the collegial interdisciplinary environment, which led him to apply his background in electrical engineering and electromagnetic waves to developing innovative methods for biological imaging and sensing. His presentation, peppered with video and audio messages from past students and mentors who have contributed to his work, chronicled his career path from graduate school to present day and centered on his current research in optical sensing and developing new bioimaging technologies that address the obstacles that currently plague the field of diagnostics.
“When you are trying to look at pathogens, the most distinguishing thing is to look at its genome, but obstacles like logistics and cost are prohibitive and drive scientists to find more compact and affordable ways that have the same functionality,” said Ünlü. “Single particle detection has been the physicist’s dream of addressing these issues, so that’s what we set out to explore.”
Synergy between Engineering and Medicine
In developing his optical detection technology, he drew inspiration from, of all places, a soap bubble. Specifically, the patterns of colors that develop on the surface when light is being reflected through it. According to Ünlü, the same interference phenomenon that gives rainbow colors to soap bubbles can also provide extremely high sensitivity as illustrated by the recent news on detection of gravity waves by optical interferometry.
“Most people don’t realize that just by calling out a certain color, you are making a measurement in the order of nanometers,” said Ünlü.
Ünlü extended this idea to develop his optical detection technology for single nanoscale particles, where the interference of light reflected from the sensor surface is modified by the presence of nanoparticles, producing a distinct signal that reveals the size of the particle that is otherwise not visible under a conventional microscope. Using this technology, Ünlü and his research team demonstrated label-free identification of some of the most deadly viruses in the world, including hemorrhagic viruses like Ebola, Lassa and Marburg, at a high sensitivity on par with state-of-the-art laboratory technologies. They have even been able to detect particles as small as individual protein and DNA molecules by labeling them with gold nanoparticles to provide sufficient visibility.
“Proteins are too small. We can’t see them directly so we decorate them with gold nanoparticles, which are not much bigger than the proteins themselves,” said Ünlü. “Decorating them with gold nanoparticles increases visibility of the molecules bound on the sensor surface, and we are able to count them in serum or whole blood.”
The resulting technological development in biomarker analysis that Ünlü has spearheaded is digital detection, an approach that counts single molecules, which provides resolution and sensitivity beyond the reach of ensemble measurements. Digital detection for medical diagnostics not only provides very high sensitivity, but also has the potential of making the most advanced molecular diagnostic tools broadly accessible at low cost.
“Optical interference is a very powerful sensing technique,” summed up Ünlü. “With this biological imaging technology, we can detect single particles if they are large enough on the nanoscale, such as viruses, and see them directly. If they are proteins or DNA molecules we have to label them with a small, metallic nanoparticle to see them.”
In terms of next steps, Ünlü and his team will continue to refine the technology for commercialization, including applying some of these findings to produce microarray chips that provide calibration and quality control in industry. His laboratory will continue to work on advancing the technology further and gaining a deeper understanding of the theoretical basis in order to enhance the methodology. In particular, they are looking into applying the technology to such areas as real-time DNA detection, rare mutations, and most recently a project to characterize viruses that target cancer cells.
To conclude his presentation, Ünlü expressed his appreciation of the support he received from the College to foster collaboration, and to his students, mentors and family who helped him along the way.
“I’m very thankful to Boston University for providing an incredibly rich environment for research because there are no barriers between disciplines,” said Ünlü. “Multidisciplinary innovation is the driving force of discovering new things and making society better, and ultimately that is my motivation.”
The DeLisi Lecture continues the College’s annual Distinguished Lecture Series, initiated in 2008, which has honored several senior faculty members. The previous recipients are Professors John Baillieul, (ME,SE), Malvin Teich (ECE) (Emeritus), Irving Bigio (BME), Theodore Moustakas (ECE, MSE), H. Steven Colburn (BME), Thomas Bifano (ME, MSE), Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) and Mark Grinstaff (BME, MSE, Chemistry, MED).
By Sara Elizabeth Cody
For junior Zachary Lasiuk (EE, ’17), inspiration hit when he least expected it. A seasoned saxophone player, his personal experience performing on the street in Copley Square inspired his winning entry, a tool to enhance live musical performance, in the fifth annual Imagineering Competition. The competition invites undergraduates to submit projects that showcase their creativity and entrepreneurial capabilities for a chance to win cash prizes.
“The goal is to encourage self-guided engineering projects that are created outside of the classroom,” said Richard Lally, Associate Dean of ENG Administration, who served on the panel of judges. “This provides an opportunity for students to solve real-world engineering problems while taking advantage of resources the College has to offer, like the Binoy K. Singh Imagineering Laboratory.”
Each contestant gave a short presentation and demonstration about the origin of the idea, the purpose of the prototype, design features, the build/assembly process, and a brief description of potential market and customer impact. All submissions were judged by a panel of five ENG faculty and administrators on the basis of originality, ingenuity, and creativity of the project; the quality of the design and prototype; the functionality of the project; and the relationship of all these areas.
While certain instruments, like the guitar, have evolved to incorporate more exciting technological advancements to enhance performances, wind instruments have remained largely unchanged. Lasiuk designed a portable attachment for his saxophone featuring an interactive LED light display, a speaker system to play accompanying music and a “loop button” that would allow him to record and play back sound, like beatboxing, to create a more engaging and interactive performance. Not only would this product be beneficial to musicians during live performances, but it also has the potential to be used as a teaching tool by programming the LED lights to correspond with the notes so music teachers could demonstrate what they are playing to their students in real time. Lasiuk also submitted a detailed business analysis exploring what it would mean to take his product to market, noting he planned to continue working on his product over the summer.
“There is so much potential for expansion with this product because nothing on the market integrates a live visual and audio experience quite like this,” said Lasiuk during his presentation. “It’s meant to get people’s attention, which is half the battle as a performing musician.”
Lasiuk netted the $3,000 cash prize, while the team of Evan Lowell (CE ’16) and Mehmet Akbulut (ME ’16)received second place $1,500 prize for their design to increase the efficiency of solar panels by using an attachment that would allow them to track the sun and adjust their position accordingly. Osi Van Dessel (ME ’16) was the recipient of the Best in Class $500 prize for his project creating a light-based communication system to transmit information from space to ground.
Prizes for the Imagineering Competition are provided by John Maccarone (ENG ’66).
The Binoy K. Singh Imagineering Laboratory, which opened in the Fall 2011, gives students the resources to take on extracurricular engineering initiatives and think about new ways to address society’s challenges. The Singh Imagineering Lab provides easy access to entrepreneurially minded College of Engineering students, and other BU students working with them, without limiting the topic or timeframe of use. Using the lab’s tools and machinery—and guidance from faculty, graduate students and undergraduate peers—students are encouraged to pursue their ideas and designs and even commercialization ideas.
By Sara Elizabeth Cody
Five teams of ECE students competing in the fifth annual Intel-Cornell Cup have advanced to the final round in the competition. The Intel-Cornell Cup is a college-level design competition that aims to empower inventors of the newest innovative applications of embedded technology.
“This is a major national competition and personally I think our teams’ performances reflect highly on the College,” says Associate Professor of Practice Alan Pisano (ECE), who is one of the faculty advisor for the competition. “We have five very interesting projects in the finals, more than any other school, which seek to tackle nationally relevant issues that will benefit society.”
The competition, which alternates between live and online competition annually, is following an online format this year. Initially, six teams from BU advanced to the semifinal round and competed against 31 other teams from around the country. Five teams from BU, comprised of senior design project teams, are competing with 24 other teams in the final round.
The BU finalist teams are:
- An interdisciplinary team of ECE and ME students and sponsored by Consolidated Edison to build an autonomous robot to move 800 pound circuit breakers in their substations.
- A team of ECE students building a drone to locate ice dams and apply melting chemicals to “break the dam.”
- Created by a team of ECE students (with one BME dual-degree student), this device is essentially a “Fitbit” for cows, networking them together and gathering data to analyze in a cloud.
- A team of ECE students designing a translating teddy bear toy for young children to help them learn different languages
- An ECE team creating a device to measure high-energy electrons in space
Projects will be completed by the end of March, fulfilling both a course requirement and a competition requirement with support from Pisano and the other ECE Senior Design Capstone supporting faculty members, Lecturer Osama Alshaykh and Senior Lecturer Babak Kia. The final judging takes place at the end of April. The competition is sponsored primarily by Intel and Cornell University.
Transforming Living Cells into Computers
By Sara Elizabeth Cody
Whether it’s artificial skin that mimics squid camouflage or an artificial leaf that produces solar energy, a common trend in engineering is to take a page out of biology to inspire design and function. However, an interdisciplinary team of BU researchers have flipped this idea, instead using computer engineering to inspire biology in a study recently published in Science.
“When you think about it, cells are kind of computers themselves. They have to communicate with other cells and make decisions based on their environment,” says Associate Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME), who oversaw the BU research team. “By turning them into circuits, we’ve figured out a way to make cells that respond the way we want them to respond. What we are looking at with this study is how to describe those circuits using a programming language and to transform that programming language into DNA that carries out that function.”
Using a programming language commonly used to design computer chips, ECE graduate student Prashant Vaidyanathan created design software that encodes logical operations and bio-sensors right into the DNA of Escherichia coli bacteria. Sensors can detect environmental conditions while logic gates allow the circuits to make decisions based on this information. These engineered cells can then act as mini processing elements enabling the large scale production of bio-materials or helping detect hazardous conditions in the environment. Former postdoctoral researcher Bryan Der facilitated the partnership between BU and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue this research study.
“Here at BU we used our strength in computer-aided design for biology to actually design the software and MIT produced the DNA and embedded it into the bacterial DNA,” says Densmore. “Our collaboration is a result of sharing the same vision of standardizing synthetic biology to make it more accessible and efficient.”
Historically, building logic circuits in cells was both time-consuming and unreliable, so fast, correct results are a game changer for research scientists, who get new DNA sequences to test as soon as they hit the “run” button. This novel approach of using a common programming language opens up the technology to anyone, giving them the ability to program a sequence and generate a strand of DNA immediately.
“It used to be that only people with knowledge of computers could build a website, but then resources like WordPress came along that gave people a simple interface to build professional-looking websites. The code was hidden in the back end, but it was still there, powering the site,” says Densmore. “That’s exactly what we are doing here with our software. The genetic code is still there, it is just hidden in the back end and what people see is this simplified tool that is easy, effective and produces immediate results that can be tested.”
According to Densmore, this study is an important first step that lays the foundation for future research on transforming cells into circuits, and the potential for impact is global, with applications in healthcare, ecology, agriculture and beyond. Possible applications include bacteria that can be swallowed to aid in digestion of lactose to bacteria that can live on plant roots and produce insecticide if they sense the plant is under attack.
“The possibilities are endless, and I am excited about it because this is the crucial first step to reach that point where we can do those amazing things,” says Densmore. “We aren’t at that level yet, but this is a stake in the ground that shows us we can do this.”
The BU/MIT collaboration will continue underneath the Living Computing Project which was recently awarded a $10M grant from the National Science Foundation. Future studies will look to improve upon the circuits that were tested, add other computer elements like memory to the circuits and expand into other organisms such as yeast, which will pave the way for implanting the technology into more complex organisms like plant and animal cells.
By Rich Barlow
The College of Engineering has earned its highest-ever ranking from US News & World Report, placing 35th among its peer American schools in the magazine’s latest rankings. It’s a two-slot advance from last year and a long jump from a decade ago, when the school placed 52nd, says Kenneth Lutchen, dean of ENG.
Additionally, ENG’s biomedical engineering instruction ranked ninth among such programs nationally. The ratings of 194 engineering schools considered peer assessments, student selectivity, student-faculty ratios, the number of doctoral degrees granted, and research funding, among other factors.
Lutchen attributes his school’s success to several strengths, starting with a commitment to interdisciplinary research across both the college and the University, “recruiting complementary faculty in areas such as photonics, information and cyber-physical systems, the intersection of engineering and biology, advanced materials, and nanotechnology.” That approach, he says, has garnered “tremendous extramural funding success among our faculty.”
Second, in recent years, ENG boosted research and educational partnerships with industry, using assessments of the school’s programs by these partners to improve them. Meanwhile, Lutchen says, the ENG faculty has matched prowess at securing funding with “scholarship in their field, and in how that scholarship eventually impacts societal challenges.”
Over the past decade, ENG’s rankings have marked “the largest single improvement of any engineering school in the country” among those that made the top 52 in 2006, he notes. Every one of its degree programs now scores in the top 20 in its discipline among private universities, he says, adding that that has real-world effects, helping “attract ever-higher quality in our faculty and our PhD students.”
A version of this story originally appeared on BU Today.
First BU Data Science Day Draws Cross-Disciplinary Crowd
By Sara Rimer, Photos by Dave Green
Azer Bestavros, founding director of the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, was practically giddy. It was the first BU Data Science (BUDS) Day and the Photonics Center ninth-floor conference room, where the institute was hosting the event, was standing room only.
“I thought there might be 80, 90 registrants,” said Bestavros, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of computer science and head of BU’s Data Science Initiative, welcoming the participants with—what else—data. “They told me there were 262. I was shocked—really?”
Not only that, but the data science geeks—faculty and students from physics, mathematics and statistics, computer science, electrical and computer engineering, systems engineering, biostatistics—were there with people from the humanities and the social sciences as well as from CAS, the Questrom School of Business, Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences, the College of Engineering, the College of Communication, the School of Social Work, the School of Public Health, the School of Law, and the School of Medicine.
Bestavros had the data. The registrants were from 66 different disciplines, departments, and offices across the University, including the libraries, Information Systems and Technology, and Career Services. It was the sort of diverse, cross-disciplinary crowd that Bestavros and event cochairs Dino P. Christenson, a CAS associate professor of political science and a former Hariri Institute Junior Fellow, and Prakash Ishwar, an ENG associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, had hoped to draw.
“Why are you here?” Bestavros asked his crowd. “Is it because of the whole ‘data science is the sexiest job’ thing? Maybe it’s about how you’re going to make a ton of money. Maybe it’s about the data that’s coming at us and we don’t know what to do with it; we’re drowning in it. Maybe a lot of you are here to figure out how you can float.”
Or maybe they had all come together, on a wintry Friday morning at the end of January 2016, because they knew “that data science has become the common language of all disciplines.” Data science breaks down the walls between disciplines, said Bestavros—“at least we can talk, at least we can all be in the same room.”
For the next seven to eight hours, faculty, students, and staff connected through data science, brainstorming about its possibilities, reporting on how it was transforming their work in an astonishing array of disciplines—physics, neuroscience, health analytics, cancer research, genomics, the social sciences, marketing, law, even art history. They raised big questions: Can a robot learn how to teach physics? How do you know you can trust the data from crowdsourcing? How can you bring all these different networks together with the right information to actually improve people’s lives?
A newcomer’s question: “What is data science?” Christenson explained: “Data science is a broad term—perhaps overly broad—used to characterize a number of different fields, including political science, that are interested in the systems and processes for extracting knowledge from data. It uses statistical and computational tools to collect, curate, store, analyze, model, and visualize various types of data.”
Addressing the audience before lunch, Gloria Waters, vice president and associate provost for research, commended Bestavros for the interdisciplinary community of scholars he has assembled at the Hariri Institute. She said that the day’s events—the talks, the poster sessions—demonstrated “the excellence, the depth of work” in data science at BU. She noted that data science is one of BU’s “research peaks,” an area that Waters, along with President Robert A. Brown and Provost Jean Morrison, are committed to investing in and excelling at.
“It’s absolutely clear we have world-class faculty in basic science—in math and statistics, computer science, electrical and computer engineering—and faculty who are doing amazing work in applications of data science,” Waters said. Recruiting additional top data science faculty is a primary goal of the Data Science Initiative that Bestavros is leading, she added.
At the event, 12 faculty panel speakers from multiple disciplines spoke for 10 minutes each about how their data-driven research related to one of three broad themes: vision, networks, and health, markets, and policy.
Kicking off the panel focused on vision and visual-data-driven research, Jodi Cranston, a CAS professor of Renaissance art, made the case for small data. “Most scholars in humanities fear big data because it involves technology,” she said. She gave a quick slideshow tour of her Mapping Titian project, an archive and teaching web application that documents the relationship between the artwork of 16th-century Venetian Renaissance artist Titian and their changing locations and historical context (the project was funded, in part, by the Hariri Institute).
“You could think about how movements of artwork are affected by disease, natural disasters, population changes, economic crises, political events,” Cranston said. “Recognizing the potential wide applicability of small data in the humanities helps strengthen the human underlying all humanities research.”
Advances in brain imaging have produced a treasure trove of data for neuroscientists. “I study the brain, and the brain is a great problem for big data because the brain has one billion neurons,” said Michael Hasselmo, a CAS professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of BU’s Center for Systems Neuroscience, beginning his vision talk. Hasselmo explained how he is studying the coding of space and time by neurons in rats as part of his work in understanding memory in humans.
“I’m an algorithms guy,” said another vision panel speaker, Brian Kulis, an ENG assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, who works on machine learning and big data analysis. Kulis defined machine learning as “a set of tools used to make predictions from data.” These tools are useful in many areas, he said, from driverless cars to robotics.
Margrit Betke, a CAS professor of computer science, uses big data to help visually impaired people with things such as navigating busy intersections on foot, reading medication instruction labels, and setting the temperature control in their apartments. She explained how she and a team of students—with the aid of crowdsourcing—insert tags of text on images on a web page. A visually impaired person “takes a photo of their temperature control, uploads it to the internet, and then some friendly person in the world will type the answer back to them: ‘This is your temperature setting.’”
Betke ticked off a few of her other current collaborations: she and Stan Sclaroff, a CAS professor of computer science, are designing a machine-learning text recognition system. She is working on cell tracking with Joyce Wong, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering. She and a team of biologists are tracking and analyzing the behavior of bats in caves in Texas.
Collaboration was the mantra of the day. “We live and die by our collaborations,” said W. Evan Johnson, a MED associate professor of medicine and biostatistics, who underscored the role of team science in his lab’s work in tracking the evolution of cancer tumors and drug response in cancer cells. Some collaborations are more successful than others, he said.
Biostatisticians are after “the best method to do something,” he said. Biologists, on the other hand, “want to be the first person to discover something.” The two goals—best and first—don’t always converge. The key, he said, is to find collaborators who want to contribute their skills to a joint project and who understand what’s in it for everyone involved.
Johnson, whose research falls at the intersection of statistics, computing, biology, and medicine, said his two teenage sons deserved some of the credit for motivating his research. “They get a kick out of telling people, ‘My dad’s a doctor, but not the kind that helps people,’” he said to laughter from the audience. “I’ve made it my goal to do something that helps people,” he went on. “How can we use biological big data to inform and influence how patients are treated in the clinic?”
During a break, Bestavros noted the multitude of ways the speakers managed to collect the data for their research. Michael J. Meurer, a LAW professor, for example, purchases the data he uses to study patent trolls. For his research into the sharing economy, Georgios Zervas (GRS’11), a Questrom assistant professor of marketing, a computer scientist, and a Hariri Junior Faculty Fellow, analyzes publicly available data from sources such as Airbnb and federal, state, and municipal websites.
“It starts with getting the data, cleaning the data, scraping the data,” Bestavros said. “We have to worry about security and privacy, then we have to worry about doing the analytics. We mine it for information that advances our understanding, and we check if our findings make sense. Finally, we have to communicate this in very different ways.”
Speaking of communication, 26 students from colleges and schools across the University—public health, medicine, engineering, business, communication, arts and sciences—participated in the day’s poster session. Sahar Abi Hassan (GRS’19), a doctoral candidate in political science, presented her work on interest groups and the Supreme Court. Abi Hassan said she had been introduced to data science through her department’s required Quantitative Methods 1 course. “From there, I just became fascinated with data science and its great potential for social sciences,” she said. “Working with data allows me to find patterns in political and social phenomena that otherwise would be hidden.”
Commending Abi Hassan’s work, Bestavros said he hoped the day had demonstrated the importance of data science and education. “If you’re a student in political science or sociology or marketing or business or journalism and the whole area is now going to become data-driven, you need to learn at least the basics of data science,” he said. “It’s not something that only computer scientists need to learn. Data touches everything we do.”
A version of this article was originally published in BU Research.
Prominence of ECE Faculty Continues to Grow
By Gabriella McNevin
Boston University Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Mark Horenstein has been named an IEEE Fellow. He is being recognized for contributions to the modeling and measurements of electrostatics in industrial processes. His experimental and theoretical work has focused on some of the more complex electrostatic problems that relate to instrumentation and safety and well as to an understanding of the fundamental theories behind many industrial processes. His work has spanned such broad subjects at the propagating brush discharge, electrostatic phenomena in MEMS devices, modeling of corona discharge, and the electrostatics of parachutes.
The IEEE grade of Fellow is conferred by the IEEE Board of Directors upon a person with an outstanding record of accomplishments in any of the IEEE fields of interest. The total number selected in any one year cannot exceed one-tenth of one-percent of the total voting membership. IEEE Fellow is the highest grade of membership and is recognized by the technical community as a prestigious honor and an important career achievement.
Until 2015, Horenstein served as the Editor-in-Chief for the Journal of Electrostatics for 14 years, and he is an honorary life member of the Electrostatics Society of America (ESA). He was selected to be the Bill Bright Memorial Lecturer for the Institute of Physics’ Electrostatics 2015 conference, where he discussed “The Contribution of Surface Potential to Diverse Problems in Electrostatics.” He was also named International Fellow by the Electrostatics Working Group of the European Federation of Chemical Engineers at their Electrostatics 2013 conference, where he gave an invited lecture on “Future Trends in Industrial Electrostatics. In 2012, he was named Outstanding Professor of the Year by the College of Engineering at Boston University. Horenstein is a named inventor on five patents. He received his Ph.D. degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT in 1978, and his M.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley in 1975.
In addition to Horenstein’s expertise in electrostatics, he is known for his textbooks on microelectronics and engineering design. He currently works on technology for self-cleaning photovoltaic solar panels and concentrating solar mirrors, and ultra-sensitive electrostatic field sensors
The IEEE is the world’s leading professional association for advancing technology for humanity. Through its 400,000 members in 160 countries, the IEEE is a leading authority on a wide variety of areas ranging from aerospace systems, computers and telecommunications to biomedical engineering, electric power and consumer electronics.
Leading Engineers Visit BU as Part of the ECE Distinguished Lecture Series to Discuss Research with Students and Faculty
By Rebecca Jahnke, COM ’17
BU’s Electrical & Computer Engineering department draws renowned leaders of the field to present as part of the ECE Distinguished Lecture Series. The topics presented are always changing, but consistently span diverse research areas. The Fall 2015 lineup included academics Daniel Fleetwood, Kevin Skadron and Ralph Etienne-Cummings.
Despite Fleetwood, Skadron and Etienne-Cummings’ varying research focuses, the trio has much in common. All are highly decorated IEEE Fellows with many accolades to their names. They hold a collective ten patents between them. Through the groundbreaking publications they’ve authored, the group has effectively written the science today’s students are learning. Work conducted at posts throughout the country – and for some, on sabbatical abroad – further reflects the breadth of their influence.
Fleetwood kicked off this season’s series with a lecture entitled “Moore’s Law and Radiation Effects on Microelectronics” in September. Fleetwood is the Chair of Vanderbilt University’s Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science as well as the university’s Olin H. Landreth Professor of Engineering. His lecture examining the effects of Moore’s Law Size and voltage scaling followed his research in nano science and technology as well as risk and reliability. A Fellow of the American Physical Society and an IEEE Fellow, Fleetwood also received the IEEE Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society’s Merit Award. Having authored over 380 publications, Fleetwood received ten Outstanding Paper Awards and has his research cited upwards of 7000 times.
The series continued with a lecture by Kevin Skadron, University of Virginia Department of Computer Science Chair and Harry Douglas Forsyth Professor. His October presentation, “Automata Processing: Massively-Parallel Acceleration for Approximate Pattern Matching,” provided an overview of the AP architecture and observations from accelerating its applications. Skadron cites his research as exploring processor design techniques for managing power, thermal and reliability constraints, all with a focus on manycore and heterogeneous architectures. He has achieved two patents of his own and over 100 peer-reviewed publications and counting since his college summers spent interning for Microsoft and Intel.
Ralph Etienne-Cummings, Professor and Chair of Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, closed out this semester’s series in December. This final presentation – “I, Robot: Blurring the lines between Mind, Body and Robotics” – suggested new approaches to brain-machine interfaces (BMI). Etienne-Cummings’ research interests include systems and algorithms for biologically inspired and low-power processing, biomorphic robots, applied neuroscience, neutral prosthetics and computer integrated surgical systems and technologies. His high level of curiosity has been evident since he was a child and repaired his own short wave radio to listen to a soccer match. Now the holder of seven patents, Etienne-Cummings is known to make time for diversity and mentoring initiatives intended to awaken a similar curiosity in others.
Computer engineer Densmore and team aim to advance synthetic biology
By Michael G Seele
The rapidly growing field of synthetic biology has made long strides in recent years as researchers have modified the genetic makeup of living organisms to get them to behave in different ways — flagging the presence of toxins in the environment, for example. Researchers have done this by breaking down biology into basic building blocks. However, using these building blocks has been increasingly difficult without a clear design methodology and supporting quantitative metrics researchers could use to make decisions.
Associate Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME) would like to take the guess work out of biological design and speed the development of synthetic biology in the process. Working under a new $10 million National Science Foundation “Expeditions in
Computing” grant, Densmore will lead the Living Computing Project, a comprehensive effort to quantify synthetic biology, using a computing engineering approach to create a toolbox of carefully measured and catalogued biological parts that can be used to engineer organisms with predictable results. These parts will allow the entire field to understand better what computing principles can be applied repeatedly and reliably to synthetic biology.
Densmore and assistant professors Ahmad Khalil (BME) and Wilson Wong (BME), and Research Assistant Professor Swapnil Bhatia (ECE) will take the lead on the project, partnering with colleagues at MIT and Lincoln Laboratory over the course of the five-year grant. The award marks the first time explicitly exploring computing principles in multiple living organisms and openly archiving the results has been funded.
“This puts a stake in the ground to make synthetic biology more rigorous,” Densmore said. “We want to build a foundation that’s well understood, built to use software tools, and that can serve as an open-source starting place for many advanced applications.”
Synthetic biologists take snippets of DNA and combine them in novel ways to produce defined behavioral characteristics in organisms. For instance, Densmore envisions a day when one might engineer a cell to change state when it detects cancer. The cell could be introduced into a patient, retrieved after a time and read like the memory of a computer, enabling detection of disease much earlier and less invasively than is now possible. Engineering that cell could be far easier and faster if researchers had a detailed inventory of parts and corresponding software tools they could use to create it.
Densmore is a core member of — and the only computer engineer in — BU’s new Biological Design Center. He has long been applying the kinds of tools used in computer engineering to synthetic biology. His software aims to identify and characterize biological parts — segments of DNA — and assemble them into complex biological systems. The NSF Expeditions in Computing grant will allow for expansion of that effort, but there are significant challenges in applying computer engineering principles to natural systems.
“What is power consumption in biology?” Densmore cites as an example. “What are the metrics in biology that make sense, can be repeated, and are reliable? You can’t make decisions in engineering without metrics and quantifiable information.”
“Programming a flower to change color, a cell to repair damaged tissue, or a mosquito to defeat malaria, is likely to require a different computational model than programming an app for your laptop,” said Bhatia. “Discovering this new type of computational thinking in partnership with synthetic biologists is what I am most excited about.”
Densmore hopes this project will take synthetic biology from an artisanal endeavor to a true engineering discipline with a solid, quantified foundation.
“Computation is important for moving any field forward and that’s what we’re trying to do with synthetic biology,” Densmore said. “We’re trying to build a library based on computing principles for the whole community, an open-source repository of biological pieces that use those principles reliably, repeatedly, and with broad applicability.”
“The Expeditions in Computing program enables the computing research community to pursue complex problems by supporting large project teams over a longer period of time,” said Jim Kurose, NSF’s head for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. “This allows these researchers to pursue bold, ambitious research that moves the needle for not only computer science disciplines, but often many other disciplines as well.”
By Rebecca Jahnke, COM ’17
The IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES) selected three ECE undergraduates – Zachary Lasiuk, Nathaniel Michener and Ami Vyas – to receive scholarships through the Scholarship Plus Initiative. The scholarships recognize students majoring in electrical and computer engineering who have achieved high GPAs and distinctive extracurricular involvement, and have demonstrated commitment to exploring the power and energy field.
The students join 210 fellow 2015-16 scholarship recipients hand-selected by PES regional volunteers. The application period ended last June. Each winner will receive a $2,000 scholarship.
Michener received further recognition as the Northeast region’s John W. Estey Outstanding Scholar. Michener is one of six top PES Scholars – one from each U.S. and Canadian region – chosen for the honor. He will receive an additional $5,000 scholarship and a yearlong IEEE and IEEE PES Student Membership.
Michener was also offered $1,000 in travel honorarium to attend the IEEE PES Annual Meeting in Denver this July featuring conferences, panels and tutorials under the theme “Powering Up the Next Generation.” However, he will be unable to attend on account of his new job in the Edison Engineering Development Program at Pittsburgh’s General Electric Power Conversion.
PES, a volunteer based, non-profit organization, bills itself as directly addressing the power and energy workforce shortage by bringing together government and industry forces, educators and students. The international society – comprised of over 26,000 engineers and scientists worldwide – intends for its scholarship program to attract the highest qualified students to the field.
According to Michener, PES is meeting that goal.
“The IEEE PES has been a great resource for exploring an education and career in power and energy, a field I am passionate about. Their presence fosters a growing community in an increasingly important area of today’s society,” Michener said. “With the support they have expressed towards me, I am now more determined than ever to pursue an impactful career that will have meaningful, tangible benefits for society through improved energy sources.”
Lasiuk stays up-to-date with IEEE through his professor who heads the BU chapter, Professor Min-Chang Lee.
“I take Electromagnetic Systems with Professor Lee,” say Lasiuk. “He integrates concepts from IEEE such as power transmission, reflection, total transmission and EM wave propagation in different modes to give a holistic view of electromagnetics as applied to real life applications.”
BU’s triple recognition this year follows one BU student’s recognition last fall, when Marissa Petersile (EE ’15) was named a PES Scholar.