In Memoriam: Carlo J. De Luca

July 25th, 2016 in ECE, Faculty

By Sara Elizabeth Cody

Professor Emeritus Carlo J. De Luca (BME, ECE)

Professor Emeritus Carlo J. De Luca (BME, ECE), who played a leading role in the College of Engineering’s early development as a research institution, died on July 20. He was 72 years old.

De Luca joined the faculty in 1984, having previously served at MIT, Harvard Medical School and Queens College (where he earned his doctorate). He also held appointments as research professor of neurology at the School of Medicine and professor of physical therapy at Sargent College. De Luca also served as dean ad interim of the College of Engineering from 1986 to 1989.

In a message to faculty, Dean Kenneth Lutchen noted De Luca’s impact on the College’s early efforts to establish a research portfolio. “Carlo was the director of the Neuromuscular Research Center and was probably the first real star research faculty recruited to the College of Engineering. His reputation helped attract some of leading faculty thereafter,” Lutchen said. “Our standards of excellence as a research college perhaps started with Carlo.”

De Luca is known for introducing engineering principles to the field of electromyography, a diagnostic procedure that records electrical activity in muscle tissue. He founded Delsys Inc. in 1993, a company that produces wearable sensors for movement technology, where he served as its president and CEO until his death.

“Carlo De Luca was a world-leading innovator in using engineering methods to study human motor function. Many of the textbook findings in this research area were due to Carlo’s efforts,” says Professor and Chair John White (BME). “He was a critical early hire in building the research reputation of the BU College of Engineering.”

De Luca was a Founding Fellow of two Bioengineering societies (American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering and Biomedical Engineering Society), and a Life Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Biomedical Engineering Society. He served a term on the National Advisory Council for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of National Institute of Health and two terms as president of the International Society of Electrophysiological Physiology. De Luca was also the founder and president of the Neuromuscular Research Foundation.

He received the 2012 Borelli Award, from the American Society of Biomechanics, the 2006 Tibbetts Award from the Small Business Technology Council of the USA, and the 1999 Isabelle and Leonard H. Goldenson Technology Award from the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation, among other awards.

Visiting hours will be held Sunday, July 22 from 3-6 p.m. at the George F. Doherty & Sons Funeral Home, 477 Washington St. in Wellesley, Mass. The funeral will take place on Monday, July 25, beginning at George F. Doherty & Sons Funeral Home at 9 a.m. followed by a funeral mass at St. Paul Church at 502 Washington St. in Wellesley at 10 a.m.

Someday, You’ll Have Supercomputing in your Hand

July 11th, 2016 in ECE, Faculty, News-CE, Recognition, Research, Research-CE

ECE prof advised US government on developing exascale computing

By, Rich Barlow, BU Today

Roscoe Giles testified before Congress in 2013 as an advisor to Uncle Sam on developing the next generation of supercomputers. Photo courtesy of Roscoe Giles

Roscoe Giles testified before Congress in 2013 as an advisor to Uncle Sam on developing the next generation of supercomputers. Photo courtesy of Roscoe Giles

Some time ago, Roscoe Giles gave a talk to BU computer scientists where he used his iPad 3—a handheld, aging technology, he noted, that nevertheless “had the same arithmetic power” as BU’s first, $2 million supercomputer from the 1990s.

“What was this giant, aspirational thing in 1990 is like nothing now,” says Giles, a College of Engineering professor of electrical and computer engineering. “A Sony PlayStation 3 had the same power as the Cray supercomputers of 1985.”

The next step in this exponential expansion of computing is the exascale computer—for now, just a dream of computer scientists—that would run one billion billion (yes, two “billions”) calculations per second. It would enhance everything from analyzing climate change to developing better plane and car engines to enhanced national security, says Giles, a 30-year veteran of the BU faculty.

He stepped down last October as a member and chairman of the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee (ASCAC), which is helping advance President Obama’s executive order last year green-lighting development of exascale capability. ASCAC predicts that the United States will develop such a computer by 2023. When operational, the computer “is not going to be made up of a billion processors,” Giles says, “it’s going to be made up of fewer that are each more powerful and run at lower energy than most we have now.

“You probably won’t own an exascale computer—maybe in 40 years—but you’ll have devices that have exascale computing technology in them. Your smartphone will someday be a hundred times smarter than it is now, for not much more money.”

Giles discussed the brave new world of exascale with BU Today.

BU Today: What’s the technological challenge to developing exascale computing?
Giles: Up until about 2004, exponential growth in computing power meant that everything went faster. That stopped; computing didn’t get faster. Instead, you are getting computer chips with multiple processors on the chip. You can put more stuff on a chip; what hasn’t continued is the part that says you can make the chip go faster, which means the energy you need goes up faster.

Is it correct then that the main impediment is that exascale requires such immense energy?
That’s sort of true. It takes much too much power. But if you were willing to expend that power, it’s not clear that it makes sense to do it. What problems will I solve? If you took a ship filled with cell phones and said how much computing power is in that ship, it might be an exascale, but that doesn’t mean that they can work together to solve any particular problem.

So why are we pursuing exascale computing?
You may be able to solve new problems or old problems in new ways. For example, simulating how matter will behave inside a car engine to help engineer a better engine. You need to simulate millions or billions of molecules. Historically, people could never get close to the number of molecules in a real engine in a computer model. So what we do know tends to be based on artfully chosen, very tiny computational samples. Exascale computing enables larger simulations that can have greater fidelity to real systems.

On a larger scale, think about the simulation of climate and climate science. You have to represent individual patches of the Earth inside the computer. In the early days, you’d be dividing the world up into a large number of 100-kilometer squares. What is the temperature in that square? How much ice is there, and what is the reflectivity in that square? As computers got more powerful, they made the square smaller and smaller. The current number is, like, 20 kilometers. You get more understanding in the narrower regions, particularly things like the ocean flows, where at a greater level you can’t see what’s going on. That’ll give me a greater picture of the little eddies and flows. Exascale computing hopes to enable simulations at a one-kilometer scale.

Exascale also helps engineering companies doing production. The classic example is numerical wind tunnels. In design of airplanes, the test was that you build some mock-up of a plane or section, you put it in a wind tunnel, you measure its properties, you may tweak the engineering. The capability that computing already has offered is to replace some of those simulations by computer simulation. Your ideal would be sitting at a drawing board and saying, “I want to make a wing with this shape out of this material,” and then you press a button and the computer tells you how well that would perform.

It’s the same thing with looking at the airflow around trucks, based on how you design the body of the truck, to save fuel. They design trucks with 20 to 30 percent better gas efficiency through computer modeling with the highest computers we have now. What we’re looking for in exascale is to include more science and understanding of materials in design and production.

What about search engines like Google?
One of the hottest things going is data science. There are problems where exascale computing, married to the right level of data science support, will lead to breakthroughs to do lots of cross-correlation of data.

A Google data center uses a unit of computing that’s basically a tractor-trailer truckful of computers. The data center is a roomful of these containers. Each of those processors is doing a share of the searching, but it’s a challenge to get 10,000 of those things to be communicating rapidly, back and forth, to solve my problem. That’s the kind of problem where exascale computing directly affects the data science, to bring lots of computing power to bear on a single problem.

Are governments and business the only entities likely to own an exascale computer?
I think that’s probably true. But you’d get a machine comparable to some of today’s midsize supercomputers that could be on your desk once exascale technology is around.

The other use is national security. The National Security Agency is really interested in this.

Because you could read more data from terrorists’ cell phones or computers?
Right. They want to be number one in the world at that. That actually parallels Google, in terms of it being a data-centric application, the ability to handle large amounts of data and make correlations.

Why does government need to be involved—why can’t Google or industry develop exascale on their own?
The economic incentives are not aligned to make it possible to develop the exascale machine. There’s not a big enough market. Companies would like better roads and faster railroads, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to create the railroad. They’ll contribute to help building the road, but by themselves, they won’t be able to do it.

What are other governments doing to develop exascale?
They intervene to make it happen, like China. There’s a European consortium that’s investing in exascale. That’s actually a software initiative.

I used to joke that we say, “You want to start a program that’s $200 million a year? Oh my God, where are we going to get the money?” My impression is in China, they say, “Oh, it only costs money? We’ll buy slightly less real estate in New York to pay for this.”

Is it conceivable that China or some other country might get exascale before us?
Oh, sure. It’s conceivable. I don’t know if it’s likely. We have the best ecosystem for scientific computing, meaning that not only do we have powerful computers, but we have people who develop the algorithms. We have the laboratories where the computers live.

Is there a debate in academia about the role of government in developing exascale?
There’s always debate. There’s a debate first about the role of universities versus the role of government labs. And there’s the overall question of how you spend government money.

Are there dangers from exascale computing?
A danger comes when one part of society has access to a technology that no one else has. We will have that technology distributed to more than just the government. We could not get industry to participate if the only end point was to make 10 machines for the government. Our committee had people from industry and from academia.

This goes with having stuff in data centers and cloud services. One vision is you deploy exascale technology and the market for it is going to be data centers. The way people benefit is from their access through the data centers. The iPad 200 will have stuff in it that is exascale.

Human society is incredibly adaptive. The internet itself—I was around before it existed at all. We adapted to that technology. That doesn’t mean the adaptation is not painful. The issues of privacy we’re addressing only arose after the technology came in. We’re going to figure it out; our institutions will adapt. Those of us who are older are horrified by what people put out on Facebook and that they take their cell phone to the bathroom with them and live-stream it. But it’s clear other people are not going to feel that way: “Everybody has naked pictures of themselves in mud on the internet from when they were in college. So what?”

This article originally appeared on BU Today.

A Point of Light

July 7th, 2016 in ECE, News-IDS, Publications, Recognition

Vivek Goyal Creates Images from Single Photons

By Sara Elizabeth Cody


1) The scene, taken with a normal digital camera. Photo provided by Feihu Xu, MIT. 2) The raw data captured by the SPAD camera, about one photon per pixel as a point cloud. The significant background light and the coarse timing resolution of the SPAD camera are apparent. 3) The image formation algorithm produced this image of the scene.

When you take a photo on a cloudy day with your average digital camera, the sensor detects trillions of photons. Photons, the elementary particles of light, strike different parts of the sensor in different quantities to form an image, with the standard four-by-six-inch photo boasting 1,200-by-1,800 pixels. Anyone who has attempted to take a photo at night or at a concert knows how difficult it can be to render a clear image in low light. However, in a recent study published in Nature Communications, one BU researcher has figured out a way to render an image while also measuring distances to the scene using about one photon per pixel.

“It’s natural to think of light intensity as a continuous quantity, but when you get down to very small amounts of light, then the underlying quantum nature of light becomes significant,” says Associate Professor Vivek Goyal (ECE). “When you use the right kind of mathematical modeling for the detection of individual photons, you can make the leap to forming images of useful quality from extremely small amounts of detected light.”

Goyal’s study, “Photon-Efficient Imaging with a Single-Photon Camera,” was a collaboration with researchers at MIT and Politecnico di Milano. It combined new image formation algorithms with the use of a single-photon camera to produce images from about one photon per pixel. The single-photon avalanche diode (SPAD) camera consisted of an array of 1,024 light-detecting elements, allowing the camera to make multiple measurements simultaneously to enable quicker, more efficient data acquisition.

The experimental setup uses infrared laser pulses to illuminate the scene the research team wanted to capture, which is also illuminated by an ordinary incandescent light bulb to accurately reproduce the condition of having a strong competing light source that could be present in a longer-range scenario. Both the uninformative background light and laser light reflected back to the SPAD camera, which recorded the raw photon data with each pulse of the laser. A computer algorithm analyzed the raw data and used it to form an image of the scene. The result is a reconstructed image, cobbled together from single particles of light per pixel.

The method introduced by Goyal’s team comes in the wake of their earlier first-ever demonstration of combined reflectivity and depth imaging from a single photon per pixel. The earlier work used a single detector element with much finer time resolution. The current work demonstrates that creating an image with a single-photon detector can be done more efficiently.

“We are trying to make low-light imaging systems more practical, by combining SPAD camera hardware with novel statistical algorithms,” says Dongeek Shin, the lead author of the publication and a PhD student of Goyal at MIT. “Achieving this quality of imaging with very few detected photons while using a SPAD camera had never been done before, so it’s a new accomplishment in having both extreme photon efficiency and fast, parallel acquisition with an array.”

Though single-photon detection technology may not be common in consumer products any time soon, Goyal thinks this opens exciting possibilities in long-range remote sensing, particularly in mapping and military applications, as well as applications such as self-driving cars where speed of acquisition is critical. Goyal and his collaborators plan to continue to improve their methods, with a number of future studies in the works to address issues that came up during experimentation, such as reducing the amount of “noise,” or grainy visual distortion.

“Being able to handle more noise will help us increase range and allow us to work in daylight conditions,” says Goyal. “We are also looking at other kinds of imaging we can do with a small number of detected particles, like fluorescence imaging and various types of microscopy.”

Three ECE Teams Place in Intel Cornell Cup Competition

June 21st, 2016 in ECE, Events, Undergraduate Programs, Undergraduate Student Opportunities

By Sara Elizabeth Cody

Team E-FIRE consists of graduated senior electrical engineer majors Derek Kenyon, John Marcao, Junhao Hua (Neil), Casey Pelkowsky and Nathaniel Michener. Photo by Frank Curran Photography

Team E-FIRE consists of graduated senior electrical engineer majors Derek Kenyon, John Marcao, Junhao Hua (Neil), Casey Pelkowsky and Nathaniel Michener. Photo by Frank Curran Photography

Three teams from BU competing in the fifth annual Intel-Cornell Cup earned top marks in the final round of the competition, more than any other competing university. E-FIRE, an ECE senior design project team, won third place. Team Moove, also a team of ECE seniors, and Breakerbot, a multidisciplinary team of ECE and ME students sponsored by Consolidated Edison, received honorable mentions. The Intel-Cornell Cup is a college-level design competition that aims to empower inventors of the newest innovative applications of embedded technology.

E-FIRE, or Energetic Field Instrument using Radiated Electrons, took home the $1,500 cash prize for their entry, an instrument to measure high-energy electrons in space. Working with Professor Ronald Knepper (ECE) as their primary “customer”, along with Professor Ted Fritz (ECE, ME, CAS) and Assistant Professor Brian Walsh (ME), the team designed a device that can measure electric fields in near-Earth space aboard a nanosatellite.

The competition, which alternates between live and online competition annually, followed 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, competed with the 24 other teams in the final round.

Projects submitted by BU teams were completed by the end of March, fulfilling both a course requirement and a competition requirement with support from Associate Professor of Practice Alan Pisano (ECE) and the other ECE Senior Design Capstone supporting faculty members, Lecturer Osama Alshaykh and Senior Lecturer Babak Kia. The final judging took place at the end of April. The competition is sponsored primarily by Intel and Cornell University.


ECE Students Represent U.S. in International Supercomputing Competition

May 20th, 2016 in Awards, ECE, Events, Graduate Programs, News-CE, Recognition, Research-CE, Students, Undergraduate Student Opportunities

By Sara Elizabeth Cody

(L to R) BU Green Team members Sean Smith (ECE'17), Wasim Khan (ECE'17), Winston Chen (CE'17), Hannah Gibsom (ECE'17) and Satoe Sakama (CAS'17)

(L to R) BU Green Team members Sean Smith (ECE’17), Wasim Khan (ECE’17), Winston Chen (CE’17), Hannah Gibsom (ECE’17) and Satoe Sakama (CAS’17)

A group of six BU students were the sole team from the U. S. to compete in the world’s largest supercomputing hackathon in Wuhan, China in April.

“Supercomputing uses very powerful hardware to run large and complex programs,” explains Hannah Gibson (ECE’17), a member of the BU Green Team who competed at the Asia Supercomputing Community Student Supercomputer Challenge. “It’s used in CGI for movies and for weather modeling-huge programs that require a lot of power. In the competition, the goal is to get the best performance with consideration for power and speed with the setup and software you designed and built.”

The competition featured 16 teams selected from 146 applicants that hailed from around the globe, from China and Russia to Hungary and Colombia. Each team provided a wish list of hardware to the sponsoring company, Inspur, and had to prepare software in advance to bring with them to the competition. Teams had four days total for the competition, including time for setup and installation.

“It was awesome being in a different country and seeing how our team stacked up to teams from all around the world,” says Wasim Khan (ECE’17), a member of the BU Green Team. “It was interesting to compete against other teams who come from schools that have supercomputing as a major and to see that we, an extracurricular student-run group, gave them a run for their money.”

In computing, performance is often measured by floating-point operations per second, or flops. The higher the number of flops, the better the computer performance and, in competition, the higher the score. Teams were given six applications, where they were tasked with rewriting portions of each program to work better on the target hardware, optimizing it to work on their architecture and complete real-world scientific workloads while obeying the competition constraint of 3,000 watts of power maximum.

Five of the applications were programmed to run on their own hardware setup, or cluster, to measure the number of flops it generated. The other application was run on the Tianhe-2, currently the world’s fastest supercomputer. The score was an algorithm that was based on the number of problem sets, or workloads, that were completed, with consideration for accuracy, timing and flops generated, if applicable. Awards were given to top scorers, “most innovative,” and “best overall.” In order to support the ASC mission to promote supercomputing outreach, teams were encouraged to tweet throughout the competition and the team with the most retweets was awarded the “most popular” designation.

“This is an impressive and highly motivated group of students who had to specify and acquire equipment, optimize the configurations, tune, and in some cases refactor the applications, and ultimately qualify for these competitions entirely of their own volition,” says Professor Martin Herbordt (ECE), who is the faculty advisor for the group. “It goes without saying that students learn a lot in their classes, but this type of professional, real-world experience that is self-guided takes their learning to a whole other level.”

The BU Green Team represented BU’s High Performance Computing (BUHPC) team, led by Winston Chen (CE’17) and Huy Lee (CS’16), is affiliated with BUILDs, the BU hackerspace that provides resources for students to undertake technology projects. Since their return from China, BUHPC is fundraising to attend the ISC Student Cluster Competition in Germany in June. In addition to competing, the event also includes professional development workshops and networking opportunities for students interested in the field of supercomputing.

ENG Graduates Look to Bright Future Ahead

May 20th, 2016 in Alumni, Awards, ECE, Events, Faculty, Students, Undergraduate Programs

Commencement Ceremonies Celebrate the Class of 2016

By Sara Elizabeth Cody

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz (Hon.'16)

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz (Hon.’16)

Sunshine from the warm, cloudless day penetrated the air of excitement inside the Track and Tennis Center, where faculty, staff, family and friends gathered to celebrate the 63rd commencement of 350 undergraduate students from the College of Engineering on May 14.

Graduates were all smiles during the processional

Graduates were all smiles during the processional

Dean Kenneth Lutchen began the ceremony by acknowledging the challenges students had to face and overcome in order to arrive at that moment today, noting that while engineering is the toughest course of study at BU, “the hard is what makes it great, and you made it.”

Alfred O. Hero (EE'80), R. Jamison and Betty Williams Professor of Engineering at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and co-director of the Michigan Institute for Data Science

Alfred O. Hero (EE’80), R. Jamison and Betty Williams Professor of Engineering at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and co-director of the Michigan Institute for Data Science

Lutchen also recognized the important role that family and friends played in supporting their graduates, noting that commencement was a celebration that was years in the making.

“From first steps to learning you were admitted into this great institution, you have been celebrating achievements and important milestones for the past 22 years,” he said. “Today you will celebrate the best investment you could have made walking across this stage.”

Student speaker Alexander James O’Donovan (BME’15) spoke about his personal experience of being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and how it drove him to pursue his career in biomedical engineering and ultimately landed his dream job working in Professor Ed Damiano’s (BME) laboratory developing the bionic pancreas. From the beginning, he identified closely with the College’s vision of creating Societal Engineers and that allowed him to carve out a path for his success.

“I came here because I wanted to change the world and [the College] wanted to create people to change the world,” said O’Donovan. “We now have what we need to leave our footprint on the world—the only question now is how big the footprint will be.”

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz (Hon.’16) took the stage after O’Donovan to deliver his keynote address. After a lighthearted moment where he explained he wore his beaver print tie because beavers are “nature’s engineer,” he stressed the importance of how engineers help move society forward by describing the four pillars of engineering: to solve problems; to think broadly in order to find novel solutions; to be civic-minded; and to think globally to have a lasting impact on the world. Echoing O’Donovan’s sentiments about the Societal Engineer, he noted how BU’s vision brings these pillars together.

“As an engineer, you have both an obligation and an opportunity to improve the lives of the underserved, both in this country and across the world,” said Moniz. “It is the highest form of diplomacy.”

Moniz—who received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at the university-wide commencement ceremony the next day—also noted that the newest generation of engineers must pick up the mantle to continue tackling some of society’s greatest challenges, from political discourse to climate change, by harnessing their education and skills acquired during their time at BU.

“I personally believe that the engineering profession is one that is associated with social progress,” said Moniz. “No matter what you decide to do with your engineering degree, your ‘science-based approach with a system-wide view’ to solve problems will present new opportunities for solutions.”

Lutchen presented Department Awards for Teaching Excellence to Professor Hamid Nawab (ECE), Associate Professor of Practice William Hauser (ME) and to Assistant Professor Ahmad Khalil (BME), who also received Outstanding Professor of the Year Award. The Faculty Service Award went to professor Irving Bigio (BME).

Later in the afternoon, Dean Lutchen presented 200 Master’s degrees and presided over the hooding of 48 PhD students in the Fitness and Recreation Center.

Alfred O. Hero (EE’80), R. Jamison and Betty Williams Professor of Engineering at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and co-director of the Michigan Institute for Data Science gave the graduate convocation keynote address. As a BU alum, he remembered sitting in the same place as this year’s graduates 36 years ago. He encouraged graduates never to succumb to challenges, to defend their work, and to remain humble and kind throughout their future careers.

“Engineering has given you the skills to organize and navigate through complex data and use it to solve problems,” Hero concluded. “In my experience, the two most prominent characteristics of successful engineers is the pursuit of unconventional ideas and the perseverance to get it done.”

Unlu Delivers DeLisi Distinguished Lecture

May 4th, 2016 in Awards, ECE, Events, Faculty, Recognition

By Sara Elizabeth Cody

Professor M. Selim Unlu (ECE, BME, MSE)

Professor M. Selim Unlu (ECE, BME, MSE)

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.

Digital detection captures images of individual viruses in real time

“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).

Musical Performance Tool Wins Imagineering Competition

May 3rd, 2016 in Awards, ECE, Events, Undergraduate Programs, Undergraduate Student Opportunities

By Sara Elizabeth Cody

Zachary Lasiuk (EE, '17) took first place in the fifth annual Imagineering Competition

Zachary Lasiuk (EE, ’17) took first place in the fifth annual Imagineering Competition

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.

Five BU Teams to Advance to Final Round in National Competition

April 22nd, 2016 in ECE, Recognition, Senior Design, Students, Uncategorized, Undergraduate Student Opportunities

By Sara Elizabeth Cody

E-Fire team member Nathaniel Michener (ECE, '16)

E-Fire team member Nathaniel Michener (ECE, ’16)

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:

  • BreakerBot 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.
  •  Giro dicer A team of ECE students building a drone to locate ice dams and apply melting chemicals to “break the dam.”
  • Moove 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.
  • TED A team of ECE students designing a translating teddy bear toy for young children to help them learn different languages
  • E-Fire 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.

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From Cells To Circuits

April 14th, 2016 in ECE, Faculty, Grants, News-CE, Recognition, Research, Research-CE

Transforming Living Cells into Computers

By Sara Elizabeth Cody

CELLO is software designed by Densmore's research team that encodes logical operations and bio-sensors right into the DNA of E. coli bacteria

CELLO is software designed by Densmore’s research team that encodes logical operations and bio-sensors right into the DNA of E. coli bacteria

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.

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