Goldberg, Wong named to coordinate teaching, recruitment
It’s a fitting acronym: STEM is the basis for budding careers, for the growing of cutting-edge research, and for increased competence across a range of disciplines. While Boston University has long shown a strong commitment to education in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — it has recently launched an initiative to improve that commitment by boosting interdisciplinary cooperation, recruiting more students in underrepresented populations, and arming the University with even more of a competitive edge in seeking outside funding.
Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer, recently named two BU faculty members to take STEM to the next level. Bennett Goldberg, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of physics and a College of Engineering professor of electrical and computer engineering and of biomedical engineering, has been appointed director of BU’s STEM Education Initiatives. Joyce Y. Wong, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering and of materials science and engineering, has been named director of a new University effort to advance women in STEM fields.
Goldberg will be responsible for oversight and coordination of efforts to “increase effectiveness of instruction” in STEM subjects, says Morrison in announcing the appointment. “A world-class scientist, innovator, and teacher, who has devoted his career to impactful interdisciplinary scholarship, Professor Goldberg is exceptionally equipped for this responsibility,” she says. The new post includes four major areas of oversight: leading an effort to “articulate the aspirations” of BU faculty for undergraduate STEM education; working with schools and colleges and the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching to advance the “sharing of best practices”; working to boost recruitment of students, including women and minorities, underrepresented in STEM programs; and directing the development, writing, and submission of grants supporting STEM education at the University.
“STEM education at BU has a fair amount of innovation, but we don’t have a really coordinated effort or strategic plan,” says Goldberg. “If you look at what’s happening in higher education in the United States, there are a lot of pressures, and our model for the future must include high-engagement learning — moving away from the traditional talking head at the front of the class.” In STEM education in particular, the talking head model reaches “a very small fraction of our students,” he says.
STEM education at BU is already embracing this move away from the traditional lecture model, but Goldberg will coordinate the establishment of more interactive learning studios, more peer learning, more small seminars like those used in some engineering courses, and more roundtable teaching. “My job is really to figure out what kind of support is necessary and how we can create a collective vision,” he says. “It’s planning, it’s discussing, it’s developing, and it’s implementing.”
Goldberg, who was named BU’s 2013 United Methodist Scholar-Teacher of the Year, has long held an active interest in improving education in math and the sciences. Director of the Center for Nanoscience and Nanobiotechnology since 2004, he earned a bachelor’s from Harvard University and a master’s and a doctorate from Brown University. Of Goldberg’s work cultivating clean energy sources, developing new drug delivery systems, and diagnostic methods, Morrison says that he “has committed himself to breaking boundaries, working across fields of scientific research in a way that pushes the limits of our capabilities.”
Wong is “uniquely positioned to help BU emerge as a leader in addressing the underrepresentation of women” in STEM fields, according to Morrison. She notes that while BU attracts outstanding female students and faculty in these fields, “there is more work to be done both in recruitment and retention and in our endeavors to support their success.” Wong’s undergraduate and doctoral degrees are from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on the development of biological materials that could aid in detecting cancer and cardiovascular disease.
“I look forward to engaging all members of the BU community and to reaching out to the many people on campus who are running excellent programs at all levels, precollege, undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, and faculty, to advance STEM in an equitable manner,” says Wong.
-Susan Seligson, BU Today
Telecommunications companies – those that allow us to talk on the phone, communicate over the Internet and watch cable television – used to operate under the notion that there was an infinite amount of fiber bandwidth available to transmit these signals. Then we moved into the Y2K era.
“There was a big explosion of data around the year 2000,” said Larry A. Coldren, the Fred Kavli Professor of Optoelectronics and Sensors at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Computers were also getting faster and faster at this time and the demand for bandwidth was rising quickly.”
Coldren and his team had started looking at photonic integrated circuits (PICs), devices that allow signals to travel on optical waves on semiconductor chips, back in the 1980s and discovered that they could viably be produced much like analogous electronic integrated circuits (ICs) that generally use electrical wires for transferring data.
Last month, he spoke about his research during Boston University’s Electrical & Computer Engineering Distinguished Lecture Series. He suggested that PICs could be the key component in the future of telecommunications.
Just a couple of decades ago, wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM) was introduced to meet the demand for more fiber bandwidth. This method allowed a number of signals to be simultaneously transferred on a single optical fiber. However, at the terminals where the WDM channels must be either combined or separated, the optical and electronic equipment became more and more complex as the channel count and signal speed increased. That’s where Coldren’s research comes into play.
“PICs have the potential of improved performance, reliability and cost while also reducing the size, weight and power of the equipment,” said Coldren.
PICs for various applications have been made using indium phosphide, silica on silicon, polymer technologies, and silicon photonics. Electronic ICs, however, usually use silicon as a dominant ingredient. Coldren’s team currently focuses on a monolithic indium phosphide integration platform.
“Ultimately, we may find that the best results will come from a hybrid solution using more than one of these materials,” said Coldren.
Today, PICs are widely deployed commercially and outperform many discrete device approaches, but Coldren is optimistic that they can work even better in the future and hopefully result in more environmentally friendly supercomputers and data centers.
“Our efforts have always been focused on making PICs very efficient and very fast,” said Coldren. “Now we need to look at how they can be used to create more green data centers.”
Assistant Professor Jonathan Klamkin (ECE), who introduced Coldren at the lecture, previously had an opportunity to study with Coldren while earning his Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara.
“I benefitted immensely from his guidance and even use his books in my class here,” Klamkin said. “It’s a pleasure having him on our campus.”
Prior to teaching, Coldren worked at Bell Labs, where he studied surface-acoustic-wave signal processing devices and tunable coupled-cavity lasers. He continued his work at UC Santa Barbara, where he has developed more widely-tunable DBR lasers and efficient, high-speed vertical-cavity-surface-emitting lasers (VCSELs) in addition to his PIC research.
Coldren is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Optical Society (OSA) and the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE).
Coldren’s talk was the third in the three-part Fall 2013 Distinguished Lecture Series. The seminars will resume in Spring 2014.
-Rachel Harrington (email@example.com)
Karl, Moustakas and Paschalidis Recognized for Outstanding Achievements
Professors W. Clem Karl (ECE, BME, SE), Theodore Moustakas (ECE, MSE) and Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE) have been named as 2014 IEEE Fellows, the highest grade of membership in the world’s leading professional association for advancing technology for the benefit of society.
The IEEE confers the grade of Fellow upon individuals with outstanding records of accomplishment in any of the organization’s fields of interest, which range from aerospace systems, computers and telecommunications to biomedical engineering, electric power and consumer electronics. Less than 0.1 percent of voting members — the IEEE currently has 400,000 members in 160 countries — are selected annually for this member grade elevation, considered a major career achievement and prestigious honor across the technical community.
W. Clem Karl
Karl was recognized for his contributions to “statistical signal processing and image reconstruction.” He has developed several statistical models for the extraction of information from diverse data sources in the presence of uncertainty, and applied them in projects that include automatic target detection and recognition for synthetic aperture radar; locating oil deposits and analyzing the earth’s atmosphere; and monitoring medical conditions using tomography and MRI.
“This is a great honor, and I’m humbled that my peers would confer it on me,” said Karl.
A member of the BU faculty since 1995, Karl has assumed many leadership roles for the IEEE. Currently editor-in-chief of IEEE Transactions on Image Processing, he is a member of the Board of Governors and Conference Board of the Signal Processing Society; the Transactions on Medical Imaging Steering Committee; the Biomedical Image and Signal Processing Technical Committee; and the Technical Committee Review Board. He has co-organized IEEE workshops on statistical signal processing and bioinformatics, and was general chair of the 2009 IEEE International Symposium on Biomedical Imaging.
Among other things, Karl is developing methods to improve the detection of explosives in luggage. The technology could increase passenger safety while reducing delays and other inconveniences for air travelers, such as having to remove laptops and other electronic devices from bags.
Moustakas was recognized for his contributions to “the epitaxial growth of nitride semiconductors.” He is a trailblazer in molecular beam epitaxy, a versatile and advanced thin-film growth technique used to make high-precision, nitride (nitrogen compound-based) semiconductor materials used in fiber-optic, cellular, satellite and other applications.
His most notable achievements include pioneering the nucleation steps for the growth of gallium nitride on sapphire and other substrates, an essential process for the manufacture of blue LEDs, which are widely used in solid state lighting applications; and developing highly-efficient, deep ultraviolet (UV) LEDs, which are expected to provide environmentally friendly water and air purification.
“I am delighted to receive this prestigious award and I am very grateful to many of my collaborators at BU and other institutions, as well the outstanding past and current students that I have had the fortune of mentoring,” said Moustakas.
A member of the ENG faculty for more than 30 years and ENG Distinguished Scholar who helped shape the Materials Science & Engineering Division, Moustakas has had a broad impact on his field, through 25 patents, hundreds of invited talks and journal papers and 10,000 citations in research literature. Recently selected as the recipient of the Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE) Innovator Award, he is also a Fellow of the American Physical Society and Electrochemical Society, and Charter Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. In 2013 he was named the Boston University Innovator of the Year.
Moustakas is currently working to create visible and UV LEDs and lasers for solid-state white lighting, water and air sterilization, and identification of biological and chemical agents; investigating indium gallium nitride “quantum dots” that boost solar cell efficiency; and, in collaboration with Associate Professor Roberto Paiella (ECE, MSE), studying the use of nitride semiconductor structures for green LED applications and for emitters and detectors operating in the far infrared.
Paschalidis was recognized for his contributions to “the control and optimization of communication and sensor networks, manufacturing systems and biological systems.” Since joining the College of Engineering faculty in 1996, he has developed sophisticated algorithms for everything from a homeland security early warning sensor network to a next-generation electronic healthcare management system.
“I am elated to have been named an IEEE Fellow,” said Paschalidis. “Much credit is due to all my students and postdoctoral associates, past and present, who have contributed to the work being recognized, and all my collaborators, many of them here at Boston University.”
Co-director of the College’s Center for Information and Systems Engineering (CISE), an ENG Distinguished Faculty Fellow and affiliate of the BioMolecular Engineering Research Center, Paschalidis has a diverse research portfolio that spans the fields of systems and control, networking, applied probability, optimization, operations research, computational biology and bioinformatics. His work has resulted in new applications in communication and sensor networks, protein docking, logistics, cyber-security, robotics, the smart grid and finance.
Paschalidis has received several honors, including a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, an invitation to participate in the National Academy of Engineering Frontiers of Engineering Symposium, two best paper awards, and best performance at a computational biology competition. He is the editor-in-chief of the IEEE Transactions on Control of Network Systems and a member of the Board of Governors of the IEEE Control Systems Society.
Visiting Professor Vivek Goyal (ECE), who will be an assistant professor in the ECE Department starting in January, was also named an IEEE Fellow.
Dedicated to the advancement of technology, the IEEE publishes 30 percent of the world’s literature in the electrical and electronics engineering and computer science fields, and has developed more than 900 active industry standards. The association also sponsors or co-sponsors nearly 400 international technical conferences each year.
In a ceremony held October 25 at the Boston University Photonics Center, the College of Engineering celebrated its alumni and announced the 2013 Distinguished Alumni Awards. Presented by Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen following a buffet dinner and champagne toast, the awards recognize individuals who have made significant contributions to their alma mater, community and profession. Lutchen commended the recipients for bringing honor to the College through their careers, commitment to the highest standards of excellence, and devotion to the College.
Anton Papp (EE ’90), vice president for Corporate Development at Teradata, received the Service to Alma Mater award, which honors alumni who have enhanced the College of Engineering’s stature through voluntary service to BU.
At Teradata Papp oversees, evaluates and executes investments, mergers and acquisitions, and strategy. Prior to joining Teradata, he served as vice president of Corporate Development & Global Alliances at Aprimo and held numerous investment banking positions. A graduate of the prestigious US Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN), Papp attended BU on a Naval ROTC scholarship and served as a Naval Officer and F-14 Tomcat Flight Instructor. He also earned an MBA in Finance from Columbia Business School.
Papp serves on the College of Engineering Dean’s Advisory Board, the ENG West Coast Alumni Leadership Council, and the BU West Coast Regional Campaign Committee. He has been the leading supporter for the ENG/SMG Summer Leadership Institute program, and part of the College’s efforts to recruit top undergraduates.
Dan Ryan and Aaron Ganick (both ECE ’10), cofounders of the telecommunications company ByteLight, received the Distinguished Young Alumni award, which honors outstanding alumni within 10 years of graduation for outstanding service to their profession or community.
A startup that emerged out of the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center at BU, ByteLight has produced a system that’s similar to an indoor GPS. Special LED lights provided by Bytelight enable your smartphone to determine your location and to bring up location-based information ranging from store coupons to museum exhibit descriptions.
George Savage (BME ’81), Chief Medical Officer and cofounder of Proteus Digital Health, and a member of the BU College of Engineering West Coast Advisory Council, received the Service to the Profession award, which honors alumni whose work has significantly contributed to the advancement of their profession and brought them recognition within their field.
Savage has started 10 companies since 1989 as entrepreneur or founding investor, including FemRx (acquired by Johnson and Johnson), CardioRhythm (acquired by Medtronic) and QRx Pharmaceuticals. He holds an M.D. from Tufts University School of Medicine and an M.B.A. from Stanford University Graduate School of Business, and serves on the boards of Menlo Healthcare Ministry, the Pacific Research Institute and Silent Cal Productions.
At Proteus, Savage has advanced a system of small, ingestible event markers that are implanted in a patient’s medications. A monitor worn as a patch on the patient identifies each pill upon swallowing and tracks vital signs, which are uploaded to the patient’s mobile phone and transmitted to caregivers and healthcare professionals. The system allows for instantaneous and personalized treatment and promises to transform the way doctors monitor patients’ medicine.
Over the last few weeks, nearly 20 million Americans tried accessing a broken United States health care site that couldn’t handle the traffic, among other problems. And even if you weren’t one of the many applying for health coverage, you’ve probably experienced network congestion at some point.
Typically, network congestion occurs if a link or node is carrying too much data; as a result, the quality of service drops. The most severe form of communication disruption is deadlocks. A deadlock happens when several messages mutually block each other so that their delivery is not just delayed but stopped permanently.
“This is a long-standing problem, which is practically important and theoretically challenging,” said Distinguished Professor Lev Levitin (ECE, SE). “It has been attracting the efforts of many researchers for decades.”
Professors Levitin and Mark Karpovsky (ECE) have been working with their students on this problem for several years, developing new algorithms, specifically turn prohibition algorithms, to help direct data and essentially prevent information from being stuck in a deadlock as it travels through communication networks. This work covered a lot of ground by establishing lower and upper bounds for an optimal solution, outlining their discovery of a new class of algorithms, and developing a few algorithms that could actually solve the initial optimization problem.
The last advance on this project was achieved this year by Levitin and his team – ECE alum, Ye Wu (MEng ’13), and Visiting Scholar, Mehmet Mustafa. They have been working on developing new algorithms, specifically turn prohibition algorithms, to help direct data and essentially prevent information from being stuck in a deadlock as it travels through communication networks.
“Without changing the topology of existing networks, we managed to improve saturation points so that congestion is less likely to happen and latency is reduced which means lower waiting time for users,” said Wu.
The team recently presented their work at OPNETWORK 2013, a conference that focused on advancing the state of application and network performance management. Impressed by their research, “A Study of Modified Turn Prohibition Algorithms for Deadlock Prevention in Networks,” the judges awarded them Best Technical Paper.
“Computer experiments, executed earlier and in the latest work by Ye Wu and other students under the guidance of Dr. Mustafa, clearly showed the superior performance of our algorithms versus different algorithms suggested by other research groups,” said Levitin. He went on to add that the majority of publications in the field are on ad hoc algorithms as opposed to the “tree-free” algorithms he and his team explored.
The work gave Wu a chance to travel to Washington, D.C., and deliver the presentation at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.
“I met some really nice students and professors from different countries who were happy to talk about their research,” said Wu. “The audience, I think, was also smart enough to understand the key points of our project and asked really good questions.”
Now a Boston University graduate, Wu looks back at his professor fondly, describing Levitin as open-minded, even when his student was questioning his own theories.
“Professor Levitin is the best professor I’ve ever known,” said Wu. “Even when we had no idea how to begin a project, he’d point us in the right direction.”
-Rachel Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
NSF Research Program Helps ENG Vets Shape Careers
US military personnel return from active duty with highly marketable knowledge and skills, but many find it difficult to quickly parlay their experience into well-paying jobs. To help rectify the situation, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funds the Veteran’s Research Supplement (VRS) program, which allows veterans at selected colleges and universities to participate in industrially relevant research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) — fields in which job openings far outpace the supply of qualified US applicants.
Since the inception of VRS in 2011, the College of Engineering’s NSF Industry/University Collaborative Research Center for Biophotonic Sensors & Systems has welcomed the opportunity to engage veterans in research through this program.
“Vets come to us with an unusually strong work ethic and high confidence but often lack the experience to be comfortable in taking on a big research project,” said BU Photonics Center Director and Professor Thomas Bifano (ME, MSE). “VRS gives them the opportunity to take on such projects and pursue careers in research, which is the main engine of our economy.”
So far two veterans have thrived in faculty-supervised summer projects funded by VRS, emerging not only with new research skills but also a more well-defined career path.
Cliff Chan: From Technician to Engineer
Cliff Chan, who deployed four times in the Middle East and Southeast Asia as an Air Force Guidance and Control Specialist, came to BU seeking to take his skillset to the next level. With a B.S. in mathematics and computer science from the University of California, San Diego, two years developing software for an electronic health records company, and four years maintaining aircraft control systems for the Air Force under his belt, Chan aspired to learn how to design the kinds of technologies he came across during his military service.
To transform himself from a technician to an engineer, he sought a way to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering in a reasonable timeframe without having to start from scratch, and he found it in the College of Engineering’s Late Entry Accelerated Program (LEAP). Like all LEAP students, Chan spent his first year taking undergraduate engineering courses to get up to speed, but got his first taste of engineering design the following summer (2011), thanks to the VRS program. Working for three months in Professor Jerome Mertz’s (BME) Biomicroscopy Lab within BU’s Center for Biophotonic Sensors and Systems, he developed software that enables microscopes to provide high-contrast images of biological samples in real time.
“The project was a real transition for me, as I had to solve a problem by first figuring out what I needed to learn, and then how to apply it,” recalled Chan, who was used to getting more explicit instructions in the Air Force and had never worked in a research lab. “It opened up my eyes to another world.”
Subsequently hired to work full-time in the Biomicroscopy Lab while completing his Master of Engineering in electrical engineering, Chan has continued to advance microscopy techniques aimed at improving medical diagnostic imaging. The experience has led him to consider working in research and development for defense and other industries, conducting experiments and designing devices with real-world applications.
It has also prepared him to work through the inevitable unexpected challenges that arise in advancing new technologies.
“What I like about Cliff is that he’s undaunted,” said Mertz. “He wants to learn everything that’s out there to tackle his work. The problems we faced were much more complex than I had anticipated, but Cliff’s efforts definitely kept us on track, and kept us progressing.”
Chris Stockbridge: From Defusing Roadside Bombs to Protecting Future Soldiers
Chris Stockbridge returned to civilian life after five years as an officer and combat engineer in the Army that included two tours of duty in Iraq. During each deployment he came to appreciate the engineering behind technologies used to protect soldiers, including devices used to search for and destroy roadside bombs. Equipped with those experiences and a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the US Military Academy at West Point, he applied to the PhD program in mechanical engineering at BU with the goal of working as a civilian engineer at a national military research lab.
“I came to BU to study micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), particularly those which could be of great value in military applications, and because I knew that the Photonics Center has a strong relationship with the US Army Research Laboratory,” said Stockbridge.
Supported last summer by the VRS program to serve as the lead student in an NSF-funded project in Bifano’s Precision Optics Research Lab, he began fabricating MEMS for a new deformable mirror design for use in the Keck and other very large telescopes. Aimed at supplying the telescopes with mirrors that have more pixels for finer imaging control, his work could enable astronomers to make observations that shed light on the origin of the universe and the existence of life on extra-solar planets.
“The primary benefit to me from this project was spending more time doing hands-on MEMS fabrication work,” said Stockbridge, who had already spent two years working on the design of deformable mirrors in Bifano’s lab. “While I would prefer to work more in design after graduation, the hands-on skills are important for getting an appreciation of each process step that goes into building a MEMS mirror.”
As he has cultivated those skills, Stockbridge has proven to be an invaluable asset in Bifano’s lab.
“Chris is a consummate engineer who seems to thrive on tackling problems that are both thorny and hard, and I can see in his work the experience and training that he gained while serving in the Army,” said Bifano. “He is a natural collaborator, and all of the other students in my lab and in the labs of my close colleagues have come to rely on him for his strong sense of mechanical design and for his eagerness to help those around him. Chris will make a great professional engineer.”
-Rachel Harrington (email@example.com)
Each day, we find ourselves sharing our personal information across the internet – whether it’s to pay a bill or buy a gift on Amazon.
As we send more of our data through these channels, there is a growing concern about privacy. Earlier this month, a breach at Adobe, for example, impacted more than 38 million users. Cases like this are not uncommon and as a result, cyber security has become a major area of research for electrical and computer engineers.
Last week, Professor George J. Pappas, the Chair of the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, visited Boston University and shared his own work on the topic.
Pappas is looking at how differential privacy, a method that aims to maximize the accuracy of information extracted from databases while also minimizing the chance of records being identified, can be applied to systems like smart grids and intelligent transportation systems.
“Privacy breaches are generally due to side information that a company collects,” Pappas explained. He believes that by using a differentially private mechanism to transfer information, it’ll be possible to hide secure data.
“You’re trying to hide in the noise and make it hard to know who’s who,” he said.
Pappas believes that one of the greatest challenges is figuring out how to give companies like Google and eBay the information they need without the sensitive data they don’t.
An advantage of differential privacy, he said, is that once you indicate a particular segment of information is private, it stays private even after the data is sent to another system. Pappas believes that by adding noise during the streaming process, secure information can be blocked. The trick is figuring out how much noise should be added.
Pappas is a Fellow of IEEE and has received several awards including the Antonio Ruberti Young Research Prize, the George S. Axelby Award, and the National Science Foundation PECASE. In addition to differential privacy, his research focuses on control theory and, in particular, hybrid systems, embedded systems, hierarchical and distributed control systems, with application to unmanned aerial vehicles, distributed robotics, green buildings, and biomolecular networks.
Pappas’s talk was the second in the three-part Fall 2013 Distinguished Lecture Series. The next talk will feature Professor Larry A. Coldren, University of California, Santa Barbara, who will speak on the topic, “Photonic Integrated Circuits as Key Enablers for Coherent Sensor and Communication Systems.” Hear him on Wednesday, November 20, at 4 p.m. in PHO 211.
-Rachel Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
New Laser Technique Boosts Accuracy of DNA Sequencing Method
Low-cost, ultra-fast DNA sequencing would revolutionize healthcare and biomedical research, sparking major advances in drug development, preventative medicine and personalized medicine. By gaining access to the entire sequence of your genome, a physician could determine the probability that you’ll develop a specific genetic disease or tolerate selected medications. In pursuit of that goal, Associate Professor Amit Meller (BME, MSE) has spent much of the past decade spearheading a method that uses solid state nanopores — two-to-five-nanometer-wide holes in silicon chips that read DNA strands as they pass through — to optically sequence the four nucleotides (A, C, G, T) encoding each DNA molecule.
Now Meller and a team of researchers at Boston University — Professor Theodore Moustakas (ECE, MSE) and research assistants Nicolas Di Fiori (Physics, PhD ’13) and Allison Squires (BME, PhD ’14) — and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology — have discovered a simple way to improve the sensitivity, accuracy and speed of the method, making it an even more viable option for DNA sequencing or characterization of small proteins.
In the November 3 online edition of Nature Nanotechnology, the team demonstrated that focusing a low-power, commercially available green laser on a nanopore increases current near walls of the pore, which is immersed in salt water. As the current increases, it sweeps the salt water along with it in the opposite direction of incoming samples. The onrushing water, in turn, acts as a brake, slowing down the passage of DNA through the pore. As a result, nanoscale sensors in the pore can get a higher-resolution read of each nucleotide as it crosses the pore, and identify small proteins in their native state that could not previously be detected.
“The light-induced phenomenon that we describe in this paper can be used to switch on and off the ‘brakes’ acting on individual biopolymers, such as DNA or proteins sliding through the nanopores, in real time,” Meller explained. “This critically enhances the sensing resolution of solid-state nanopores and can be easily integrated in future nanopore-based DNA sequencing and protein detection technologies.”
Slowing down DNA is essential to DNA or RNA sequencing with nanopores, so that nanoscale sensors, like sports referees, can make the right call on what’s passing through.
“The goal is to hold a base pair of DNA nucleotides in the nanopore’s sensing volume long enough to ‘call the base’ (i.e, determine if it’s an A, C, G or T),” said Squires, who fabricated nanopores and ran experiments in the study. “The signal needs to be sufficiently different for each base for sensors in the nanopore to make the call. If the sample proceeds through the sensing volume too quickly, it’s hard for the sensors to interpret the signal and make the right call.”
Other methods designed to slow down DNA in nanopores change the sensing properties of the pore, making it more difficult to ensure accuracy of detected base pairs. Shining laser light on the nanopore alters only the local surface charge, an effect that’s completely reversible within milliseconds by switching the laser off.
As an added bonus, the researchers found that the sudden increase in surface charge and resulting flow of water reliably unblocks clogged nanopores, which can take a long time to clean, significantly extending their lifetime.
Meller and his team characterized the amount of increase in current under varying illumination in many different-sized nanopores. They next aim to explore in greater detail the mechanism underlying the increase in surface current when the green laser is applied to a nanopore, information that could lead to even more sensitivity and accuracy in DNA sequencing.
The research is funded by a $4.2 million grant from the National Institute of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute under its “Revolutionary Sequencing Technology Development — $1,000 Genome” program, which seeks to reduce the cost of sequencing a human genome to $1,000.
Imagining intelligent traffic lights, parking spaces, buildings and appliances
Last year, the Daily Beast named Boston the country’s smartest metropolitan area. The website was referring to the people of Boston, of course, not the city itself. But what if the city itself were smart? What if technology, designed by the smart people who work in Boston, could help us save time and energy and spare us from daily frustrations? We talked to some BU researchers who are studying, designing, and building the technology for a more enlightened city.
Because the cost of electricity fluctuates throughout the day, depending on demand, smart meters that are currently available tell homeowners exactly how much energy they use and at what cost, encouraging them to delay energy-intensive activities until a time of day when demand and costs are low. Supported by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant, Professor Michael Caramanis (ME, SE), Professor John Baillieul (ME, SE) and two MIT faculty members are collaborating on a study of how these and larger-scale measures could result in a smarter electricity grid. In the United States, we lose about 8 percent of energy because it travels long distances between points of generation to use. Caramanis thinks the loss could be greatly reduced if we got our energy from closer and cleaner sources. A smarter grid could help us do that.
Security officers could sort through billions of hours of video footage and spot unusual events, such as someone attempting to enter a building in the middle of the night, using specially designed cameras with embedded algorithms. Professor Janusz Konrad (ECE) and Venkatesh Saligrama (ECE, SE) have developed the technology, supported by more than $800,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies.
BU engineers have designed software that, once uploaded to a building’s HVAC system, would measure airflow room by room and revise it to meet minimum standards, decreasing energy costs while keeping occupants happy. The invention earned Associate Professor Michael Gevelber (ME, SE), Adjunct Research Professor Donald Wroblewski (ME) and ENG and School of Management students first prize and $20,000 in this year’s MIT Clean Energy Competition. The team plans to develop and market the software through its newly formed company, Aeolus Building Efficiency.
Smarter Traffic Lights
A smart traffic lighting system would mine GPS information from cars and smartphones and count the number of vehicles waiting at red lights. If there is no approaching traffic, it would switch lights from red to green. Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) is testing this system on a model mini-city in his lab.
Cassandras, working with research assistant Yanfeng Geng (PhD, SE ’13), has developed the BU Smart Parking application, which can be downloaded to a smartphone from the iPhone App Store by searching “BU smartparking.” Drivers tell the app when and where they want to park, prioritizing price and location, and the app searches for available spaces, all of which are networked to the device. When the app identifies a spot that meets the search criteria, it tells the driver where to go. At the same time, a light installed above the spot turns from green to red. When the driver who made the reservations approaches, the light turns yellow. The catch? At the moment the system works only in BU’s 730 Commonwealth Avenue garage, but Cassandras hopes to expand it to private parking facilities throughout Boston.
The next-generation lightbulb could enhance sleep quality, send data like a Wi-Fi hotspot does, or help visitors navigate large buildings through a network of visible cues, while operating more efficiently. This technology is made possible by combining LEDs, sensors, and other control systems within a single hybrid bulb that needs 40 to 70 percent less energy than existing compact fluorescent lights or LED lightbulbs. It is being developed by Professor Thomas Little (ECE, SE), associate director of the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center, working with researchers at the center under an $18.5 million National Science Foundation grant. Little is collaborating with colleagues from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of New Mexico.
Refrigerators and hot water heaters are duty-cycle appliances, meaning they need to run only two to three times each hour. Caramanis thinks they could be designed to communicate with the electricity grid and run when electrical demand is lowest during that time period. Alternatively, if either of these appliances is connected to a home photovoltaic unit, it could be programmed to detect when a passing cloud blocks the sun and choose to cycle at a later time. Caramanis says this technology is mostly being tested in pilot settings. A New Jersey-based company called FirstEnergy has installed temperature sensors and communication controllers that turn on and off the hot water heaters of thousands of consumers in relation to low or high energy costs in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland region.
Smarter Central Control
Imagine a network of sensors that would collect and send data to a centralized processor, which could order a garbage pickup or warn drivers of traffic jams. Cassandras, Professor Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE), codirector of the Center for Information & Systems Engineering, and Professor Assaf Kfoury (CS), are testing a miniature version of this network in Cassandras’ lab, with help from a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
-Leslie Friday (Videos by Joe Chan), BU Today
Enhancing the functionality of cyber-physical systems — systems that integrate physical processes with networked computing — could significantly improve our quality of life, from reducing car collisions to upgrading robotic surgeries to mounting more effective search and rescue missions.
Recognizing Boston University as a key contributor to this effort, the National Science Foundation has awarded Professors Venkatesh Saligrama (ECE, SE) and David Castañón (ECE, SE), and Assistant Professor Mac Schwager (ME, SE), nearly $1M for their project, “CPS: Synergy: Data Driven Intelligent Controlled Sensing for Cyber Physical Systems.”
Drawing on earlier work by Saligrama and Castañón investigating machine learning under cost and budget constraints, the researchers will focus on improving sensors that collect data in transportation, security and manufacturing applications. A key challenge in such applications is to choose the most effective physical sensors from the vast amount available and develop systems that can efficiently process large quantities of collected data.
“Many of these systems are energy-hungry,” Saligrama explained. “The goal is to use such sensors only when they are needed by using feedback control of the sensing actions to obtain the best information possible given energy budget constraints.”
Castañón, who has developed some of the leading theories used in controlled sensing studies, sees the project as “an opportunity to extend that theory to big data environments with high-dimensional measurements.”
The team plans to validate its techniques through archaeological surveying, working with Associate Professor Chris Roosevelt (Archaeology). Determining where to deploy the sensors on a smaller scale — for example, finding where best to dig — could lead to far-reaching solutions for deep-sea exploration, firefighting and traffic monitoring.
-Rachel Harrington (email@example.com)