Holmes, Stepp Receive NSF CAREER Award


By Mark Dwortzan

Assistant Professor Douglas Holmes (ME)
Assistant Professor Douglas Holmes (ME)

Assistant Professor Cara Stepp (SAR, BME) (center)
Assistant Professor Cara Stepp (SAR, BME) (center)

Assistant Professors Douglas Holmes (ME) andCara Stepp (SAR, BME) have received the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award in recognition of their outstanding research and teaching capabilities. Collectively, they will net more than $1 million over the next five years to pursue high-impact projects that combine research and educational goals.

Supported by his award, Holmes will study the mechanics of how thin rods move through soft and fragile media such as tissue and granular materials. Knowledge gained from the study could enable the construction of advanced, autonomous structures capable of navigating around obstacles in such media. Thin rods and other active materials that can bend and fold on command are essential to the engineering of smart needles, soft robotic arms and other flexible devices. 

“The results of this award will help predict the deformation and buckling of slender structures within complex media, while providing a general framework for designing structures that can actively and controllably bend within soft and fragile matter,” said Holmes.

Part of the funding will be used to develop open, online course content designed to improve the general public’s understanding of mechanical engineering.

Stepp, who has a joint appointment in the departments of Speech, Language & Hearing Sciences (Sargent College) and Biomedical Engineering, will use her NSF CAREER award funding to develop new technology to empower severely paralyzed individuals to communicate as quickly and reliably as people with normal speech and motor functioning. The technology could dramatically increase their independence.

“The problem of low information transfer rates (ITR) is a critical one for people with severe speech and motor impairments, who must rely on augmented and alternative communication (AAC) to interact with other people,” said Stepp. “The CAREER award will enable me to develop hardware and software to boost ITR by optimizing human-machine interfaces that support AAC.”

Stepp will also use the funding to create an organization for communication sciences and biomedical engineering students at Boston University in which teams will develop custom solutions for individuals with communication impairments.

To date, 39 College of Engineering faculty members have received NSF CAREER awards during their service to the College.