Monday December 7th, 2015
Boston University Photonics Center
8 St Mary’s Street
Boston, MA 02215
On behalf of the Boston University Initiative on Cities, you are cordially invited to attend Transportation Nudges: Experiments in Improving Urban Mobility, a one-day City Leadership Summit examining the interventions cities are employing to change transportation behavior.
Cities worldwide are experimenting with new ways to tackle congestion and improve urban mobility along with resident health and safety. Many communities are testing novel, low cost interventions to change individual behavior.
Transportation Nudges: Experiments in Improving Urban Mobility will bring together public, private, and academic leaders to examine innovative ways cities can nudge their way to better mobility. On behalf of our co-sponsors Boston University and the City of Boston, we hope you can join us.
Co-founded by former Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Professor of Political Science Graham Wilson, the Initiative on Cities is dedicated to the advancement of urban leadership.
by Christina Polyzos
Theodora Brisimi (ECE), Elli Ntakou (ME, SE), and Yasaman Khazaeni (ECE, SE) attended the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing on October 14-16, 2015 in Houston Texas with the support of CISE and the Division of Systems Engineering.
Theodora Brisimi (ECE) and Elli Ntakou (ME, SE) presented posters. Brisimi (advisor: Ioannis Paschalidis) joined the conference to meet prominent females and expand her professional network by showcasing her work and conversing with women from organizations in her field of expertise. “GHC was inspirational and my participation has been a unique, scientific and social, experience. I was fortunate enough to be part of such a noteworthy event,” Brisimi said.
This conference brings together women from various technological fields to share ideas, network, and partake in professional development activities with over 700 speakers this year. GHC is notably the world’s largest conference for women in technology. It is a unique opportunity for women to assemble and connect with each other, although the conference is open to men who attend to support women in the field.
According to Ntakou (advisor: Michael Caramanis), “the conference had a different feel than the technical conferences that I have attended in the past, in the sense that people put much more effort to relate to you.”
In fact, this year, participants expanded to an overwhelming 12,000 attendees from academia and professionals from different countries and organizations. As a result, to accommodate the influx of participants, the program included ‘clusters’ which were comprised of multiple tracks.
Khazaeni (advisor: Christos Cassandras) primarily related to the track “on Robotics as a Part of Society. This was an example on how things that were fantasy will become reality sooner than we think.” These technology conferences open the road to women who eventually become leaders in their field. “I hope we can carry the message we got from this conference and be part of the movement to help more women join STEM fields.”
In 1994, Anita Borg and Dr. Telle Whitney co-founded this conference with the vision of bringing women technologists together to celebrate achievements, discuss career interests, and present research. The Grace Hopper Celebration incorporates career sessions with technical sessions, including proposal presentations, mentoring workshops, papers, a PhD forum, panel discussions, and a Poster Session. Conference keynote speakers and presenters are leaders in their respective discipline from academia, government and industry such as Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, Manuela M. Veloso, Herbert A. Simon University Professor, Carnegie Mellon University, and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook & Founder of Leanin.
And yes, scientists are that cool and good-looking
Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the plausibility of that opening sandstorm. Are scientists in real life always that cool and funny?
Absolutely, says Paul Withers, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of astronomy. An expert on Mars and its weather, Withers recently saw The Martian. Whatever liberties the movie may have taken with scientific reality, he says, it nails the scientists. “All scientists are that handsome—and beautiful,” he says.
For all that moviegoers are falling in love with Matt Damon the botanist, Meghna Sachdev writes in Science magazine, “the story’s real heartthrob is, well, science.” Withers knows all about that. He is a participating scientist on NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) mission, which has been circling the Red Planet since 2014 to study its upper atmosphere.
BU Today talked with Withers about the parts of the movie that intersect with his Mars expertise and consulted Nathan Phillips, a CAS professor of earth and environment and affiliated ENG professor of systems engineering, who studies the physiology of plants, about those potatoes.
BU Today: Let’s start with the opening scene—are there storms like that on Mars?
Withers: When you have a dust storm in an atmosphere where the surface pressure is scarcely one percent that of Earth—as it is on Mars—it’s incredibly difficult to blow over a steel rocket ship. The wind would huff and puff, but it wouldn’t have enough force to blow the whole house down.
So they wouldn’t have had to abort the mission?
It would still be an unsafe environment to be walking around in, but it wouldn’t severely damage the equipment and not to the extent portrayed. You can have 50- to 100-mile-an-hour winds on Mars. However, it’s such a thin atmosphere that the speed doesn’t pack much of a punch.
Were there other things that seemed implausible to you?
It was difficult to believe that someone would build a giant habitat on the surface of Mars and not put a radio on it. Actually, thinking out loud for a moment, it might be that the antenna for his radio had blown over in the windstorm and he could never get it back.
Let’s bring in Professor Phillips on the botany question. Could Watney really have grown potatoes in his Mars habitat?
Phillips: I haven’t seen the film, but as I imagine it, as long as viable plant material has access to light, water, and nutrients, which I imagine were filtered from waste, and the temperature that’s good for a human (Damon) is generally good for plants, they should grow.
Professor Withers, remember how Matt Damon makes water in the movie—he sets off an explosion—but I wasn’t sure how he got water out of it. Wasn’t there once water on Mars?
The consensus is that once upon a time in its early history there were substantial amounts of stable liquid water existing on the surface of Mars. The evidence for this comes from the chemistry of ancient rocks, which only makes sense if you accept that they were formed in a wet environment, and from the shapes of channels in the surface that look exactly like dry river channels here on Earth. If you left out a bucket of water on Mars today, it would immediately vaporize into the atmosphere and flash away.
What about NASA figuring out how to rescue Watney on Mars?
By the time anyone finds the money to send humans to Mars, he will have been long dead. It’s been 40 years since humans set foot on the moon. Right now America can’t send astronauts into space. The space shuttle has been retired to museums. The successor spacecraft are not yet operational. There are American astronauts in space, but they’re flying up on Russian rockets. There is an active US human space flight program—it’s just using someone else’s ships.
Did you like the way Mars looked in the movie? It was so red.
That was pretty cool, I liked the colors of things, the expanses of sand everywhere. A couple of things looked strange to my eye. The predominant geological features were those towering buttes with very sharp cliffs on them. I’m not much of a Mars geologist, but I don’t think those are major terrain feature on Mars. I would expect to see a lot more circular features called impact craters, which form when errant asteroids crash into the surface of Mars. Those are very common on Mars, unlike on Earth, because the geology of Mars is not active enough to erase them quickly.
Watney got really cold when he was driving around in the rover without the heater to save energy. How cold is Mars?
The temperature is around 50 degrees below zero to 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. In order for humans and even robots to function on Mars, they need to have a heater right next to them keeping them warm. The rovers that are driving around on Mars have got little heaters next to their critical computers because those elements couldn’t survive the ambient temperatures.
A lot of people probably didn’t get the time thing with “sols.” What’s a sol?
It was ridiculous they didn’t define that at the start of the movie. On Mars a sol is one day. The Earth rotates on its axis every 24 hours. Mars rotates, coincidentally, every 24 hours and 40 minutes.
Do space scientists work in big teams like they do in the movie?
Space exploration is all about working on teams. In my work on the MAVEN spacecraft, I’m part of a team of a couple of hundred scientists and engineers across the world working to see the spacecraft safely along its journey.
Do they joke back and forth like in the movie?
That pops up in meetings, if only to alleviate the boredom and ennui that any long series of meeting will engender. If you’re part of the team, that means the team has to collaborate and that means lots and lots of meetings.
Overall, how would you rate the movie?
I think it was a great movie and it portrayed a fairly realistic Mars. I look forward to the day when humans are exploring the surface of Mars in the way that Matt Damon and his crew were.
When do you think that might be?
I think it’s going to take a few years—quite a few years.
Sara Rimer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this article originally appeared on BU Research.
Open to All Current College of Engineering Students: Undergrad/Masters/PhD
The College of Engineering is looking for great high resolution images that can help us convey the richness of our students’ involvement in engineering research, field work, academics, careers, and campus and student life.
To enter the contest, go here: http://www.bu.edu/eng/photocontest/
Eligibility: We invite all current undergraduate, graduate, and PhD students to submit up to 3 photos between now and November 23rd, 2015.
Prizes: Your submission will be first judged by your own department or division, which will award one 1st prize of $100, one 2nd prize of $75, and one 3rd prize of $50.
These winners will then be eligible to win the College’s Grand Prize of $250.
All prize winners will be announced on December 14th. Winners will be asked to pick up their prizes at the Office of Communications, 200 Cummington Mall, Boston, MA 02115 before leaving for the semester.
Judges: All photos will be evaluated by the College’s Communications Team, made up of the Communications Liaisons for each Department and Division and by the Dean’s Office of Communications. The decisions of the judges are final.
Deadlines: Submissions are due by November 23rd, 2015
- You must be a current student submitting your own work.
- Limit of 3 photo submissions per student.
- Images must be your own original content and free of any copyright obligations. The winning photos and any of the photos submitted will be the property of the BU College of Engineering and its departments and divisions, which will retain all rights of usage.
- All photos submitted must be horizontal format. They must be high resolution .jpeg or .png files of a minimum of 1MB in size (i.e., suitable for printing at 300 dpi or greater).
- If you take a photo in a laboratory of students working, everyone must be wearing the appropriate safety equipment (for example, safety glasses).
- If other people are included in your photograph, you must include the names and affiliations of each person in the photograph in your submission form.
ENG alums’ class project earns spot at Black Hat USA 2015
The Square Reader, used by millions of businesses in the United States, could at one point be converted in less than 10 minutes into a skimmer that could steal and save credit card information, according to three recent ENG grads. Their findings will be presented today at the Black Hat USA 2015 cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas.
Computer engineering grads Alexandrea Mellen (ENG’15), John Moore (ENG’15), and Artem Losev (ENG’15) discovered the vulnerability last year in a project for their Cybersecurity class, taught by Ari Trachtenberg, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering and systems engineering.“The beauty of the hardware attack itself was that there would be no sure way to know if it was the merchant with the Square Reader that actually took your information,” Mellen says.
The trio also found that Square Register software could be hacked to enable unauthorized transactions at a later date.
“The merchant could swipe the card an extra time at the point of sale,” says Moore. “You think nothing of it, and a week later when you’re not around, I charge you $20, $30, $100, $200… You might not notice that charge. I get away with some extra money of yours.”
Moore, who was valedictorian of his ENG class, says the three reported the vulnerabilities to Square last fall, and the company quickly moved to close them. Square also sent Moore a $500 “bounty” for the software hack.
Moore says there is no evidence that either of the vulnerabilities has been used to scam credit card holders, but warns that the group’s findings raise red flags for the fast-growing mobile commerce field in general.
“This isn’t just about Square,” he says. “Over the past six years, mobile point-of-sale has really taken off…and all of these providers are offering new hardware and software to process payments, and customers are trusting their credit card information to new devices that haven’t been tested as much as traditional point-of-sale devices. They’re interacting with the personal cell phone of the merchant in a lot of cases. There’s just a lot going on.”
The three turned their class project into a paper that submitted to the Black Hat conference and waited two months before learning it had been accepted, which was a huge thing, “because Black Hat is the premiere information security conference in the world,” Mellen says. The weeklong event draws everyone from hackers to government officials. Mellen and Moore will give a 25-minute presentation on their work at the conference, where they get free passes to the briefings at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, worth $2,195.
Trachtenberg says students have derived papers from class projects before, but none were undergraduates and none of the conferences have had the stature of Black Hat. “This is a conference with a very high impact,” he says. “There are 10,000 security professionals that pay a lot of money to come to this conference and listen to the latest interesting security research.”
Vulnerabilities in payment software present more of an inconvenience than a financial risk, he says, at least for consumers who check their credit card statements regularly, because losses are generally covered by the credit card companies.
“The bigger reason to be scared is that Square had security in mind from the very beginning and designed these to be secure,” he says. “They should have known better than to have left these kind of holes. It kind of bodes poorly for other vendors who might not be taking security quite as seriously and what kind of problems they might be having.”
Square doesn’t disclose how many businesses use its software or how much revenue it derives by taking a small percentage of their transactions, but Bloomberg quoted one analyst as estimating that the company took in $300 million in merchant fees in 2013.
Mellen and Moore say they made Square aware of the two potential problems late last fall, and the company was receptive to their warning.
Through the winter and spring, Square staffers discussed possible solutions and their difficulties with Moore on a page on the HackerOne platform, and they eventually settled on a solution that would alert the company if the hack was ever used.
Square did not respond in detail and declined to discuss specific solutions on the record with BU Today, but a spokesperson offered a statement: “With so many sellers relying on Square to run their business, we’ve made protecting them a priority. We protect sellers by encrypting transactions at the moment of swipe, tokenizing data once it reaches our servers, and monitoring every transaction to detect suspicious behavior. We’ve also recently migrated the small percentage of remaining sellers who use an out-of-date, unencrypted card reader to new hardware. Today, those unencrypted card readers no longer work. We’re always making advances in security, and we appreciate John Moore’s research, which encouraged us to speed up our deprecation plans.”
All three alums have other plans now. In September, Mellen will return to running her own company, Terrapin Computing LLC in Cambridge, which sells four iOS apps. Moore will start work as a software engineer for Google, and Losev will continue his computer science education at New York University.
Moore says another lesson to draw from their experience has nothing to do with hackers or credit cards and everything to do with the classroom.
“Don’t be afraid to take on a project that goes a little bit above and beyond what’s required,” he says. “We could have done a project that was a lot simpler and easier, but instead we decided to do something that was quite challenging for us. We learned a lot in the process. We put in a lot more time than we expected, and it ended up paying off in the long run.”
NSF sponsors summer research by undergrads, high-school teachers
Lauren Strong, a community college student from Pennsylvania, was searching for an internship that would allow her to develop her engineering skills and feel more at home in a lab. Local high school science teacher George DeGregorio was looking for ways to develop his underprivileged students’ interest in science. Both are pursuing their goals thanks to two new summer nanotechnology research programs offered at BU’s Photonics Center. The purpose of the programs—both funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF)—is to promote diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.
Strong recalls her first year in college, at the University of Pennsylvania in 2008. “I was in computer science, and in my class I was the only woman, and the only black woman, and that really says a lot,” she says.
DeGregorio, a science teacher at East Boston High School, says that most of his students “couldn’t even imagine themselves being a scientist. There seems to be a disconnect, and I am trying to break those walls down.”
The purpose of the two programs, NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates and NSF Research Experiences for Teachers, “is to make authentic research experiences available for underrepresented minority undergraduates or for teachers who work in underresourced schools,” according to Bennett Goldberg, director of BU’s STEM Education Initiatives and a principal investigator of the teachers’ program. The programs allow participants “to engage in the deep learning that happens with getting involved in research, the whole cycle of inquiry, because that’s so important to developing the skill sets and minds of students,” says Goldberg, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of physics and a College of Engineering professor of electrical and computer engineering and of biomedical engineering.
“What we tried very hard to do this year was focus strongly on diversity among the students that were coming in and to focus on teachers who were serving underprivileged Boston-area schools,” says Photonics Center director Thomas Bifano, an ENG professor of mechanical engineering.
Strong is one of 11 students enrolled in the undergraduate program, about half of them from colleges that offer little in the way of research opportunities in engineering disciplines such as materials science and biomedical engineering. As a computer science major at Penn, she had felt her odd-woman-out status and found that the predominantly young and male engineers often “don’t take you as seriously as they should. They live in a bubble and they’re not used to seeing people of color and women doing these things and excelling at these things,” she says.
She left school after a year and traveled, working in China for a while as an au pair, before returning to college last year at Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania, still planning a career in science or engineering.
The college “does have an engineering program but doesn’t offer any research opportunities,” she says. “So you’re pretty much just taking their core classes. You’re not really getting any hands-on experience with engineering or photonics or anything like that.”
She discovered the BU program on a Facebook page for women engineers while looking for a summer internship and was surprised when her last-minute application was accepted. Since arriving on campus, she’s been working with graduate students in the lab of Roberto Paiella, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering. Her research involves studying different processes to etch a silicon wafer to a depth of only 500 nanometers, just one preparatory step in a complex project to transmit data between chips via laser.
“It’s completely new to me—I never did anything like that,” Strong says. “Here, they kinda just throw you in. I’m like, ‘Uh, you want me to touch this $100,000-plus equipment?’ I was nervous about breaking everything I touched.”
But she’s adjusted quickly, and the work is paying real benefits in skills and experience that will set her apart from other undergraduates, she says. And it will also look good on her transcript when applying to four-year colleges next year and later to graduate school.
“It’s everything,” she says. “Coming here, working with the grad students, seeing what they’re doing…gives me ideas for what I want to do. It allows me to focus a lot more on the end goal.”
“Lauren came into my office the other day and said, ‘Helen, I’ve been bitten! I’ve been bitten by the research bug!’” says Helen E. Fawcett (GRS’97), an ENG research assistant professor of mechanical engineering, Photonics Center manager of operations and technical programs, and co–principal investigator of both NSF programs. “And I said, ‘Uh-oh, because you were sure computer science was your major.’”
A thrilling, occasionally boggling experience
The Research Experiences for Teachers program brings teachers from high-need Boston-area high schools and community colleges to BU to work with faculty on research projects. The goal is for them to return to their classroom and convey to their students the excitement created by doing hands-on research.
DeGregorio’s parents grew up in East Boston, and he spent a lot of time there as a child. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from UMass Amherst and a master’s in science education from Suffolk University. “I wasn’t interested in going corporate,” he says. “Teaching is: I don’t feel like I have a job in the traditional sense. I have a lot of autonomy in the classroom to be myself. I get to make these connections and help kids. It’s a way to do something positive.”
He has spent his entire career at East Boston High, where he teaches a variety of life sciences classes. He says he feels a deep connection to the school, which his mother and his aunts and uncles attended. Many of today’s students are from Central American immigrant families, rather than the predominantly Italian families when he was young.
“It’s always been a great place for me,” DeGregorio says. “There have been challenges for each of the 17 years I’ve been there. It’s never been a wealthy neighborhood. It’s usually been an immigrant neighborhood.” Almost all of his students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, he says, and for many, perhaps a majority, English is not their primary language.
“We’re trying to move the school forward,” he says.
He applied to the BU program instead of teaching summer school and says it’s a thrilling and occasionally boggling experience: “You’re working in real labs that are producing real scientific papers that are influencing industry. Other projects are sprouting from the ones they’ve got going here. It’s the real deal.”
DeGregorio has spent the summer working with grad students in Bifano’s lab, setting up a high-tech optical system that among other things can look below the surface of live tissue at the cellular level. As part of his research, he found himself at one point dispatched to the Medical Campus to pick up some nematodes that had been genetically engineered so their neurons fluoresce. “There’s science fiction coming to life in here,” he says with a laugh.
But his goals for the summer are serious and long-term. “Whatever connections can be made,” he says, “they can help students perceive themselves in science, number one, in college, number two, and at a prestigious institution like BU, number three.”
The programs have been interwoven to a degree. The undergrad program runs from June 8 to August 14, the teacher program from July 6 to August 14. In most cases the arriving teachers were partnered with the undergraduates, who had already found their feet at BU, a little bit of a role reversal. “I worried about it, especially in my lab,” says Xin Zhang, an ENG professor of mechanical engineering and co–principal investigator of the undergraduate program. “Turned out I was thrilled to see them happily and professionally working together.”
The Photonics Center will make an ongoing effort to help both groups transfer their summer’s experiences back to their classroom.
“We’re not going to say in August, ‘Bye! Great knowing you! See ya!’ We’re going to keep in touch with these students, help them out for grad school,” says Fawcett. “We’re not going to say to the teachers, ‘Great, have fun putting that in your classroom!’ The expectation is we are creating a community of nanontechnology STEM teachers, and each year we’re going to have a STEM seminar…and grow that community.”
There’s also a concerted effort to provide a well-rounded experience for both the undergraduates, who live on campus, and the teachers, including brown-bag lunches on topics from the fundamentals of photonics to getting into grad school, as well as field trips to the Museum of Science and the Freedom Trail.
“There’s a very strong sense in this community of the value of STEM education, the value of education in general,” Bifano says. “It’s not a do-good thing just to do good; it’s a thing that we more or less have built into the cloth of the place.”
Master’s students can now specialize in these fast-growing fields
By Janet A. Smith (ENG) and Amy Laskowski (BU Today)
In an effort to train its graduate students in rapidly expanding fields, this fall the College of Engineering will begin offering three new master’s degree specializations in the fields of data analytics, cybersecurity, and robotics.
“The corporate sector has voiced frustration with the shortage of trained engineers in key sectors of the innovation economy,” says Kenneth Lutchen, dean of ENG. “By combining a master’s degree in a foundational engineering discipline with a specialization in a fast-growing, interdisciplinary field, students will be well positioned to meet this need and impact society. This unique combination should greatly enhance the power of their degrees in the marketplace.”
The specialization programs are open to all master’s degree candidates in ENG. Students who opt to add a specialization will select at least four of their eight required courses from a list specific to that field. Specializations will be noted with the degree title on students’ final transcripts.
Classes for the fall 2015 semester begin September 2, and master’s degree students who are interested in focusing on one of the three fields should contact the Graduate Programs Office for more information.
Two years ago, the Harvard Business Review noted that jobs in the field of data analytics are expected to continue to increase. Glassdoor.com reports that the average data scientist salary is currently $118,700. ENG’s new data analytics specialization will emphasize decisions, algorithms, and analytics grounded in engineering application areas. Students choosing to specialize in data analytics can expect to find jobs in finance, health care, urban systems, commerce, pharmaceuticals, and other engineering fields.
Recent, brazen cyber attacks on companies such as Target and Sony Pictures as well as the data breach thought to originate in China that compromised the records of 21.5 million Americans who had applied for government security clearances over the past 15 years highlight the growing importance of cybersecurity.
ENG’s cybersecurity specialization will teach students security-oriented theory and train them in practical cybersecurity applications including software engineering, embedded systems, and networking. It will also provide a context for cybersecurity threats and mitigation strategies ranging from protecting corporate and government systems, to home and building automation accessories and medical devices.
Global spending on robotics is predicted to increase to $67 billion by 2025 from just $15 billion in 2010. Today, robotics are used in everything from prosthetics and telemedicine to autonomous vehicles, feedback control systems, and brain-machine interface. The new ENG specialization will prepare master’s students for careers in research and development and deployment and operation of advanced individual or multi-coordinated robotic systems.
Tom Little, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering and systems engineering and associate dean of educational initiatives, says these new specializations are meant to be complementary to the numerous existing master’s degree programs. Come fall, someone getting a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, for instance, could specialize in cybersecurity, and learn how to prevent a car’s computer system from being hacked.
“These are all very exciting areas that are emerging,” Little says. “ENG is active in doing research, but also active in developing the next generation of scientists and engineers who can contribute to companies who want to build applications that have an impact.”
Azer Bestavros confers with defense, homeland security officials
By Rich Barlow
This is the summer of our cyber-discontent: earlier this month, the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) disclosed a hack attack, believed to have originated in China, that raided personal data on 21.5 million Americans who had been subjected to government background checks in the last 15 years. That breach, believed to be the largest ever of US government systems, led to the resignation of the head of OPM and followed a related attack last month that stole information on more than 4 million federal workers.
On July 8, a BU expert met with government staffers to talk about cybersecurity. The OPM hack was not the subject of the discussions, says Azer Bestavros (SE, CS), director of the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering. But the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Homeland Security (DHS) are interested in several Hariri initiatives, including the Modular Approach to Cloud Security (MACS), a $10 million, five-year, National Science Foundation–funded project to help develop information systems with several layers of security measures.
A professor of computer science at the College of Arts & Sciences and Systems Engineering in the College of Engineering, Bestavros also briefed officials on the Massachusetts Open Cloud (MOC), a computing cloud Hariri is developing that he says will be more secure than other clouds. (In cloud computing, users have on-demand access to shared, massive, off-site computer resources.) The information on BU’s projects was “very well received” by the officials, he says.
BU Today spoke with Bestavros about his meeting with government officials and the recent cybersecurity breaches.
BU Today: How did your meeting with DOD and Homeland Security officials come about?
Bestavros: These meetings were organized by our federal relations team as part of our ongoing effort to evangelize BU’s computing and data-driven research, especially as it relates to research at the nexus of big data, cybersecurity, and cloud computing.
At the DOD, the discussions focused on how our MACS project and the Massachusetts Open Cloud might provide operational cybersecurity capabilities for [supporting] the IT infrastructure for the DOD, and also on opportunities to better engage with the Army, Air Force, and Navy basic research offices. At the DHS, the discussion focused on the challenges associated with applications that require sharing of big data assets across agencies and corporations, including support for data security and privacy.
Were you surprised by the theft of government information on Americans who’d applied for security clearances?
It did not come up in our discussions, and this incident does not surprise me at all. The problem with this approach to securing our systems is that it is reactive: we wait until antiquated systems are compromised, and then offer some remedies. [Two-step] authentication is certainly better than good-old passwords on sticky notes. Improving a system after a breach may make us feel good, but we would be in a far better position if we realize that cybersecurity has its costs and that it is far better to pay for cybersecurity at the outset, as opposed to paying for it after significant damage is done. Stolen information cannot be “un-stolen.”
That hack and a previous one are believed to have originated in China. Is that nation the major source of hack attacks, and are they committed by the Chinese government or private hackers?
I don’t know, and even if the sources of such attacks could be traced to a specific country, it is not easy to ascertain if the perpetrators are operating from that country, let alone government-sponsored. And which government? For example, botnets operating in China could be used by hackers in Russia to attack targets in the US. Likewise, hackers in the US could be using botnets in—[name] your favorite country—to attack targets back in the US.
Tech companies and others are worried about a proposal to give the government a “back door” to their online data.
This did not come up, since the officials I met are concerned with operational challenges at the DOD and DHS, as opposed to intelligence capabilities. That said, I have strong opinions about this! It is a really bad idea for many reasons.
First, “back doors” have a way of becoming “front doors.” If we don’t want the bad guys to break through our cyber-doors to steal our data assets or listen in on our communications, then the [fewer] doors we have, the better. Besides, distinguishing good guys from bad guys is subjective. Today’s good guys may be tomorrow’s bad guys, and there are always the occasional bad apples in the mix. Here I note that even the discussion of this subject hurts the US tech sector—especially in the cloud services space—since they risk losing on international contracts if it is perceived that there are sovereignty risks.
In order to talk about alternatives, we have to make sure that our laws are caught up with the times, and for that to happen, our society has to be informed so as to push lawmakers to do the right things, as opposed to letting technology people effectively dictate the laws of the land, by virtue of the software they develop, without society weighing in.
Have private companies and individuals done more than the government to protect themselves? Is there something we can learn about cybersecurity from other governments?
It is not entirely clear to me that the weaknesses in cybersecurity that were uncovered in government systems are necessarily worse than what was and continues to be uncovered in privately operated systems. Unlike breaches of government-operated systems, which we eventually learn about, breaches of privately operated systems may be hidden from the public or remain unknown. Also, in cybersecurity, it is always the weakest link that matters. In fact, breaches of government-operated systems could well have started with breaches of a privately operated system, or a personal mobile phone of an employee, etc. Cybersecurity is not a problem that can be addressed piecemeal.
Our MACS project recognizes the importance of a disciplined approach to cybersecurity that allows the security of a system as a whole to be derived from the security of its components. It is an ambitious goal because such a holistic approach must leverage a wide range of expertise from pure and applied cryptography and theoretical computer science, to low-level hardware, networking, operating systems, and distributed systems.
Power Grid Optimization Software Lowers Costs, Boosts Renewables
By Mark Dwortzan
In its June issue, Popular Science recognized Research Associate Professor Pablo Ruiz (ME) as one of 12 trailblazing energy technology innovators. Ruiz leads a team of researchers that has designed software that locates electric power grid congestion and reroutes power to less active transmission lines. Uncorking power grid bottlenecks this way could enable utilities not only to prevent blackouts but also to tap a higher percentage of electric power from renewable sources such as the sun and wind. The payoff: $1 billion to $2 billion annual savings in power generation costs.
To reap these benefits, no hardware upgrades are required; all a utility needs to do is install the software.
Supported by a $2.4 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Programs Agency (ARPA-E) and additional funding from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the research team has spent the past two-and-a-half years advancing algorithms to help grid operators more actively manage power flows by optimally turning entire power lines on and off to reduce congestion, increase utilization of renewable resources, lower carbon dioxide emissions and make the power grid more resilient to disruptions from failure, natural disaster or attack.
The team consists of researchers from Boston University—including Professors Michael Caramanis (ME, SE) and Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE)—Tufts University and Northeastern University; The Brattle Group, an energy consulting firm where Ruiz serves as a senior associate; PJM Interconnection, which runs the largest power market in the US covering many eastern states; and software companies Newton Energy Group, AIMMS and Polaris Systems Optimization.
“Drawing on our combined expertise in power transmission systems operations, optimization, machine learning and electric power markets, we have advanced algorithms designed to make power grids more resilient and accommodating to clean energy sources,” said Ruiz.
When power transmission lines reach their capacity in a particular region during high demand periods, controllers have little choice but to tap local power plants to keep the electricity flowing and prevent blackouts. This practice, which favors expensive, local generation sources such as coal and natural gas over cheaper, typically more remote, renewable sources such as wind farms and solar arrays, adds an estimated $4 billion to $8 billion per year to the cost of running the US power grid. As more and more renewable generation sources join the grid and increase transmission line congestion, that price is expected to rise substantially.
The researchers have developed algorithms and software that can produce short-term changes in the power transmission network that redistribute power across the network and utilize renewable sources without overloading transmission lines. Based on a fundamental law of physics dictating that electric current is distributed along the paths of least resistance, the algorithms are designed to discover, in real time, preferred reconfigurations of the transmission network. Out of tens of thousands of transmission lines, the software selects a few, perhaps four or five, whose connection or disconnection will minimize the “spilling” or waste of inexpensive wind or solar generation that typically occurs during high-congestion periods.
“By removing a small number of critical transmission lines, you change the relative resistances across alternative network paths, and electric power redistributes itself, relieving the congestion,” said Caramanis, the project’s co-principal investigator. “If you disconnect the right lines, you can relieve congestion, increase use of inexpensive power sources and lower congestion costs.”
Two years ago, the researchers implemented initial algorithms to reproduce real-life situations in collaboration with the PJM transmission system. Since then, they have worked to make their software more practical for power grid engineers in the control room.
First, they developed a much higher-precision model of a power transmission system based on the PJM system, which disperses electric power to approximately 100,000 nodes in the transmission network. Second, they improved the algorithms so that when an operator reconfigures transmission lines, the change will provide lower congestion and power generation costs for at least four hours. Third, they considerably increased renewable energy transmissions in its simulations, reducing wasted wind and solar electric power by 50 percent.
Ruiz and his collaborators are now working to transition the technology to industry. If the software is adopted across PJM or other vast transmission networks, controllers seeking to relieve congestion will have the capability to connect and disconnect selected transmission lines every half hour or hour as needed, replacing a traditional, tedious and error-prone process with a 21st-century, automated, high-precision tool.
Ruiz presents the concept behind the team’s transmission network “Topology Control Algorithms” (TCA) in a video produced by ARPA-E.
How a National BU Research Center is Transforming Cancer Care
By Mark Dwortzan
In the 1980s computing shifted from room-sized mainframes to personal computers that could easily fit on the desktop. For most users, there was no more need to submit batch jobs to a queue, wait hours for a printout, and walk down the hall to pick it up. All of that could now be done in short order from the comfort of one’s swivel chair. Today cancer care is undergoing a similar transformation, as researchers advance new technologies designed to shift the action away from large, specialized facilities and toward smaller, local clinics and patients’ homes—and return test results within minutes rather than days. It’s a trend that promises to considerably reduce the costs, complexities and inconveniences of cancer care, make treatment available to more patients in low-resource settings, and achieve better health outcomes for patients in the US and around the world.
To effect this transformation will require a deft combination of biomedical engineering and clinical expertise, and that’s exactly what the Center for Future Technologies in Cancer Care (CFTCC) at Boston University brings to the table. Launched in July 2012 through a five-year, $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Center identifies, prototypes and provides early clinical assessment of innovative point-of-care technologies designed to treat, screen, diagnose and monitor cancers. One of three institutions within the NIH/National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) Point-of-Care Technologies Research Network (POCTRN), CFTCC is the only POCTRN cancer center and one of the only engineering-focused cancer research centers in the nation.
Largely a virtual center that supports researchers around the country in the development and clinical assessment of emerging point-of-care (POC) technologies and the training of clinicians and other potential stakeholders in their use, CFTCC operates two prototyping facilities on the BU campus. One, located on the fifth floor of the BU Photonics Center, is used for early-stage prototyping; the other, housed at the Fraunhofer Center for Manufacturing Innovation, produces more advanced prototypes. As they draw upon these prototyping facilities and the Engineering Product Innovation Center to advance technologies from the lab bench to the marketplace, Center researchers are guided by the NIH’s ultimate aim of lowering healthcare costs while improving the quality of care.
“We’d like to see a shift from a lot of high-cost imaging studies and resource-intensive, late-stage cancer care to early care, smarter care and prevention. In the future, we hope that the kinds of technologies our researchers are developing will become the standard of care,” says Professor Catherine Klapperich (BME, ME, MSE), who directs the CFTCC. “We’re trying to give inventors—scientists, engineers and clinicians—a springboard to get their technologies to a place where they can become marketable products.”
Accelerating Innovation from Bench to Bedside
In its first three years, the Center has funded 12 projects, two of which have produced devices that are now being commercialized. Among the most promising new POC technologies to emerge from the Center are a noninvasive chemotherapy monitoring device, a mobile app that provides cancer patients with easy access to medical information and support, and a screening test for melanoma.
Assistant Professor Darren Roblyer (BME) has used CFTCC funding and prototyping facilities to advance a noninvasive optical device that monitors the effectiveness of chemotherapy at the point of care for breast cancer patients. Wearable by the patient or handheld by a clinician, the tumor-tracking “imaging pad” that Roblyer is developing transmits near-infrared light that penetrates deep inside cancer tissue. Some of the light is absorbed within cancer tumors and some is scattered back to a detector on the pad. Based on the pad’s continuous optical measurements of the absorption and scattering of light within a tumor, a clinician could, in real time, determine rapid changes in the tumor’s structure and metabolism that indicate its resistance to current treatment. A new course of treatment could then be implemented.
Now in production at the Fraunhofer Center and suitable for clinical testing, Roblyer’s device sharply reduces the size, cost and response time of existing chemotherapy monitoring technology so it can be more easily applied at the point of care.
“This is a technology that used to be the size of a refrigerator just about a decade ago,” says Roblyer. “Because we’re using new digital technologies to both synthesize our signal and to measure, we can reduce the size of the device to that of a briefcase and the cost by an order of magnitude.”
Another CFTCC-funded project that’s poised to enter the marketplace is the Personal Health Network, a mobile app that enables cancer patients and their family members to communicate more effectively with care coordination nurses, oncologists and other specialists. Spearheaded by Dr. Katherine Kim, assistant professor at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at University of California-Davis, in collaboration with Tiatros, a digital health technology company based in San Francisco, the app functions like a confidential social network. Once logged onto that network, patients can interact with health providers through video chat and email, and view their plans of care, appointment schedules and a library of medical and self-management information.
“Support from the Center makes possible the optimization of this technology for patients,” says Kim. “We hope to be part of the growing movement that asks how technology can fill the gaps patients experience in the coordination of complex care. Our goal is to bend the cost curve and at the same time improve health.”
University of Texas-Austin Biochemistry Professor Andrew Ellington and BU School of Medicine Professor and Chair of Dermatology Dr. Rhoda Alani used their CFTCC grant to develop an integrated microfluidic platform that tests for cancer biomarkers (it functions like a diagnostic paper test-strip), and a handheld electronic reader that can wirelessly transmit test results. Focusing initially on detecting the recurrence of melanoma, the researchers designed the platform to detect cancer biomarkers in circulating nucleic acid (CNA), which consists of extracellular genetic material (DNA and RNA) that moves freely in the blood. These information-rich molecules could be used to indicate the status of remote tumors, possibly circumventing the need for costly tissue biopsies. Through their novel platform, currently contained within a plastic cartridge, Ellington and Alani aim to transition molecular diagnostic testing to the point-of-care setting.
“The beauty of this is that it’s extremely cheap and easy to use,” says Klapperich. “In three years, it’s gone from Andy and Rhoda meeting through the Center to a working device that’s being prototyped by a commercial entity.”
Streamlining Cancer Care
The melanoma biomarker test is one of a number of CFTCC projects that may enable a clinician—and, ultimately, the patient—to administer a rapid test and report the results via the Internet. With that goal in mind, Klapperich is currently working on a microfluidic test that screens for HPV (human papillomavirus, which can lead to cervical cancer) and returns results within minutes rather than days. Other projects, including an app Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) is co-developing, aim to boost the numbers of people in high-risk, low-compliance populations who get screened for colon and other cancers.
One of the greatest potential benefits of POC screening is to enable clinicians and patients to quickly and easily distinguish between nonaggressive cancers and those likely to spread rapidly and cause illness. Using molecular diagnostics to accurately detect cancer biomarkers in body fluids, such tests could do everything from eliminating unnecessary surgery for nonaggressive tumors to replacing the mammogram with a blood test.
“What are the early molecular changes, and how can we detect them most efficiently? Those are the kinds of questions we try to focus on at the Center,” says Klapperich. “How can we assist clinicians not just in identifying tumors, but by querying the cancer and quantifying the level of risk to the patient? In the last 10 years, exciting tools have emerged that allow us to quantify biomarkers in blood in new ways.”
Even as researchers develop faster, better and cheaper screening technologies, they must also find ways to sell those disruptive technologies to the clinical community.
To overcome potential resistance to the innovations they’re advancing, CFTCC engineers, clinicians, public health practitioners and technology transfer experts spend considerable time on assessing clinical needs. Their collective goal is to determine what technologies will have the biggest impact on improving the healthcare delivery experience for both physicians and patients.
“When you get a diagnosis of cancer, you’re basically entering a years-long healthcare odyssey where you see an array of different providers, take an insane number of tests and endure uncomfortable procedures,” says Klapperich. “If we can mitigate some of those stress points along the way, that’s really our goal.”
See video for an overview of the Center for Future Technologies in Cancer Care.