By Rich Barlow, BU Today
Beholding creation, Christopher Schneider longs to understand the forces—evolution, environment, history—that have woven the astounding tapestry of living things. He researches how animal ecology acts with those forces in a given region, especially the tropics, to create new species and maintain biodiversity. His teaching, he says, aims to give students “direct experience with organisms in nature.”
Which is why they must tread carefully around alligators.
Schneider’s research and his instructional prowess, including a field trip to Florida for a herpetology class last spring, helped to make him one of 21 Charles River Campus faculty members elevated to full professor recently—in Schneider’s case, in the College of Arts & Sciences biology department.
Director of BU’s Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology, Schneider has contributed to our understanding of biodiversity (he led the discovery several years ago of more than 100 species of tree frogs. He also trumpets the peril that biodiversity faces from climate change and the conversion of wild habitats to farming and other uses. “We are living in an age during which our actions threaten the world with the sixth great mass extinction in the history of life,” he says, adding that such disaster could be avoided if humans can only adopt more sustainable lifestyles. “Time,” however, “is not on our side,” he says.
While Schneider studies the vast interconnectedness of nature, Kamil Ekinci views the infinitesimally minute world of nanotechnology. Ekinci—now Professor Ekinci (ME, MSE) at the College of Engineering—earned his promotion in part by developing techniques to build nanoscale devices and to measure extremely small signals coming from these devices. His work, which promises many practical uses, including biomedicine, won him a National Science Foundation CAREER Award and a visiting fellowship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology.
Several new professors are known for pushing the boundaries of traditional academic responsibility. Michael Reynolds, elevated at the College of Fine Arts—doesn’t confine himself to his BU charges. Trying to reverse a decline in string instrument instruction in the late ’90s, Reynolds, an accomplished cellist and member of the Muir String Quartet, founded the Classics for Kids Foundation, which gives matching grants for instruments to schools and art groups nationally, especially for underserved kids. “Strong music programs have a very positive ripple effect on a school’s academics and student behavior,” he says.
At BU, Reynolds teaches his students ensemble management and entrepreneurship in music: “I spend a lot of time talking with them about finding best fits down the road for them, whether it be performing, teaching, arts administration, the growing world of musical entrepreneurship, or all of the above.” Winner of a Grammy and other awards, he knows what he’s talking about, having performed almost 2,000 concerts around the world (and a PBS broadcast from the White House during the Reagan administration).
As well as Christopher Schneider, Kamil Ekinci, and Michael Reynolds, the other promoted professors are:
Thomas Berger, CAS professor of international relations
Berger studies German and Japanese politics, focusing on nationalism, identity, and security. His War, Guilt and World Politics after World War II was named one of 2013’s best books by Foreign Affairs magazine. He is now writing a comparative study of alliance politics. His articles and essays have appeared in such publications as International Security, Review of International Studies, German Politics, and World Affairs Quarterly.
Sean Elliott, CAS professor of chemistry
Elliott helped pioneer the study of electron transfer in metal-requiring proteins, using electrochemistry and spectroscopy. His dozens of journal articles, papers, and international talks are widely cited. He has won an NSF CAREER Award, two Research Corporation for Science Advancement Collaborative Innovation awards, BU’s Gitner Award, and the CAS Templeton Award for innovation and excellence in teaching.
Robert Pollack, CAS professor of mathematics and statistics
Pollack is an internationally known numbers theorist whose research is NSF-funded and whose papers have been published worldwide in the Annals of Mathematics, lnventiones Mathematicae, and Duke Mathematical Journal. He won BU’s Gitner Award for Innovation in Teaching with Technology.
Leonid Reyzin, CAS professor of computer science
Reyzin is an internationally known cryptography researcher studying the minimal assumptions needed for provably secure communication (such as user authentication and network security). He has helped to develop cryptography standards and consulted for industry. He won an NSF CAREER Award and the CAS Neu Family Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Daniel Segré, CAS biology and ENG bioinformatics and biomedical engineering
Segré uses theoretical and computational modeling and experimental tests to unravel cellular metabolism in microbes, yielding biomedical advances. With almost $8 million from the NIH, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense, he has written dozens of articles in leading publications and was a DuPont Horizons in Biotechnology distinguished speaker.
Irene Zaderenko, CAS professor of romance studies
Zadarenko specializes in the prose and medieval epic poetry of Spain, especially the Poema de mio Cid. She wrote two books on the poem and many journal articles on Spain’s Middle Ages. She is a regular on the lecture-and-panel circuit at conferences in the United States, Spain, Argentina, Italy, Mexico, and Canada.
Christopher Daly, College of Communication professor of journalism
Daly teaches reporting techniques and ethics to budding journalists. He writes a blog for learners of diverse backgrounds. He has written many scholarly essays, thousands of magazine and newspaper articles, and several books, including the centuries-spanning history Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism (2012).
Calin Belta, ENG professor of mechanical engineering and systems engineering
Belta helps answer important questions in engineering and systems biology with work in robotics and control, for which he develops computational tools, including network systems. A senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Belta is an associate editor of the SIAM Journal on Control and Optimization and has received an Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Award and an NSF CAREER Award.
Edward Damiano, ENG professor of biomedical engineering
Damiano, famous for his development of a “bionic pancreas” for Type 1 diabetes sufferers, specializes in endocrinology and biomechanics. Last November’s University Lecturer, Damiano has raised more than $14 million for his research from such donors as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. He has written dozens of journal articles and organized numerous seminars.
Martin Herbordt, ENG professor of electrical & computer engineering
Herbordt, a scholar of computer architectures and high-performance computing, researches accelerating algorithms that can be used in areas such as bioinformatics and computational biology. He created a commercially successful software package, has written widely cited articles and presentations, and received NSF, NIH, and industry grants, as well as IBM’s Faculty Award.
Catherine Klapperich, ENG professor of biomedical engineering and materials science & engineering
Klapperich integrates systems science and engineering to design diagnostic, cancer screening, and treatment-monitoring tools for underserved groups. A Kern Innovation Faculty Fellow, she directs the NIH-funded Center for Future Technologies in Cancer Care and the Laboratory for Diagnostics and Global Healthcare Technologies. She is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering.
Elise Morgan, ENG professor of mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, and materials science & engineering
Morgan studies how mechanical signals contribute to the development, adaptation, degeneration, and regeneration of bone and cartilage. She has written dozens of widely cited journal articles and presentations. Her research and teaching awards include a Young Investigator Award from the International Osteoporosis Foundation and last year’s ENG Faculty Service Award.
Roberto Paiella, ENG professor of electrical & computer engineering and materials science & engineering
Paiella studies photonics and materials science and develops semiconductor structures and efficient devices, such as lasers, green light LEDs, and infrared detectors, that emit stronger light. He has won grants from the NSF, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Department of Energy. A senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, he sits on the editorial board for Scientific Reports.
Muhammad Zaman, ENG professor of biomedical engineering and materials science & engineering
Zaman specializes in the interface of cell biology, mechanics, systems biology, and medicine, using computational and experimental tools to understand and ultimately prevent cancer metastasis. He is equally devoted to the delivery of modern medical technology to the developing world. The recipient of numerous NIH grants and a recent Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professorship, he has authored two books, seven book chapters, and dozens of widely cited articles on the properties of cell clusters and improved global health.
Martin Amlin, CFA professor of music
Amlin composes and plays classical music on the piano, chairs the school’s composition and theory department, and directs BU’s Tanglewood Institute Young Artists Composition Program. Internationally known for his work with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the Boston Pops, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Amlin has recorded works for major labels and received many grants.
Joshua Fineberg, CFA professor of music
Fineberg, a preeminent scholar and composer of electronic music, combines acoustical research with psychological aspects of music perception to create aural landscapes, a sense of place created by music that’s similar to people’s visual sense of place. Winner of international prizes and fellowships, Fineberg founded and directs BU’s Center for New Music. He has authored a book on contemporary music as well as music performed and recorded by leading American and European new music artists.
Edward Riedl, School of Management professor of accounting
Riedl studies the effect of international accounting and fair value accounting on accuracy in financial reporting. He has written for leading journals, and he sits on the editorial board for The Accounting Review. He is associate editor for the Journal of International Accounting Research. Last year, Riedl cochaired the American Accounting Association’s annual conference, the world’s largest gathering of accounting researchers.
Marshall Van Alstyne, SMG professor of information systems
Van Alstyne studies information economics, communications markets, intellectual property, and the effects of technology and information on society and productivity. He has two patents involving encryption technology and cocreated the concept of “two-sided networks” (in which products and services link two groups, as, for instance, a credit card links buyers and sellers.) The winner of an NSF CAREER Award, he has written for Science, Nature, Harvard Business Review, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
“We are incredibly proud of this talented group of faculty and the work they’ve been able to accomplish during their time here at BU,” says Jean Morrison, University provost. “Whether publishing seminal writings that challenge and expand our understanding of the world around us, discovering brighter, more efficient ways to deliver light, or engineering sophisticated, low-cost tools to diagnose and treat illness in underserved populations, all are helping to redefine their fields of inquiry and impacting countless lives through their research and teaching. They go to the very heart of our mission as a research university, and we are glad to see them continuing their careers here.”
By Mark Dwortzan
Honoring senior and junior faculty each year for major contributions to their fields and to society at large, the College of Engineering has bestowed its inaugural Charles DeLisi Award and Lecture on Professor Mark Grinstaff (BME, Chemistry, MSE), and its Early Career Excellence Award on Assistant Professor Mac Schwager (ME, SE).
The Charles DeLisi Award and Lecture recognizes faculty members with extraordinary records of well-cited scholarship, senior leaders in industry and extraordinary entrepreneurs who have invented and mentored transformative technologies that impact our quality of life, and provides the recipient with a public forum to discuss his or her work before the Boston University academic community and the general public. Grinstaff will present the 2015 Charles DeLisi Distinguished Lecture on Thursday, April 2 at 4 p.m. in the Photonics Colloquium Room (PHO 906).
The Early Career Research Excellence Award celebrates the significant, recent, high-impact research achievements of exemplary tenure-track faculty who are within 10 years of receiving their PhD.
Charles DeLisi Award and Lecture
For two decades, Grinstaff has pursued highly interdisciplinary research aimed at elucidating underlying fundamental chemistry and engineering principles, and applying them to develop new materials and devices for clinical applications. Supported by the Grinstaff Group, a lab with more than 20 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, The Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, Advanced Energy Consortium, the Center for Integration of Medicine & Innovative Technology, and other agencies, he has advanced several major biomaterials that range from a joint lubricant that could bring longer- lasting relief to millions of osteoarthritis sufferers, to a highly absorbent hydrogel that not only seals wounds, but can later be dissolved and gently removed.
He has co-founded four companies to translate some of his ideas into clinical products. The first, Hyperbranch Medical Technology, produces biodegradable surgical sealants that are already widely used by surgeons. The others, advancing products that have not yet completed clinical trials, are Flex Biomedical (a synthetic polymer to treat osteoarthritis), Acuity Bio (flexible films to prevent tumor recurrence after surgical resection) and Affinergy (leading edge assays and research tools aimed at improving scientific and diagnostic outcomes).
Grinstaff has published more than 200 peer-reviewed manuscripts, garnered more than 10,000 citations, filed more than 200 patents, and delivered more than 275 oral presentations. His students and fellows have given more than 100 oral presentations and 300 posters at national and international meetings. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Nanomedicine, American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineering, and National Academy of Inventors. His numerous awards include the ACS Nobel Laureate Signature Award, NSF Career Award, Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences, Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar, and Edward M. Kennedy Award for Health Care Innovation. He received his PhD from the University of Illinois and was an NIH postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology.
At BU Grinstaff directs the Center for Nanoscience and Nanobiotechnology (CNN) and NIH-funded Translational Research in Biomaterials program, and is the inaugural College of Engineering Distinguished Professor of Translational Research and inaugural recipient of the Innovator of the Year Award from BU’s Office of Technology Development. He was also named a College of Engineering Distinguished Faculty Fellow and a Kern Faculty Fellow.
“Mark has shown tremendous dedication to being an intellectual leader in his field and has successfully harnessed his substantial creative power to translate his ideas to products that impact society,” said Professor Sol Eisenberg, who heads the Biomedical Engineering Department. “He is an iconic exemplar of translational research in the College of Engineering and at Boston University, and a tremendous example of what we value in our faculty.”
Early Career Research Excellence Award
A member of the BU faculty since January, 2012, Schwager is working to optimize how groups of robots work together to accomplish specified tasks. These range from deploying a swarm of autonomous helicopters to provide surveillance of a city, to sending a fleet of robots to search for and rescue survivors at a disaster site. To enable efficient coordination among multiple robots, he designs distributed control, perception and learning algorithms for each robot, and tests their performance and safety in his Multi-robot Systems Laboratory.
The technology Schwager is developing is designed to empower multi-robot systems such as UAVs not only to monitor their environment but to control it as well. Such systems could be used to collect data over large areas for scientific, security and defense purposes; fight forest fires; clean up oil spills; plant, water and harvest crops; air-drop medicines; and perform other vital functions.
A principle investigator (PI) or co-PI on National Science Foundation and Office of Naval Research grants totaling $3 million, Schwager received an NSF CAREER award in 2014 for his project, “Controlling Ecologically Destructive Processes with a Network of Intelligent Robotic Agents.” His published work, which includes a journal article that won the Best Paper Award at the Conference on the Simulation of Adaptive Behavior in 2008, has already garnered 1,308 citations. He received his PhD in Mechanical Engineering from MIT in 2009.
“The sky is the limit for this technology, and Mac Schwager has the vision to identify the important problems, the skill to overcome the key technology barriers, the ambition and energy to compete and prevail in both academia and business, and the personal charisma and communication skills to sell his vision at all levels,” said Professor Alice White, who heads the Mechanical Engineering Department.
Appointments Target Excellence in Research and Education
By Mark Dwortzan
Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen has announced the appointments of several individuals to round out the College’s leadership team, including an associate dean and two department chairs.
Catherine Klapperich (BME, ME, MSE) is the new associate dean for Research and Technology Development. John A. White (BME, MED) has been recruited from the University of Utah to Boston University to serve as chair of the Biomedical Engineering Department, effective May 1, succeeding Solomon Eisenberg (BME), who remains senior associate dean for Academic Programs. W. Clem Karl (ECE, BME, SE) is the new chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department effective January.
“All of these faculty members are world-renowned researchers in their respective disciplines, leaders in their respective professional communities, and outstanding educators,” Lutchen said. “They will provide extraordinary and visionary leadership in their respective areas as the College embarks on its continuous commitment to growth in excellence. Moreover, they bring a natural and critical ability to apply both a local and institutional perspective to their approach as leaders which will further insure success as we guide the College forward.”
Catherine Klapperich, Associate Dean for Research and Technology Development
Klapperich, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Center for Future Technologies in Cancer Care at BU, develops robust, inexpensive, handheld, microfluidic plastic chips and devices that extract nucleic acids from complex human samples—technologies that could enable rapid, point-of-care diagnostics for infectious diseases and cancer without the need for electricity or refrigeration. These minimally instrumented systems could be a major step forward in facilitating the use of molecular diagnostics in developing countries. Klapperich is also working on the design and deployment of devices to more efficiently apply systems biology techniques to improve understanding of TB and other complex diseases.
Klapperich is the inaugural holder of the Dorf-Ebner Distinguished Faculty Fellow award, which honors a mid-career College of Engineering faculty member who has demonstrated exceptional performance and impact in research, teaching and service to the College. A recently elected Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, Klapperich is the director of a $10 Million NIH Center for Future Technologies in Cancer Care. She also directs the Laboratory for Diagnostics and Global Healthcare Technologies and is a member of the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. Klapperich was formally the associate chair for graduate programs in BME. Klapperich serves on the editorial board of Biomedical Microdevices and is an active participant in both national and international research conferences. In 2010, she was an invited participant in the National Academies of Engineering Frontiers of Engineering conference. A member of the College of Engineering faculty since 2003, she earned her PhD in Mechanical Engineering in 2000 from the University of California, Berkeley.
Klapperich is also a widely sought-after educator and mentor who has created and taught in some of the most popular design and manufacture courses at the College. She recently took over the BME Senior Project course with resounding success.
John White, BME Department Chair
White was a BME faculty member for 13 years before he joined the University of Utah in 2007 as a professor of bioengineering. During his tenure at the College of Engineering, he served as BME chairman ad interim and as associate chair for undergraduate and graduate studies, and received the ENG Faculty Service Award in 2002.
At the University of Utah, White was a prestigious USTAR professor and was the executive director of the Institute for Brain Research, an interdisciplinary institute that spanned the medical school, life sciences, and the school of engineering. White has used engineering approaches to better understand how information is processed in the brain. Combining computational modeling, electrophysiological and optical techniques, and imaging methods, he has worked to advance new biomedical devices to treat memory disorders and epilepsy.
Supported by more than $50 million in funding from the NIH, National Science Foundation and other sources, White has published over 70 peer-reviewed papers. He is a Fellow of the American Institute for Biological and Medical Engineering and of the Biomedical Engineering Society, and has served as meeting chair for the Biomedical Engineering Society Fall Meeting in 2014 and Visiting Fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle and at research institutions in Germany. He is also the co-founder of the startup Utah Dynamics. White received his PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Johns Hopkins University in 1990.
W. Clem Karl, ECE Department Chair
A world-renowned researcher in the field of information science and systems, and past recipient of the ECE Award for Excellence in Teaching, Karl is a member of the Information and Data Sciences research group and the Center for Information and Systems Engineering (CISE). He has served on the BU faculty since 1995.
Karl’s research centers on statistical signal processing and image reconstruction. He has developed several statistical models for the efficient 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. He has published six books/book chapters, 68 journal articles and 183 reviewed conference proceedings, and his publications have been cited nearly 5000 times.
Karl has assumed several leadership roles for the IEEE, where he is a Fellow, the inaugural editor-in-chief of IEEE Transactions on Computational Imaging and the former editor-in-chief of IEEE Transactions on Image Processing. He received his PhD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 1991 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a staff research scientist at the Brown-Harvard-MIT Center for Intelligent Control Systems and the MIT Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems.
These appointments join the College’s relatively new senior leaders Professor Alice White, chair of the Mechanical Engineering Department, and Professor David Bishop, head of the Materials Science & Engineering Division. Other members of the ENG academic leadership team include Eisenberg; Professor Thomas D.C. Little (ECE, SE), associate dean for Educational Initiatives; Gretchen Fougere, associate dean for Outreach and Diversity; Richard Lally, associate dean for Administration; and Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE), head of the Systems Engineering Division.
CISE-Led Project Nets 2nd Place in IBM/IEEE Smarter Planet Competition
By Gabriella McNevin, ECE
As part of a multifaceted collaboration to create technology to solve urban problems, the City of Boston and a Boston University-led research team developed an iPhone app, Street Bump, to upgrade management of local road repairs. Now IBM and IEEE have recognized Street Bump as a significant contribution to Boston, awarding its developers the second place prize in the “IBM Students for a Smarter Planet/IEEE Smarter Planet Challenge: Student Projects Changing the World” competition.
The team’s project, “Street Bumps and Big Data Analytics: Crowdsourcing Our Way to Better Roads,” was honored for demonstrating engineering expertise and a commitment to improving the world. Advised by Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) and Professor Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE, BME), the team included graduate students Theodora Brisimi (ECE), Yue Zhang (SE), Wuyang Dai (ECE), Setareh Ariafar (SE) and Nicholas Baladis (MIT). All BU researchers are affiliated with the Center for Information and Systems Engineering (CISE).
Used by city employees and citizens, Street Bump was designed to facilitate crowdsourcing as a means of collecting relevant road condition data. The app leverages the iPhone’s accelerometer to detect road bumps sensed during a trip, transmitting the data to the City of Boston, where it is used to alert repair crews of road damage. The algorithms developed by the BU-led team analyze the data received by the City and classify the detected bumps as “actionable” or “non-actionable.” Severe bumps like potholes are actionable and can be prioritized in scheduling repairs. The team collaborated with The City of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, which provided actual data from the City’s servers.
Another BU-based app guided by Cassandras, Smart Parking, won second place in the same competition in 2011.
Street Bumps and Big Data Analytics: Crowdsourcing Our Way to Better Roads won the IEEE/IBM Smarter Planet Competition. This student team was advised by Professors Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) and Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, BME, SE).
Congratulations to Theodora Brisimi, BU ECE ’16 (PhD); Yue Zhang, BU SE ’18 (PhD); Wuyang Dai, BU ECE ’14 (PhD); Setareh Ariafar, BU SE ’18 (PhD); and Nicholas Baladis, MIT Sloan ’15 (MBA)!
This project was in collaboration with the City of Boston Mayor’s office of New Urban Mechanics including co-chairs Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob.
The Division of Systems Engineering (SE) at Boston University (BU) is seeking candidates for a tenured faculty position at the rank of Professor or Associate Professor in the area of Network Systems. The Division of Systems Engineering is seeking a proven accomplished researcher to provide leadership in the area of network systems and to develop a research program that enhances and complements a number of existing activities that span the ECE and ME Departments. The Division, in conjunction with the Center for Information and Systems Engineering (CISE), has established widely recognized research excellence in areas such as Sensor Networks, Multi-Agent Systems, and Mobile Robotics. These and other areas where Division faculty are active represent instances of a broader emerging class of network systems. Beyond traditional computer and communication networks, this new class is characterized by network structures whose nodes are complex dynamic systems in themselves (wireless physical devices, robots, power supply centers in a smart grid, vehicles in smart cities, factories/warehouse in supply chains, etc). Candidates with research interests that transcend the traditional boundaries of SE are strongly encouraged to apply. The successful candidate will be given a primary appointment in our Mechanical Engineering or Electrical and Computer Engineering departments as applicable. Additional appointments with other BU departments and the Division of Materials Science and Engineering are available for candidates with appropriate experience and interests.
To apply and for further details, please visit and follow application instructions online at
Applications will be accepted until the position is filled. Preferred deadline for full consideration is December 31, 2014. Therefore, applicants are encouraged to apply early.
We are an equal opportunity employer and all qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability status, protected veteran status, or any other characteristic protected by law. We are a VEVRAA Federal Contractor.
New tool puts a biology lab on a piece of paper
By Barbara Moran, BU Today
The first case of the Ebola outbreak currently ravaging West Africa appeared in Guinea in December 2013. But it wasn’t until March 22, 2014, that scientists finally confirmed the virus as Ebola. By that point, 49 people had already died.
Why did it take so long? Partly because confirming the diagnosis required that epidemiologists fly from Europe to Africa, collect blood samples, fly back to Europe, and analyze them in sophisticated labs.
Now a team of biologists at BU, led by Professor James Collins (BME, MSE, SE), has created a new tool that could provide a quick, cheap way to perform sophisticated lab analyses and diagnostics in the field, and may also offer a way to speed science in the lab. The tool, called a paper gene circuit, takes biological reactions out of cells and puts them onto a piece of paper. It is described in the November 6, 2014, issue of Cell.
“This could really be a game-changer for a lot of applications, including diagnostics,” says Collins, who is also a core faculty member at Harvard’s Wyss Institute. “You can literally carry this in your pocket and run an experiment in the field without any additional equipment.”
The best diagnostic tools currently use antibodies to sense things like hormones or viruses in a patient’s bloodstream. A standard pregnancy test, for example, tests for a hormone produced when a fertilized egg implants into a women’s uterus. Such tests work well but can be expensive and time-consuming to develop. “The antibody-based tests are exquisitely sensitive, and we can’t compete with that sensitivity yet,” says Keith Pardee, a postdoctoral fellow in Collins’ lab, co-author on the Cell paper, and a Wyss Institute research scientist. “But to make a custom antibody, it costs between $4,000 and $30,000, and it will take between four and six months. We made 24 different Ebola sensors and tested them in a day, for $21 each.”
The portable Ebola diagnostic is a proof-of-concept project, not yet ready for the field. But it demonstrates the power of synthetic “gene circuits” made sterile, portable, and convenient. Like computer circuits, gene circuits usually consist of a sensing component (or “input”), a logic gate, and an output, but they are crafted from parts of cells, rather than wires and transistors.
Over the past 15 years, biologists have created hundreds of these gene circuits, picking and choosing useful bits of biology and putting them together in new ways. Pardee’s circuits use a device called a “toehold switch,” created by co-author Alexander Green, also a postdoctoral fellow at BU and Pardee’s colleague at the Wyss Institute, which allows the scientists to rationally design sensors and detectors.
Because biological systems are particularly good at sensing changes in the environment—our cells constantly monitor blood sugar and scan for infection, for example—synthetic gene circuits are especially useful for detecting things like contaminants, pesticides, heavy metals, and counterfeit drugs. “You can imagine that there’s a lot of potential for these gene circuits, because they can sense and they can report by, say, changing color. Does your fruit have listeria on it? Is the soil contaminated with pesticides? The gene circuits can answer these questions,” says Pardee.
But there’s a problem. Because synthetic gene circuits are usually hosted in organisms like E. coli, they can’t be used for many applications—smearing fruit with E. coli may detect contamination, for example, but will also add to it. “For these types of applications, it’s totally inappropriate,” says Pardee. “We recognized that there was this potential but also this huge limitation.”
Pardee wondered if there was a way to build a gene circuit that could function outside a cell. Ideally, it would be sterile, easily transported, and stored without refrigeration, and it would produce answers by changing color, so a person could read the answer by eye alone. Pardee decided to try embedding the gene circuits and the necessary cellular enzymes into paper.
In concept, the idea is similar to pH strips—a chemical reaction embedded into paper that changes color when it touches an acid or a base. But would something that worked for a chemical reaction work for biology, too? “That was our first question: can we even get gene expression in paper?” says Pardee. Using a standard laser printer stocked with special wax-based inks, he printed patterns of small dots onto uncoated filter paper. Each dot served as a well or pit to hold a gene circuit and the cellular enzymes that made it work.
But Pardee wanted to take it a step further, stabilizing the components at room temperature by freeze-drying them, sticking them onto paper, then seeing if he could add water and make them work again.
“Freeze-drying is a pretty common thing to do in pharmaceuticals. If you freeze-dry a protein like insulin, you can often re-constitute it and get its function back,” says Pardee. But Pardee didn’t know if he could freeze-dry the whole package—the gene circuit instructions, the enzymes that power the reactions, the cellular machinery that builds proteins—then add water and have it pop back to its former self.
“If even one part didn’t work, then you’d be stuck. That would be the weakest link,” says Pardee. “But they all did! I was surprised. I immediately knew this was going to be really awesome.” Even better, the paper circuits still worked after a year on the shelf. “There’s still tons of work to do,” he adds. “But I knew that having that core insight was going to enable the whole thing.”
“This was Keith’s big insight—freeze-drying the circuit,” says Collins. “I couldn’t believe it worked as well as it did. We got phenomenal activity—there was basically no loss of function.”
Collins and Pardee are now working on technologies that will increase the sensitivity of the tool to make it practical for both diagnostics in the field and also for faster science in the lab. “In biology, you spend a lot of time tool building. You build your tool, then you do your experiment, then you go back to building tools,” says Pardee. “Now researchers can see if a tool works on paper in a matter of minutes and use only the best-performing tools in their experiment.”
The technology can be embedded in any porous material, such as cloth, potentially opening the door for wider applications, says Collins. He envisions smart scrubs for health care workers that can sense exposure to a virus; bandages that signal when a wound is infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria; or smart clothing that tells a runner she’s getting dehydrated. “This opens a lot of possibilities,” says Collins. “It could give people a lot of valuable information very quickly.”
Provost’s initiative will hire up to six
By Rich Barlow
BU plans to hire up to six data scientists—the intellectual miners extracting applicable information from the mountains of Big Data—over the next three years
Data scientists use mathematical models to analyze voluminous data and draw knowledge from it that can be used in a variety of applications, from health care and business to design and communications. The University provost’s faculty hiring initiative aims to bolster BU’s ranks in a burgeoning field and also to advance the University’s focus on interdisciplinary research.
“It’s not like we don’t do data science. But we don’t have enough data science scholars to address the need for data science by lots of other disciplines,” says Azer Bestavros (CS, SE), director of BU’s Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering. Current data science is done by handfuls of professors in “small islands of collaborations,” he says, “two or three faculty working together.…We need to do a lot more.”
Bestavros, a College of Arts & Sciences computer science professor, leads a committee appointed by Jean Morrison, BU provost, to recruit and hire the data scientists. Those scientists will receive a primary appointment in one of three departments: CAS computer science, CAS mathematics and statistics, or College of Engineering electrical and computer engineering. But they may have joint appointments in other schools, he says.
“Data science incorporates varying elements and builds on techniques and theories from many basic engineering and science fields, and is thus closely tied to many of our existing disciplines,” Morrison says. “Boston University has considerable strength in, and substantial commitment to, the important interdisciplinary areas that comprise data science.”
She stresses that the new faculty “will augment, not replace, ongoing faculty hiring in data-science-related disciplines through the regular hiring processes” in BU’s various schools. “These new faculty members will join the strong cohort of faculty we already have in data science, and will have an opportunity to shape Boston University’s vision for research and education in this strategically important area.”
Many scholars use and manipulate data, so what’s new about data science? “What’s new is…there’s a lot of it,” says Bestavros, “and because there’s a lot of it, you cannot do a spreadsheet anymore.” The other change is the multiple sources of data. “With data science, data is coming from lots of sources that were never packaged together before,” he says. “Now, we will do that.”
Data science “is not computer science, and it is not any other traditional discipline we have,” according to Bestavros. “It is truly interdisciplinary. It’s a convener of many disciplines to target application domains that have a ton of data in them.” BU’s new hires “may be a computer scientist. It could be a statistician. It could be a systems engineer.”
President Robert A. Brown cited the data science initiative in his recent State of the University message: “As Boston University continues to emerge as a top private research university, we must continue to build excellence in our foundational programs and focus on bringing together faculty members from across the University.”
Attendees Celebrate New IEEE Journal Edited by ENG’s Paschalidis
By Mark Dwortzan
Microbes are all around us—even inside us—and that’s a good thing. Left alone, these tiny organisms have a huge impact on everything from human health to wastewater treatment. But with a little engineering, they could do even more. In certain environments, their metabolic processes could be exploited to make biofuels, vaccines and other useful products and services. To tap their potential, Associate Professor Daniel Segrè (Biology, BME, Bioinformatics) and collaborators have developed mathematical models to predict the metabolic interactions that occur among different microbial species under varying environmental conditions, and to design new microbial networks with desired properties.
Sponsored by the IEEE Control Systems Society and the Center for Information and Systems Engineering at Boston University, SCONES celebrated the inaugural March 2014 issue of the IEEE Transactions on Control of Network Systems (TCNS), a new IEEE Transactions journal edited by Professor Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, BME, SE) focused on problems related to the control, design, study, engineering, optimization and emerging behavior of network systems.
“We live in a world that is extremely interconnected,” said Paschalidis, the journal’s editor-in-chief. “This is also true of systems, biological or manmade, that support our modern way of life. Networks, which both connect system components and influence how they function as a whole, are increasingly the focus of leading edge research, and this is the impetus for TCNS and SCONES.”
One author of each paper in the inaugural issue presented at the symposium, along with talks and posters from several other researchers in the field. Representing major research institutions from around the world, SCONES presenters explored the analysis, control and optimization of electric power, computer, communication, transportation, biological, cyber-physical, social and economic networks. As if bringing the TCNS journal to life, the 23 featured speakers illustrated complex concepts with a flurry of equations, algorithms, graphs and diagrams.
“TCNS aspires to become the premiere destination for mathematically rigorous work in network systems,” said Magnus Egerstedt, an ECE Professor at Georgia Tech and the TCNS deputy editor-in-chief—and the SCONES presenters lived up to that promise.
In addition to Segrè, two other Boston University researchers shared highlights of papers they co-authored in the inaugural issue of TCNS on resource allocation and routing, the selection of optimal path by which to transmit information across the nodes of a network.
Professor Lev Levitin (ECE, SE) presented an alternative to wormhole routing, a widely used routing technique that’s prone to deadlock—multiple messages getting blocked by one another in a vicious cycle—under heavy computer network traffic. Levitin described a series of new, high-performance algorithms that he, Professor Mark Karpovsky (ECE) and ECE Visiting Researcher Mehmet Mustafa developed to break such cycles and prevent deadlock formation during routing and thus preserve network connectivity.
Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) presented an optimal control strategy that he, Tao Wang (SE, PhD’13) and Sepideh Pourazarm (SE, PhD candidate) devised to maximize the lifetime of sensor batteries deployed at each node of a wireless sensor network for surveillance, environmental monitoring or other applications where human intervention may be inconvenient or costly.
“Because every node has limited energy, you have to worry about the battery dying and the network ceasing to function,” said Cassandras, “so you need to focus on battery lifetime.”
Modeling each battery as a dynamic system in which energy does not dissipate in a linear fashion, the strategy uses an algorithm to determine the routing scheme that will minimize that energy loss.
The symposium, which was well-attended and featured many fruitful exchanges between speakers and attendees, signified how well the TCNS journal has been received by the international research community, Paschalidis observed.
“In the first three TCNS issues published in 2014, we have seen papers covering many types of network systems, from networked control and multi-agent systems, to communication, transportation, electric power, biological and social networks,” he noted. “SCONES is playing a key role in coalescing a community of researchers around the journal.”
Urban Seminar Series: The Resilient City – A Panel Discussion Featuring Professors Hutyra, Baillieul and Heiger-Bernays
Starts: 12:00 pm on Thursday, November 6, 2014
Ends: 1:30 pm on Thursday, November 6, 2014
Location: The Initiative on Cities, 75 Bay State Road