Category: News

Looking Back, Moving Forward

October 3rd, 2014 in News

ENG 50th Anniversary Celebration Showcases Excellence and Impact

By Mark Dwortzan

At the College of Engineering's Student-Alumni Team Design Challenge, John Folloni (ENG'60,'72) (from left), Gregg Fischer (ENG'07), Abena Kwakyi (ENG'11), Daniel C. Cole, an ENG mechanical engineering associate professor, Ian Leatherman (ENG'11), and Ben Graham (ENG'16) collaborate on their vehicle. (Photo by Cydney Scott)

At the College of Engineering’s Student-Alumni Team Design Challenge, John Folloni (ENG’60,’72) (from left), Gregg Fischer (ENG’07), Abena Kwakyi (ENG’11), Daniel C. Cole, an ENG mechanical engineering associate professor, Ian Leatherman (ENG’11), and Ben Graham (ENG’16) collaborate on their vehicle. (Photo by Cydney Scott)

With sunny skies overhead and an autumnal chill in the air, College of Engineering alumni from across the country converged on Cummington Mall on September 19 to celebrate the College’s first 50 years. The atmosphere was festive both outside, where cotton candy and popcorn were on offer, and inside various campus buildings, where alumni, faculty and students learned about high-impact ENG research and entrepreneurial achievements, toured new facilities, participated in a design challenge and engaged in spirited conversations about the past and future of the College.

Alumni-Student Lunch Panel

Speaking before an audience packed with current ENG students at the Boston University Photonics Center Colloquium Room, six exemplary alumni highlighted their career paths, how they’ve impacted society and how their engineering education has contributed to their success.

Kathleen McLaughlin (ECE’87) observed that the College’s emphasis on problem- solving skills and systems thinking served as “the perfect underpinning” for all she’s achieved since graduating. That includes a Rhodes Scholarship and two decades with the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where she served as senior partner, and her current role as president of Walmart Foundation, where she’s responsible for corporate giving and initiatives in global sustainability, healthier food and women’s economic empowerment.

Fellow Rhodes Scholar Jennifer Gruber (AME’99) described a life path that took her from a Nebraska trailer park and childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut, to the BS/MS program at the College of Engineering, to 12-plus years at the NASA Johnson Space Center. Like McLaughlin, she cited her problem-solving mindset, cultivated at the College, as critical to her success as a mission control flight dynamics officer, mission planner and manager serving Space Shuttle and Space Station missions.

“The answers aren’t in the back of the book when you graduate,” said Gruber, who now manages a team tasked to ensure that all items are properly stowed aboard the Space Station. “Being able to not be intimidated by something that sounds difficult is actually a really good skill that you learn [at the College of Engineering] that I’m putting to use right now.”

Other panelists included Kevin Knopp (ECE’94) co-founder and CEO of 908 Devices, which produces handheld mass spectrometers; Kevin Kit Parker (BME’89), professor of bioengineering & applied physics at Harvard University and a leading traumatic brain injury researcher; Amit Jain (ECE’85,’88), president, CEO and co-founder of Prysm, Inc., which manufactures energy-efficient video walls (including the one recently installed in the lobby of 44 Cummington Mall); and George Savage (BME’81), co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of Proteus Digital Health, which makes pills that double as medical monitoring sensors.

Reconnecting with Classmates and Iconic ENG Faculty

Alumni also had a chance to share memories with classmates and favorite faculty members at the Engineering Product Innovation Center’s (EPIC) Design Studio. Toting coffee, deserts and hors d’oeuvres and dressed in business casual attire, several graduates from as far back as the Class of 1964 caught up with more than a dozen long-time ENG faculty in the packed room.

Victor Almeida (EE’86), who develops software for Cigna Insurance Company, reconnected with Professor Emeritus David Perreault (ECE), who taught two of his favorite courses in digital logic.

“We talked about how kids today do amazing things we couldn’t imagine back then,” he said, pointing to mobile apps and drones as examples.

For Jose Andrade (CE’85), who has worked on Raytheon’s Patriot Air Missile Defense System for the past three decades, “back then” was a time when his undergraduate computer lab mushroomed from the size of a closet to the size of the EPIC Design Studio.

Michelle Tortolani (EE’87), fellow and past president of the Society of Women Engineers and an engineering program manager at Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems, marveled at how quickly time had passed since Commencement. “I’m proud to be an ENG graduate,” she said after conversing with Professor Mark Horenstein (ECE), whose courses in electronics she had taken. “It’s amazing to see how the school has grown.”

Reflecting on his reunions with alumni from the past decade who are now doing everything from completing law school to developing a chain of pediatric hospitals in India, Professor Steven Colburn (BME) observed, “It’s been exciting for me because so many of them are having such good lives!”

Design Challenge Energizes ENG Community

The 50th Anniversary Celebration featured not only talks and conversations but also hands-on activities. Alumni were treated to tours of the College’s newest facilities, including EPIC and the Singh Imagineering Lab, and a design challenge staged at the Photonics Center Colloquium Room, where four teams of alumni, students and faculty competed to design and build a small vehicle that could travel across four long tables under its own power.

Supplied with a bag of popsicle sticks, duct tape, straws, plastic wheels, balloons, batteries, circuit boards and other small parts, each team (representing the Electrical & Computer , Aerospace and Mechanical, Biomedical  and Manufacturing engineering gathered around a table to talk strategy and produce a working vehicle within 45 minutes. As alumni, students, faculty and staff cheered from the sidelines and quadcopters  delivered occasional “care packages” of additional supplies to the tables, the event’s emcee, Associate Professor Glynn Holt (ME), monitored the teams’ progress and interviewed random alumni in the audience.

After multiple test flights, all four teams completed the task, though some had to manually nudge their vehicles toward the finish line. The BME team, whose alumni included Lauren Black (’03,’06), Carissa Black (’01,’03,’06), Michael Young (’85,’89, MED’91) and Frank Salamone (’94), was the first to traverse all four tables. Holt recognized team BME for its performance, ECE for speed, AME for completing the course the most times, and AME for style.

Symposium and Banquet Highlight Research Impacting Society

At a late afternoon symposium at the Photonics Center Auditorium, alumni heard two talks on high-impact faculty research and a third focused on the value of higher education.

Professor Thomas Bifano (ME, MSE), director of the BU Photonics Center, described several photonic technologies that are improving our quality of life. These included Associate Professor Xue Han’s (BME) pioneering use of light to silence and activate neurons in the brain as a means of studying brain disorders and explore potential treatments; Professor Theodore Moustakas’ patented technique to make blue LEDs found in smartphone and flat panel displays; and Bifano’s development of adaptive optics with deformable mirrors that are now being used to image retinal cells—technology that promises to improve clinical research on diabetic retinopathy.

Emphasizing the critical need for robust technologies to address outbreaks of the Ebola virus, malaria, HIV and other major diseases in the developing world, Associate Professor Muhammad Zaman (BME, MSE) asked, “What is it that I, as a BU engineer who is ready to make a positive impact on the world, can do for the world? We need technologies that are portable, low power, inexpensive, easy to use, robust and perform quantitative tests.” He highlighted one such technology, PharmaChk, which he’s now advancing to help reduce the prevalence of substandard and counterfeit drugs, a problem affecting hundreds of thousands of people every year. Field-tested in Africa, PharmaChk can test drugs at the point of care and anywhere along the supply chain.

Dean Kenneth Lutchen presented statistics and analysis showing that despite the buzz about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), a residential college education—especially in engineering—remains an excellent investment, both in terms of financial success and preparation for lifelong learning and impact. The bottom line? “Go to college,” said Lutchen. “It’s expensive (partly) because it’s very valuable.”

The ENG 50th Anniversary Gala Banquet in the Trustee’s Ballroom capped off the day’s events. More than 200 alumni, friends, faculty and students attended the event, which featured a video presentation that explored the College’s history and some of the current research that promised to make significant impacts on our world. After dinner, Associate Professor Edward Damiano (BME) discussed his efforts to develop a bionic pancreas that could vastly improve the quality of life for people with Type 1 diabetes. Damiano’s handheld system, which automatically manages type 1 diabetes, was recently shown to be as effective as the conventional, manual approach, in which patients periodically check their own blood sugar levels and determine the amount of insulin needed.

Receptions for the ENG Class of 1964 and the ENG National Society of Black Engineers were held the following day on the ENG campus.

Two CISE/SE Faculty Named Distinguished Professors of Engineering

September 25th, 2014 in News

Professor Christos G. Cassandras (ECE, SE) and Professor John Baillieul (ME, ECE, SE) have been selected as Distinguished Professors of Engineering, a title to be held throughout their careers at Boston University. These prominent faculty were selected based on their outstanding service to the College, teaching aptitude, as well as making a demonstrable difference in academia with their research, which has diverse applications in fields ranging from economics to electro-physics.

ENG's Christos Cassandras talked about technology being able to assist with the hassle of finding a parking space. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Christos G. Cassandras is Head of the Division of Systems Engineering, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and a co-founder of CISE. He specializes in the areas of discrete event and hybrid systems, cooperative control, stochastic optimization, and computer simulation, with applications to computer and sensor networks, manufacturing systems, and transportation systems. He has published over 350 refereed papers, five books, guest-edited several technical journal issues, and serves on several journal Editorial Boards. He has worked extensively with industrial organizations on various systems integration and simulation projects. Dr. Cassandras was Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE Transactions on Automatic Control from 1998 through 2009. He has also served as President of the IEEE Control Systems Society, Vice President for Publications, and a member of its Board of Governors. He has chaired several conferences and has been a plenary/keynote speaker at numerous international conferences. He is the recipient of several awards, including the 2011 IEEE Control Systems Technology Award, the Distinguished Member Award of the IEEE Control Systems Society (2006), the 1999 Harold Chestnut Prize, a 2011 prize for the IBM/IEEE Smarter Planet Challenge competition, a BU College of Engineering Distinguished Lecturer Series Award, several honorary professorships, a 1991 Lilly Fellowship and a 2012 Kern Fellowship. He is Fellow of the IEEE and a Fellow of the International Federation of Automatic Control (IFAC).

ENGLABSJohn Baillieul has served as the chair of the Manufacturing Engineering and the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Departments at Boston University.  He is a founding member of CISE. His research interests are in robotics, the control of mechanical systems, and in mathematical system theory. His current research focuses on extending and applying principles from nonlinear control theory to complex mechanical systems composed of interconnected rigid and elastic components. He has over 160 peer-reviewed papers. He is an IEEE, IFAC and SIAM Fellow. He is the recipient of the IEEE Control Systems Society Distinguished Member Award, the IEEE Third Millennium Medal, the BU College of Engineering Inaugural Distinguished Lecturer Series Award, the T.S. Tsien International Outstanding Lecture at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the 2013 Zaborsky Lecture at Washington University, and the Inaugural Wijesuriya P. Dayawansa Lecture at the Texas Tech University. His service to the profession includes Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE Transactions on Automatic Control, Board of Governors of the IEEE Control Systems Society, President of the IEEE Control Systems Society, and Board of Directors of the IEEE.

Faculty Search – Assistant Professor, Dept. Mechanical Engineering & Div. of Systems Engineering

September 23rd, 2014 in News

The Department of Mechanical Engineering, in conjunction with the Division of Systems Engineering, invites applications for a tenure track position at the Assistant Professor level beginning Fall 2015 in the area of Robotics and Cyber-Physical Systems.  The ME department is multi-disciplinary with strong expertise in systems and control, nanotechnology, materials characterization, fluid dynamics, modeling, and acoustics.  In addition to robotics, application areas of interest include health, energy and sustainability, and manufacturing.  The department and the division are further strengthened by their affiliations with the Center for Information and Systems Engineering (CISE) and the Division of Materials Science and Engineering. Both the Department and the College of Engineering are implementing ambitious ten-year plans, in line with Boston University’s commitment as a top tier research university engaged in substantial growth in the coming years.

With this search, we would like to increase the research portfolio in Robotics and Cyber-Physical Systems; however, outstanding candidates with interest in our other research areas are encouraged to apply.  Interested candidates should have a PhD. degree in a relevant field of engineering or applied science, and should be able to show strong potential for attracting external research funding.   The applicant should be able to contribute to the graduate and undergraduate programs in Mechanical Engineering and the graduate programs in Systems Engineering.  Salary is competitive and commensurate with experience.

The ME department has 46 primary faculty members (35 tenured or on tenure track), many of whom hold secondary appointments in other Departments and Divisions within the College. Undergraduate and graduate enrollments are approximately 500 and 150 respectively.  Our BS degree in ME allows for optional departmental concentrations in aerospace engineering and manufacturing engineering and college-wide concentrations in energy technologies, nanotechnology, and technology innovation.  At the graduate level, the ME Department offers research and professional Masters degrees in both mechanical and manufacturing engineering and a PhD in mechanical engineering.

Online Application

Application deadline is December 31, 2014; however, review of applications will begin immediately so 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.

BU-Brigham & Women’s Hospital Partnership Celebrates First Year

September 16th, 2014 in News

Joint Research Focused on Medical Imaging and Image-Guided Interventions

By Mark Dwortzan

Researchers from Boston University and Brigham & Women's Hospital are collaborating to improve medical imaging and image-guided interventions. (Images courtesy of Brigham & Women's Hospital)

Researchers from Boston University and Brigham & Women’s Hospital are collaborating to improve medical imaging and image-guided interventions. (Images courtesy of Brigham & Women’s Hospital)

Boston University College of Engineering Assistant Professor Darren Roblyer (BME) and Brigham & Women’s Hospital radiologist Srinivisan Mukundan are exploring a strategy that combines a new optical imaging device developed by Roblyer with emerging magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to probe malignant brain tumors during chemotherapy treatment. Their research could enable clinicians to monitor the effectiveness of chemotherapy over the course of treatment and implement changes to chemotherapy drugs and dose levels as needed.

The project is one of five now receiving funding through an ongoing partnership between Boston University and Brigham & Women’s Hospital. On September 12 at the BU Photonics Center, Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen and Dr. Steven Seltzer, Chair of the BWH Department of Radiology, announced the second year of the partnership, which has already provided one year of seed funding to projects ranging from image-guided cancer drug delivery to early detection of heart disease.

“The goal is to leverage synergies between Brigham & Women’s Hospital’s Radiology Department in imaging and image-guided interventions with the College of Engineering’s strengths in developing new materials and technologies as well as novel techniques for processing images and large data SE 9_16 1sets,” said Associate Professor Tyrone Porter (ME, BME, MSE), who is coordinating the partnership. “The hope is to stimulate research collaborations between the two campuses and develop a National Institutes of Health training program in clinical imaging and image-guided interventions.”

The brainchild of Lutchen and Seltzer, the BU-BWH partnership brings together world-class expertise and equipment from Boston University entities such as the BU Photonics Center and the BU Center for Nanoscience & Nanobiotechnology, and from the BWH Department of Radiology, home to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Image-Guided Therapy and the Advanced Multimodality Image Guided Operating Suite (AMIGO). Joint research between the two campuses could result in less invasive, more accurate medical imaging and image-guided interventions.

“There’s no question that in so many dimensions, imaging is at the foundation of a tremendous amount of potential breakthroughs in medical discoveries and practice, but there are huge challenges from a scientific and technical point of view,” said Lutchen. “We’ve got tons of interested students and faculty here that need and want to use imaging technologies to address interesting and important questions.”

First-round projects include the engineering of a new “molecular imaging” MRI contrast agent for detecting early calcification of the aortic valve; the combination of ultrasound and MR data to evaluate the elastic properties of tissues, which are associated with pathological indicators of disease; a clinical decision support system for patient-specific cancer diagnosis and management; and ultrasound-guided delivery of chemotherapy drug-laden nanoparticles to metastasized lung cancer cells in the brain. Applications for second-round projects are now underway.

All projects involve at least one principal investigator from each of the partnering institutions, who jointly advise a doctoral student on a project that could positively impact clinical practice. Participating ENG faculty include Professors Joyce Wong (BME, MSE), Paul Barbone (ME, MSE), Venkatesh Saligrama (ECE, SE) and Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE); Associate Professor Porter; and Assistant Professor Roblyer.

“The fields of biomedical imaging and bioengineering have been converging and collaborating for decades, and that collaboration continues to get closer and closer,” said Seltzer, noting a burgeoning clinical need for advanced technologies in functional and molecular imaging; information technologies ranging from data mining to image processing; and minimally-invasive diagnostic and therapeutic procedures guided by high-technology imaging techniques.


Reducing Highway Congestion through Software

September 12th, 2014 in News

Belta to Co-Lead $1 Million Study

By Mark Dwortzan

In the case of an accident on the freeway, ramp metering and arterial traffic signals coordinate to favor a detour route.

In the case of an accident on the freeway, ramp metering and arterial traffic signals coordinate to favor a detour route.

Traffic congestion is a waste not only of time, but also of energy and money. In 2011, it caused Americans in metropolitan areas to spend 5.5 billion extra hours on the road and pump 2.9 billion extra gallons of fuel into their gas tanks, with associated costs reaching $121 billion—a nearly six-fold increase since 1982. Municipalities have attempted to mitigate traffic congestion through highway onramp metering and fees at peak travel times, but the problem continues to worsen.

Now a research team led by Associate Professor Calin Belta (ME, SE) and University of California, Berkeley Associate Professor Murat Arcak (EECS) is advancing a novel solution that could reduce congestion considerably. Supported by a three-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the researchers plan to develop algorithms for a data-driven traffic management software system that optimizes the timing of traffic lights at both highway onramps and roadway intersections in real time.

The work represents a novel application of “formal methods,” a discipline within computer science focused on efficient techniques for proving the correct operation of systems ranging from computer programs to digital circuits, thus ensuring their reliability and robust performance.

“We want to develop a system in which we can guarantee specifications for traffic networks, just as we do for computer programs,” said Belta. “These specifications will include minimizing traffic jams and maximizing the flow of traffic, all while ensuring that pedestrians don’t have to wait a long time to cross the street.”

Whereas current traffic management systems can reduce traffic congestion within small networks of freeways and arterial roads, the formal methods approach promises to do so across much larger networks. In their algorithms, the researchers plan to partition a large road network into small sub-networks, and establish specifications so that enforcing desired traffic patterns in small sub-networks (and on roads linking one sub-network to another) guarantees desired traffic patterns in the original network.

The proposed techniques will be tested in current and upcoming traffic management projects in California sponsored by Caltrans, the state transportation agency. Applications include a prototype decision support system to be deployed along the Interstate 210 corridor north of Los Angeles, and coordinated ramp metering, arterial intersection and variable speed limit management on a freeway in Sacramento and a freeway-arterial interchange in San Jose.

Over the next three years, the team aims to accomplish three main tasks.

“We plan to develop the theory and algorithms to solve the problem, enable the system to accommodate extreme situations such as sporting events and accidents, and apply statistical methods to enhance its performance,” said Belta.

Reimagining Engineering Education

August 7th, 2014 in News

How ENG is Transforming the Classroom through Digital Learning Technology

By Mark Dwortzan

Active learning in EK301, Engineering Mechanics

Active learning in EK301, Engineering Mechanics

You’ve seen it before: a single faculty member on stage delivering a lecture to row after row of students dutifully taking notes, with little or no interaction between the lecturer and the note takers. It’s been the model for science and engineering education for more than a century, but a new paradigm is emerging that turns this model on its head, all while improving student outcomes: the flipped classroom.

In the flipped classroom, students view lectures online while at home, and spend classroom time applying what they learned both individually and in small group exercises. Collaborating with their peers at round tables in a revamped “learning studio” and guided by the faculty member and a team of teaching assistants moving from table to table, they solve problems that reflect the scope of the lecture material. And the difficulty: some problems are chosen based on trouble spots identified via mandatory quizzes that accompany the online lectures to assess student comprehension.

Screenshot of online course video from EK 127, Introduction to Engineering Computation

Screenshot of online course video from EK 127, Introduction to Engineering Computation

This is where engineering education is heading, and Boston University, which launched its Digital Learning Initiative (DLI) last year to spearhead innovative projects in online learning at all of its schools and colleges, is fully on board. The DLI recently awarded $80,000 to fund a College of Engineering proposal to enhance two core undergraduate engineering courses, EK127 (Introduction to Engineering Computation) and EK307 (Electric Circuits), with a suite of classroom-flipping, studio-based educational technologies and techniques. Lessons learned from this pilot program could be used to upgrade the learning experience in other engineering courses.

Professor Thomas Little (ECE, SE), the College of Engineering’s associate dean for Educational Initiatives, sees these pilot projects as part of a broader College-wide effort to use digital learning technologies—from tablets to Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs)—to bring engineering education into the 21st century.

“Inspired by the success of these technologies in other disciplines and energized by the support and training that the DLI is providing, we are developing new ways to improve what’s important to the student: learning; retention; and career preparation,” said Little.

In both EK127 and EK307, instructors and teaching assistants funded by the DLI grant will develop course content using edX, a non-profit online platform that offers interactive online classes and MOOCs—not as a vehicle to reach large numbers of students via the Internet, but as a tool to boost active learning in the classroom. For each class meeting, they will record a video on the material students need to learn for that class, make it accessible through the edX platform, use edX assessment tools to set up online quizzes, and design active learning exercises.

The instructor for EK127, 2014 Metcalf Cup and Prize winner and Assistant Professor Stormy Attaway (ME), has been gradually flipping the course over the last three years. With the new funding—and support by “course builders” such as Declan Bowman (BME’15), one of the first students in the College’s STEM Educator-Engineer Program (STEEP)—she aims to completely flip the course. Once all course content is placed online along with assessments, Attaway will devote all classroom time to active learning in Photonics Room 117, an instructional space that the College is converting into an active learning studio complete with round tables and modern electronic displays.

“At this point there is ample evidence that flipped classes with active learning environments work; the focus is now on how to get faculty to adopt these best practices,” she said, noting that transforming a traditional lecture into an online course module—breaking it into bite-sized chunks, recording the video and hosting it on the edX platform—can take up to 20 hours. “Although my primary goal is to improve the learning experience for my students, my secondary goal is to be a resource for my colleagues so that I can help them transform their courses.”

With his portion of the DLI funding, Professor Mark Horenstein (ECE) is developing a series of 30-minute course modules to aid fellow EK307 instructors who wish to flip their classrooms or enhance them with online instruction. Always available to students and consisting of animated, voice-over PowerPoint and/or videotaped lectures, the modules are intended to provide an interactive learning tool to supplement traditional textbooks, lectures, discussions and lab work.

“In my experience, students learn in a myriad of different ways,” said Horenstein. “Some students thrive in the traditional lecture/homework environment, while others learn best in a hands-on setting, for example, when a small group works with a professor during office hours on specific problems and concepts. Still other students learn best in the laboratory, where they can transfer lecture/discussion concepts into the hands-on design of electric circuits that solve a problem or meet a desired specification. The hope is that these modules will service all of these learning styles, and more.”

The two pilot projects leverage earlier digital technology-enabled active learning efforts by Lecturer Caleb Farny (ME) in EK301 (Engineering Mechanics) and Assistant Professor Martin Steffin (BME, MED) in BE 209 (Principles of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology), and pioneering work by faculty in the Physics Department in peer-based learning and the use of studio space.

“As these early adopters show what’s possible, we look forward to bringing additional faculty on board,” said Little. “By working with people who are taking risks to do the right thing for students, we’re going to demonstrate the potential of digital learning technologies to make a difference for our engineering students.”

Securing the Cloud

August 5th, 2014 in News

BU researchers on team to move cybersecurity from theory to practice

By Art Jahnke

Ran Canetti, director of the BU Center for Reliable Information Systems and Cyber Security, will lead the effort to build a modular cybersecurity system for the Massachusetts Open Cloud. Photo courtesy of the BU Department of Computer Science

Ran Canetti, director of the BU Center for Reliable Information Systems and Cyber Security, will lead the effort to build a modular cybersecurity system for the Massachusetts Open Cloud. Photo courtesy of the BU Department of Computer Science

The Massachusetts Open Cloud (MOC), a one-of-a-kind marketplace model for customizable public cloud offerings now being built a team of researchers from BU and several other universities, may soon claim another first: a modular cybersecurity system built from smaller, separate functional components, each asserting its own security individually. As a result, the security of the system as a whole will be derived from the security of its components, rather than from a single firewall, as is currently the case with most cloud systems.

The cutting-edge approach will be designed by researchers from Boston University, MIT, the University of Connecticut, and Northeastern University with funding from a five-year, $10 million Frontier grant from the National Science Foundation, $5.3 million of which will go to BU. The effort, known as the Modular Approach to Cloud Security (MACS), will be led by Ran Canetti, professor of computer science at the College of Arts & Sciences and director of the BU Center for Reliable Information Systems and Cyber Security.

“Our goal is to build a cloud with clear and transparent security properties,” says Canetti. “If successful, this project will transform the way we currently build and argue about secure systems.” Canetti says the goal involves more than developing hardware and software: it depends on understanding new ideas. Still, he says “we hope to build an actual system.”

Azer Bestavros (CS, SE) and the founding director of the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, says that, to date, people have talked about modular security in a theoretical sense, but making it a practical reality remains “a dream.”

“The problem with typical security on a cloud is that there is no way to check everything,” says Bestavros. “The systems are too big, and there are too many different technologies. Trying to secure the whole thing is a lost cause.”

To understand the MACS modular approach, says Bestavros, imagine making a house secure by securing every room and then combining all of the secure pieces. “It’s a very difficult problem,” he says. “We hope to take it from theory to practice in a real cloud.”

Among the many challenges and needs presented by the project are hardware with built-in secrecy and integrity properties; small and versatile operating systems that offer minimal functionality but are simpler and easier to analyze; privacy-preserving and verifiable memory access for outsourced applications; and algorithms for privacy-preserving, verifiable outsourced computations and database systems.

In addition to Canetti and Bestavros, the BU team working on the project includes Jonathan Appavoo, assistant professor of computer science at CAS; Sharon Goldberg, assistant professor of computer science at CAS and Hariri Institute Junior Faculty Fellow; George Kollios, professor of computer science at CAS; and Orran Krieger, a research professor in the department of computer science and Director of the Hariri Institute’s Cloud Computing Initiative.

The MACS project will use as a test bed the Massachusetts Open Cloud (MOC), now being built at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in a collaborative effort by researchers from BU, Harvard, UMass Amherst, MIT, and Northeastern University. Photo by Cydney Scott

The MACS project will use as a test bed the Massachusetts Open Cloud (MOC), now being built at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in a collaborative effort by researchers from BU, Harvard, UMass Amherst, MIT, and Northeastern University. Photo by Cydney Scott

The MACS project will use as a test bed the Massachusetts Open Cloud now being built in a collaborative effort by researchers from BU, Harvard, UMass Amherst, MIT, and Northeastern University, as well as the Massachusetts Green High-Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Software developers will interpret early research results and code them into a privacy-preserving solution to allow users of the MOC to share systems data, a capability that will offer more choices for researchers conducting experiments on cloud computing and allow them to build high-performance systems at a fraction of the current cost

Bestavros says BU’s work on MOC helped the University win the latest Frontier award from the NSF. “That kind of work enables us to be competitive for things like this,” says Bestavros. “It really puts BU in the leadership of computing research.”

The MACS project includes an education component, which offers programs that familiarize technology professionals with cybersecurity and its central role in our society and economy. It will also support new programs that will introduce K–12 students to cybersecurity and to computer science more broadly. The K–12 program will target students from demographic groups that are under-represented in the sciences as well as students with exceptional academic potential.

Putting Engineering Know-How to Work

July 31st, 2014 in News

Alum’s company boosts customer loyalty using indoor location technology

By Mark Dwortzan

Daniel Ryan (ENG’10), CEO of ByteLight, (left) and Manny Malandrakis, (ENG’10) one of the first ENG alumni to become an employee at the company. Photo by Dan Watkins

Daniel Ryan (ENG’10), CEO of ByteLight, (left) and Manny Malandrakis, (ENG’10) one of the first ENG alumni to become an employee at the company. Photo by Dan Watkins

Imagine you’re strolling through the aisles of a supermarket and just as you approach your favorite pasta sauce, a virtual “buy one, get one free” coupon for the product, redeemable at checkout, appears on your smartphone. Rather than having you page through a weekly compilation of in-store offers—that’s so 20th century—the store has delivered the coupon directly to your phone based on your current location and shopping history.

Making this possible are standard overhead LED lights that not only illuminate the room but also function as an indoor GPS. Enhanced with microchips, the bulbs contain sophisticated software that causes them to flicker fast enough to transmit a distinctive, information-rich signal that a smartphone camera can detect and a retailer’s mobile app can decode.

In just three years, the Boston-based startup that developed the software, ByteLight, has become a market leader in indoor location solutions, a burgeoning industry enabling mobile device users to access discounts, directions, and other highly targeted services at precise locations within buildings. Energized by a recent influx of $3 million from investors, ByteLight is piloting its technology at several global retailers, including 3 of the top 10 big-box stores, as well as at 100 stores in China.

Spearheading this success story is ByteLight’s CEO, Daniel Ryan (ENG’10), who cofounded the company with classmate Aaron Ganick (ENG’10) in 2011 based on concepts they studied and implemented as research assistants in Thomas Little’s (ECE, SE) NSF Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center. Inspired to pursue careers in electrical engineering by childhood visits to Boston’s Museum of Science, Ryan and Ganick devised ByteLight’s core technology in the lab, developed a prototype and business plan in the technology incubator space at the BU Photonics Center and Highland Capital Partner’s Summer Program, and then raised sufficient capital to launch the company. While Ganick moved on last year to pursue other endeavors, Ryan continues to grow ByteLight to meet a surging demand for its unique indoor location solution.

As a smartphone-toting customer approaches a product in a department store, the ByteLight app displays discount information. Photo courtesy of ByteLight

As a smartphone-toting customer approaches a product in a department store, the ByteLight app displays discount information. Photo courtesy of ByteLight

It’s a demand driven partly by the rapid adoption of LEDs, and partly by the product’s market-leading accuracy, responsiveness, and reliability. LED lights equipped with ByteLight software can pinpoint a mobile device user’s location to within one meter in less than a second—far outpacing the performance of other indoor positioning systems developed by industry giants, including Apple and Google, that triangulate distances between hotpots and handsets on wireless networks.

“Sub-meter accuracy has long been the holy grail for retailers experimenting with indoor location,” says Ryan. “With ByteLight, retailers finally have the opportunity to install a wall-to-wall solution that just works.”

Also lifting ByteLight above its competitors are its low infrastructure cost and compatibility with all mobile devices. Unlike other solutions that require additional hardware such as WiFi hotspots or Bluetooth beacons, ByteLight software exploits an existing and ubiquitous infrastructure: overhead lighting. ByteLight not only uses light waves to transmit useful information to smartphone-toting customers at specific locations, but also to quickly and securely verify their presence for loyalty programs, mobile payments, and more at “tap-and-go” check-in and check-out locations equipped with the company’s Light Field Communication readers. Compatible with all smartphones, the ByteLight readers cost five percent as much as the increasingly popular Near Field Communication (NFC) readers, which use radio signals to process such transactions and work only with a limited set of mobile devices.

Once integrated into a retailer’s app and LED lights, ByteLight software promises to boost customer loyalty and sales by delivering personalized savings from store shelf to checkout. Since ByteLight technology was introduced in 100 stores in China, the stores have seen a 30 percent increase in loyalty reward redemptions.

“Brick-and-mortar retailers are demanding new solutions that can leverage digital assets within physical store locations to engage and retain customers,” says Don Dodge, developer advocate at Google and an industry leader in indoor location technology. “ByteLight’s indoor location solutions assist retailers with delivering hyper-targeted information and content to customers on mobile devices within their stores based on the device’s precise location. More importantly, these solutions fully integrate physical commerce with eCommerce to give retailers an omni-channel offering.”

ByteLight software exploits an existing and ubiquitous infrastructure: overhead lighting. Photo by Dan Watkins

ByteLight software exploits an existing and ubiquitous infrastructure: overhead lighting. Photo by Dan Watkins

ByteLight’s primary focus is on the retail industry, but the company’s technology could also be deployed in venues ranging from museums—including Boston’s Museum of Science, where ByteLight is used in one exhibit to display location-sensitive content—to factories to airplanes. To expand the company’s repertoire, ByteLight provides its customers with a software development kit they can use to invent new applications for the software-enhanced lights. In the coming years, as the use of LED lighting and mobile devices continues to grow, Ryan envisions integrating ByteLight technology into stadiums, conference centers, schools, office buildings, hospitals, and other domains.

Little, who is also affiliated with ENG’s division of systems engineering, served as mentor to Ryan during his undergraduate years, and is now an advisor to the company. He is bullish about his former student’s prospects. “Dan is an exceptional individual who epitomizes what engineering school is all about—learning to solve problems. Any problem,” says Little. “And to be adaptable and agile in a continuously changing technological world. He has demonstrated the ability to deliver a product coupled with software integration and analytics that support a complex supply and distribution chain with diverse market stakeholders.”

In his role as ByteLight’s CEO, Ryan draws on engineering, entrepreneurial, and interpersonal skills that he cultivated at ENG, where he helped launch a small satellite while participating in the BU Student Satellite for Applications and Training (BUSAT) program, took an ENG/SMG course in entrepreneurship, and served as the Class of 2010 Commencement speaker. Today, as he steers ByteLight toward a rollout in US stores from a new office in Boston’s Fort Point Channel neighborhood, Ryan finds himself applying these skills to solve a full spectrum of problems.

“Each day brings a new problem, ranging from product development to technology to new competition,” he says. “The key to responding effectively and moving forward through the chaos is your team. It’s that simple. At ByteLight, we’ve been fortunate to build an incredibly talented core of technologists to take our vision and turn it into reality.”

One of Ryan’s valued team members is former classmate, Manny Malandrakis (ENG’10), one of the first ENG alumni to become a ByteLight employee. He focuses on digital signal processing and communications systems, the subject of two courses he took as an undergraduate.

“These classes were the foundation of this company,” says Ryan. “We’re leveraging the core theories and techniques we learned in these courses every day.”

Mark Dwortzan can be reached at

A version of this story was originally published in the spring 2014 edition of Engineer.

Mark Crovella named BU’s Innovator of the Year

July 22nd, 2014 in News

By Rich Barlow

Computer scientist Mark Crovella received BU’s Innovator of the Year award last week from Gloria Walters, vice president and associate provost for research. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

Computer scientist Mark Crovella received BU’s Innovator of the Year award last week from Gloria Walters, vice president and associate provost for research. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

Mark Crovella’s work centers on networks, mostly computer networks, and they have been improved by his research. He studies their properties by using data mining and statistics (though Crovella also has studied social and biological networks).

Crovella, a professor and chairman of computer science in the College of Arts & Sciences, and affiliated professor of the Division of Systems Engineering in the College of Engineering, has just been named the University’s Innovator of the Year. The award recognizes faculty whose research produces inventions and innovations beneficial to humanity.

Among the products of his work, Crovella says, have been “methods of detecting unusual patterns in computer network traffic, including evidence of intrusions and malicious activity; improvements to the design of web servers and content delivery systems; and methods of measuring networks to uncover traffic bottlenecks, interconnection patterns, and geographic locations of networked systems.”

Crovella “is an entrepreneurial scientist whose inventions have been licensed to two start-up companies,” says Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer. “His accomplishments in the past year include 10 peer-reviewed papers published, five patent filings, and $30 million invested in BU spinoff Guavus,” a data analytics firm providing customers help with computer network operations, marketing, security, and other functions. Crovella is chief scientist at the San Mateo, California–based company, which was launched in 2006 by Anukool Lakhina (CAS’01, GRS’01, GRS’07), one of Crovella’s former students. The data analytics company currently has more than 500 employees.

“It’s incredibly satisfying to be able to translate discoveries made in the lab into actual products that people use to solve problems,” Crovella says. “But it would have been impossible without the smart, enterprising students and colleagues who have done the lion’s share of the work in getting these companies off the ground. I don’t believe I stand out among the many entrepreneurs and inventors that I see all around me at BU, and who are a huge source of inspiration for me.”

Google Scholar shows about 14,600 citations of Crovella’s work. He has written more than 200 papers and coauthored Internet Measurement: Infrastructure, Traffic, and Applications (Wiley).

He received his award last week at Tech, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll, the University’s annual networking event for researchers, investors, and entrepreneurs. The award dates to 2010. Past winners are Theodore Moustakas and James Collins of the College of Engineering, Mark Grinstaff of ENG and CAS, and Avrum Spira of the School of Medicine.

Beyond Bacteria

July 15th, 2014 in News

A Promising New Method for Engineering Mammalian Cells

By Mark Dwortzan

Albert J. Keung (BME), first author on the paper in the journal Cell, describing CoSBi research on chromatin at CoSBi's Synthetic Biology Boston symposium.

Albert J. Keung (BME), first author on the paper in the journal Cell, describing CoSBi research on chromatin at CoSBi’s Synthetic Biology Boston symposium.

At the heart of synthetic biology is the assembly of genetic components into “circuits” that perform desired operations in living cells, with the long-term goal of empowering these cells to solve critical problems in healthcare, energy, the environment and other domains, from cancer treatment to toxic waste cleanup. While much of this work is done using bacterial cells, new techniques are emerging to reprogram eukaryotic cells—those found in plants and animals, including humans—to perform such tasks.

To engineer useful genetic circuits in eukaryotic cells, synthetic biologists typically manipulate sequences of DNA in an organism’s genome, but Assistant Professor Ahmad “Mo” Khalil (BME), Professor James J. Collins (BME, MSE, SE) postdoctoral fellow Albert J. Keung (BME) and other researchers at Boston University’s Center of Synthetic Biology (CoSBi) have another idea that could vastly increase their capabilities. Rather than manipulate the DNA sequence directly, the CoSBi engineers are exploiting a class of proteins that regulate chromatin, the intricate structure of DNA and proteins that condenses and packages a genome to fit within the cell. These chromatin regulator (CR) proteins play a key role in expressing—turning on and off—genes throughout the cell, so altering their makeup could provide a new pathway for engineering the cell’s genetic circuits to perform desired functions.

Using synthetic biology techniques, the researchers systematically modified 223 distinct CR proteins in yeast to determine their impact—individually and in various combinations—on gene expression in yeast cells. Described in the journal Cell in a paper featuring Albert Keung as first author, their findings could provide a new set of design principles for reprogramming eukaryotic cells.

“Albert’s paper is one of the first to show how we can harness chromatin as a pathway for gene regulation,” said Khalil. “This approach represents a new paradigm for manipulating the structure of chromatin for engineering a biological system.”

Among the researcher’s findings was the discovery that selected CR proteins can regulate the expression not only of single genes, but clusters of nearby genes. They also determined that chromatin modifications induced by CR proteins got passed down to new cells once existing cells divided, endowing them with “memory” of specific functions. This memory retention could enable sets of engineered cells to sense a fleeting signal and remember it over a long period of time even as cells divide. Cells within a bodily organ, such as the brain or liver, also require memory of their tissue type in order to maintain their function and avoid becoming cancerous.

“Exploiting the major role that chromatin plays in gene regulation provides us with another layer of control in reprogramming cells to perform specific functions,” said Keung, who envisions the new approach leading to a better understanding of cell biology and a more powerful synthetic biology toolkit.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, National Science Foundation, Boston University College of Engineering, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.