Bostonia: The Transformers

Dean Jorge Delva, illustration by David Mahoney.

Bostonia profiles dean Jorge Delva in its list of seven top BU researchers making an impact in their fields.

Boston University’s research enterprise is booming. Over 4,000 faculty across nearly 1,700 laboratories have catalyzed more scientific and social innovation than ever, attracting a torrent of new grants and funding awards. Last year, they pulled in nearly 20 percent more dollars than the previous year, rocketing BU past half-a-billion dollars in research funding.

“It’s really exciting to see the trajectory that BU has been on since 1997, when I joined as a faculty member, to when President Brown came on board in 2005…. It’s a different place,” says Gloria Waters, vice president and associate provost for research. “Faculty from so many different disciplines are coming together to solve societal problems.” She says the Rajen Kilachand Fund for Integrated Life Sciences and Engineering, which supports promising multidisciplinary research teams with a $100 million research endowment, “has already achieved its major goal of catalyzing collaboration.”

BU’s $579 million in research funds last year, compared to $345 million in 2015, signals just how much collaborative work is happening within the University and around the world. Examples are everywhere, from Beijing to Boston, from Comm Ave to Albany Street, where a multidisciplinary team of scientists at BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) is working with live Ebola virus and other lethal contagions inside its Biosafety Level 4 laboratory, the highest level of biosafety containment used for infectious agents that pose extreme danger to humans.

The Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering was designed by director Azer Bestavros, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of computer science, to make the power of data science accessible to astronomers, zoologists, and every type of researcher in between. Through the institute’s SPARK! program, undergraduate researchers partner with start-ups, municipalities, social change engines, and industry giants. Bestavros, meanwhile, has been nurturing a breakthrough of his own: a data analysis method known as secure multiparty computation, which allows for consumer data to be analyzed for the public good without revealing anyone’s private information.

The BU Initiative on Cities is using research to direct urban planning and societal change. Codirector Katharine Lusk has played a key role in Boston’s drive to be the first city in the country to achieve pay equity for women. She’s partnered with the Hariri Institute on SCOPE (Smart-city Cloud-based Open Platform and Ecosystem), a National Science Foundation Partnerships for Innovation Project at BU that digitally connects innovators from around the city to make data-driven decisions that reduce pollution and traffic congestion, monitor greenhouse gas emissions, schedule and dispatch police and traffic details, and more.

It’s really exciting to see the trajectory that BU has been on,” says Gloria Waters, vice president and associate provost for research. “It’s a different place.”

On a broader scale, the Global Development Policy Center at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies is researching the most effective strategies to support financial stability, sustainable energy, and human well-being.

At the Johnson & Johnson Innovation Lung Cancer Center, a research alliance launched in 2018 between BU and Johnson & Johnson Innovation LLC (JJI), director Avrum Spira (ENG’02) is bringing unconventional lung cancer research front and center. His own research has revealed that genetic differences related to the immune system may play a key role in the early development of lung cancer. Spira, a School of Medicine professor of medicine, pathology, and bioinformatics and the Alexander Graham Bell Professor in Health Care Entrepreneurship, has also helped direct JJI pilot funding to BU roboticists, environmental health specialists, stem cell engineers, and molecular biologists, who are using the money to carry out unconventional, high-risk research on lung cancer cures.

Embodying that unconventional approach, engineers and biological scientists in the Rajen Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering are reimagining the boundaries between their disciplines. Chantal Stern, a CAS professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Center on the ninth floor, is part of a robotics and neuroscience team learning how humans and animals navigate their environments so they can mimic those mechanisms in artificially intelligent, self-driving cars and robots. Just down the hall, Steve Ramirez (CAS’10), a CAS assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences and a member of the Center for Memory & Brain and the Center for Systems Neuroscience, is using optogenetics—a technique that uses genetic engineering to make brain cells activate when light is shined on them—to learn how to identify specific memories and then enhance or suppress them. His research could unlock new doors to treating memory-related disorders like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Here are seven more BU researchers who are pioneering in their fields.

The Creator

Mo Khalil

College of Engineering Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering
Making synthetic biology more accessible to researchers at BU—and beyond

Mo Khalil was working on rocket propulsion at NASA before he took a Stanford University class in biology and biomechanics. It changed the trajectory of his scientific career. “It opened my eyes to problems in biology and in particular how engineering approaches could be quite useful to solve them.”

Now, Khalil considers biology to be the central pillar of his engineering work. He’s using synthetically created bits of life’s building blocks, DNA and proteins, to create new living colonies (mainly bacterial cells and yeast) that could be programmed to perform complex, meaningful tasks—like wiping out tough-to-treat cancer cells, spawning new classes of drugs and chemical compounds, or gobbling up environmental pollutants.

But at the top of his mind when it comes to important problems that synthetic biology can solve? Combating antibiotic resistance, which is increasing to dangerously high levels in all parts of the world, by conjuring up new biological communities that can quickly detect and wipe out infection without the use of antibiotic drugs. Khalil knows he can’t do it on his own.

So, he is investing a lot of his energy into making synthetic biology, still an emerging field, more accessible to other researchers. For synthetic biologists, the ingredients in their recipe may be DNA, proteins, and cellular signals that instruct cells how to develop and behave, but the Crock-Pot that bakes the ultimate product—specially designed cells that do exactly what Khalil and his collaborators built them to do—is evolution itself. “The idea is…let evolution do the hardest design work for us,” Khalil says.

Synthetically created bits of life’s building blocks—DNA and proteins—are used to create new living colonies that could be programmed to perform complex tasks, like wiping out cancer cells.

Unfortunately, even for the rapidly dividing cell cultures that are the bread and butter of synthetic biology, evolution is still painfully slow and difficult to predict. To speed it up and guide the process, Khalil and his team at BU hand-built a cell culture machine that automates all the perfect cell growth conditions for evolution to occur more rapidly and predictably than ever before—and do it across hundreds of different cell cultures at the same time. The end result is a new batch of proteins or organisms that do as they’re told.

His team has made the machine’s design open source, so that other researchers at BU and beyond can harness accelerated evolution for the common good. To continue shepherding the progress of synthetic biology, the National Institutes of Health has given Khalil and colleagues funding to nurture the next generation of synthetic biologists through a Biotechnology Predoctoral Training Program in Synthetic Biology at BU, the first program of its kind in the nation.

The Actor

Carrie Preston

Kilachand Honors College Director and Arvind and Chandan Nandlal Kilachand Professor; College of Arts & Sciences Professor of English and of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Studying a humanitarian crisis through the lens of performing arts

Through theater and dance, Carrie Preston adopts different roles and perspectives to study the way people of different cultures view gender, race, and identity. In her latest research project, she’s looking, through the lens of performing arts, at what she considers to be the most pressing humanitarian issue of our time. “There are more than 70 million refugees…we’ve never seen this number of displaced persons in the world before,” Preston says.

One of the questions driving her research is, how do plays written by displaced persons differ from plays written by nonrefugees? The answers, she says, reveal an important cultural disconnect.

Some of the plays she’s studying, written by refugee playwrights in Syria and at the US southern border, portray what it’s like to be asked dozens upon dozens of questions—often about gang-related or sexual forms of violence—by doctors and therapists tasked with interrogating asylum seekers to determine whether they’re eligible for refugee status. “How retraumatizing are these questions?” Preston asks.

She’s also looking closely at how NGOs and projects funded by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees are using Western-style acting classes in Syrian refugee settlements to encourage women to share stories of violence they’ve endured.

How do plays written by displaced persons differ from plays written by nonrefugees? The answers, says Preston, reveal an important cultural disconnect.

“There’s a seeming lack of recognition that often a woman’s attacker is someone in the camp that people know, that telling her story might endanger her. To have women tell their stories in front of the community…. These are unexamined assumptions about what is good for rape survivors,” she says. “Honor killings are still very much occurring and so a rape survivor might even be killed, further injured, or ostracized.”

Preston has also partnered with Muhammad Zaman, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering, who created a three-week humanitarian engineering course that brings Kilachand Honors College students to settlements in Lebanon and Uganda. There, students talk with refugees about the problems they face every day and develop projects—social or technological innovations—to solve them.

The course often leads to a seismic shift in perspective about a similar problem on our own doorstep. “It’s a huge reality check as a teacher to see very talented, privileged, and concerned students not immediately connecting what we’re doing [in Lebanon and Uganda] with what our government is doing on the southern border,” says Preston. “This has to be part of the course, and part of my own research. I cannot criticize what’s happening in the Middle East or East Africa without thinking about what’s happening closer to home.”

The Fixer

David Bishop

College of Engineering Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Repairing hearts damaged by heart attack

David Bishop, who’s developing living “Band-Aids” to repair hearts damaged by heart attack, is keenly aware of the impact that his team’s work stands to have.

“Heart disease kills one in four Americans, and it’s one of the leading causes of death around the world,” says Bishop, director of BU’s CELL-MET, an engineering research center in cellular metamaterials funded by the National Science Foundation. “A lot of us are going to die from heart disease, because right now, heart attacks can’t be cured,” he says.

After a heart attack, the muscle cells that help the heart contract die off and are replaced by stiff, immovable scar tissue. “You’re permanently disabled,” Bishop says. “When heart muscle dies, your heart can’t contract as strongly and can’t eject as much blood as you did before. Cardiologists today never use the word cure; they only talk about managing your condition.”

Bishop’s vision? “If someone has a heart attack, we create new cardiac tissues derived from that person’s own cells.”

His vision? “If someone has a heart attack, we create new cardiac tissues derived from that person’s own cells,” he says. “We create an implantable tissue patch that covers the damaged part of the heart, to restore the heart’s capacity to pump blood. The tissue patch transmits electrical signals and contracts in a twisting and squeezing motion, just like healthy heart does on its own. No foreign organ tissues involved, no immunosuppression issues.”

The CELL-MET team is 2 years into a 10-year program designed to bring the vision of a living, beating heart Band-Aid to life. Bishop and Alice White, an ENG professor and chair of mechanical engineering, bring their nanotechnology expertise to the table. CELL-MET deputy director Christopher Chen, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering and a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor, is an expert in microchip environments that mimic the inside of a living heart. These so-called “hearts on a chip” set the essential stage that lab-grown cardiac tissues need to develop and function normally. And renowned imaging scientist Thomas Bifano, an ENG professor of mechanical engineering and director of BU’s Photonics Center, is enabling the team to see and measure every aspect of heart tissue growth, down to inconceivably small cellular parts.

“Together, leveraging our strengths, we have a shot,” Bishop says.

The Equalizer

Angela Onwuachi-Willig

School of Law Dean and Professor of Law
How law influences disparities in gender, race, and education

Angela Onwuachi-Willig remembers watching the video of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by a Charleston, S.C., police officer during a daytime traffic stop in 2015. She says that as she watched, she thought, “There probably won’t even be a conviction in this case, in such an obvious case. I’m a lawyer—I should believe in our legal system more than the average citizen. It was a life-changing moment for me. I began to see the impact of these repeated acquittals on my own psyche. As a sociologist, I had to wonder, what effect were they having on African Americans as a group? I distinctly remember [the video] being the moment I could no longer watch tapes [of police shooting African Americans] because I already knew what the outcome was going to be.”

Onwuachi-Willig, a prolific academic writer and researcher, studies how law influences disparities in gender, race, and education. She is working on a new research project that seeks to understand how the legal outcome of cases concerning the killing of unarmed African Americans by police or quasi-police create cultural trauma for blacks in the United States.

“There are repeated instances of nonindictments or acquittals in these cases. What effect does that pattern have on African Americans as a group?” she says.

How does the legal outcome of cases concerning the killing of unarmed African Americans by police or quasi-police create cultural trauma for blacks in the United States?

She’s interviewing people of all races, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds to get a better picture of how the tragedies and legal outcomes like those in the Walter Scott and Trayvon Martin shootings forever change a group, the way the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till—and the acquittal of his murderers—rocked the country. In today’s internet news era, stories of black killings travel broader and faster, which is both a pro and a con culturally, Onwuachi-Willig says.

“It’s negative for African Americans. We always knew these things were happening. We saw it and lived it, but there’s an increased trauma in witnessing these events unfold, and seeing what the legal outcomes are. It’s hard not to feel victimized, again and again. The positive for African Americans, though…we were always complaining about police brutality and unjust killings, and many whites did not believe us. Now, for many whites who are willing to acknowledge what they are seeing in these [videos of police violence against unarmed blacks], their eyes have been opened to our reality, and I think that’s been a major positive. Now, there are more allies than there were before.”

The Game Changer

Ann McKee

School of Medicine Professor of Neurology and Pathology and William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor
Sounding the alarm on the dangers of football

Ann McKee’s research threatens the future of America’s most popular sport, and although it’s not easy to go up against a wealthy and powerful organization like the National Football League, she’s committed to speaking the truth no matter how uncomfortable it makes people.

“Money rules the world—it’s really extraordinary to see how much business rules everything,” McKee says. “We get so much pushback on our work because we’re affecting [the NFL’s] bottom line.”

For McKee, money doesn’t talk. Human brains do.

“We get so much pushback on our work because we’re affecting [the NFL’s] bottom line.”

As director of the brain banks for BU’s Framingham Heart Study, Alzheimer’s Disease Center, and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center, she’s meticulously dissected a whole lot of human brains. And in hundreds of brains of former professional football players, she has scrupulously documented an insidious buildup of toxic proteins, visible under a microscope and sometimes to the naked eye. The proteins signal tissue damage and death brought on by countless hits to the head during football practices and games.

“I’m a doctor first. For me, my research is trying to understand the human condition,” says McKee. “What changes our mind and our brain? I’m always asking, why? Why is it happening?”

McKee, who has been called before Congress to testify about the dangers of football, didn’t expect to become an NFL adversary. A Green Bay Packers fan, she was struck by reports of remarkable behavior and personality changes from scores of former football players and their concerned family members. So she started to do what she’d been doing for Alzheimer’s disease research. She began conducting autopsies on the brains of deceased football players who had displayed disturbing neurodegenerative symptoms while they were alive.

As a result of her work, neurologists around the world are using the “McKee criteria” to diagnose new cases of CTE in deceased athletes and combat veterans. And it seems as though not a month goes by without another prominent athlete announcing that upon their death, they will donate their brain to the CTE Center, to further her research on the disease. For now CTE can be diagnosed only when someone is dead, but McKee is working to find a way to diagnose it in the living, and perhaps find ways to treat and reverse it, and to apply its lessons to brain health more broadly.

“There are so many mysteries of the human mind, what causes people to act strangely and bizarrely. It’s pretty fascinating,” she says. “I have tremendous optimism that we can use CTE to understand other neurodegenerative diseases…. It’s just one small facet of a giant puzzle.”

McKee says football will likely live on, but as scientific evidence mounts on the dangers of repetitive hits to the head, she predicts the sport will evolve. “If history is any guide, we can expect to see exactly what happened with boxing,” she says. “As the dangers of boxing became more and more known, the sport fell to lower socioeconomic groups that didn’t have as many other potential pathways to success. I have a very bad feeling that that’s what’s going to happen with football.”

The Conductor

Xin Zhang

College of Engineering Professor of Mechanical Engineering
Dealing a blow to the thrum of modern life, a noise-canceling technology reduces a sound by 94 percent

For Xin Zhang, silence is music to her ears. As a lifelong city dweller, she’s all too familiar with the endless cacophony of cars, trains, planes, and the technological thrum of modern life. She also knows that noise pollution is a real problem for society; growing research suggests that noise can be detrimental to the health of humans, animals, and the environment.

Zhang hopes to deal a blow to noise. Earlier this year, the engineer and materials scientist unveiled a new noise-canceling technology that, thanks to a mathematically guided material design, can reduce a sound by 94 percent.

What’s so remarkable about this acoustic metamaterial? It essentially looks like an open, dinner plate–size ring; air can pass through, but sound cannot.

Zhang and her team used mathematics to design a form that would bend the typical laws of materials to influence how sound is transmitted at certain frequencies or tones. In theory, the rings could be combined like bricks to create sound-silencing walls or other structures, opening up endless possibilities for spaces that could be made quieter.

The acoustic metamaterial could quiet the din of MRI machines, making the experience less unpleasant for patients.

“Almost overnight, 50 companies approached me with ideas on how the sound-silencing acoustic metamaterial could help them solve problems,” Zhang says. “It was a bit of a surprise to get that immediate reaction, but that just goes to show how deeply meaningful new noise-cancellation technologies can be for society.”

Zhang and longtime research collaborator Stephan Anderson, a MED professor of radiology, have one particularly loud problem in mind: the scary roar of MRI machines. They think the acoustic metamaterial could quiet the din, making the experience much more pleasant, or at least less unpleasant, for patients.

But sound isn’t the only medium that Zhang and Anderson intend to hijack for the greater good.

“We can make magic possible using metamaterials,” Zhang says. MRI relies on magnetic fields to get a look inside the human body, but high-powered magnetic fields are extremely expensive to build and maintain and are out of reach for smaller healthcare systems that don’t have the budget or facilities for acquiring and running such a powerful machine. Zhang sees a workaround that could transform low-level magnetic fields into an imaging system just as powerful as today’s biggest MRI machines. “Using metamaterials, I can make lower-power MRIs see much better, at a very affordable cost,” she says.

Zhang and Anderson are developing a magnetic metamaterial specially designed to “turn up the volume” of MRI, increasing its imaging power. Their system isn’t made of anything fancy—just copper wiring wound around 3-D–printed plastic tubes that together look almost like rose-gold Slinkys. But arranged in a grid-like pattern and placed over the body, they increase the quality of an MRI image more than fourfold.

For patients, that could mean faster, safer MRIs available in many more clinics around the world, reducing wait times and speeding up the diagnoses of life-threatening diseases.

The Advocator

Jorge Delva

School of Social Work Dean, Director and Paul Farmer Professor for the Center for Innovation in Social Work and Health
Looking at rates of depression and anxiety in children of undocumented parents

Growing up in Chile under a military dictatorship, Jorge Delva got a close look at the societal tension between the haves and the have-nots. “One side was going hungry and being arrested for their beliefs, the other side wanted to change the economy,” he says. “I became preoccupied with social justice and abuses of human rights.”

Delva worries now that today’s poor treatment of undocumented immigrants in this country will create a ripple effect of negative outcomes in the future. “Unsurprisingly, the rates of depression and anxiety are terribly high in children of undocumented parents or children themselves who are undocumented,” he says. “This is the next generation of our workforce. These are going to be our next colleagues, taxi drivers, and doctors who are likely to experience health and mental health problems from these experiences. Everybody will be impacted by these children who are growing up with this terrible weight on their shoulders.”

“Unsurprisingly, the rates of depression and anxiety are terribly high in children of undocumented parents or children themselves who are undocumented.”

Delva urges his colleagues to use research as a way to document the extent to which undocumented children might be experiencing mental health problems. “We need to help address this,” he says. “These movements to deport people that we’re seeing, they’re creating a tremendous level of fear in children who are involved.”

Before taking the School of Social Work deanship in 2018, Delva saw what that fear looks like on the ground. Interviewing children and teenagers of undocumented immigrants in Michigan, he noticed that they didn’t have the same spark of rebelliousness that one expects from most young people. “These youth didn’t even dare to listen to loud music at home, for fear that it would attract attention to their household,” he says.

Terrified that their parents would be arrested running errands in public, Delva says, these young people have adopted many adult responsibilities, such as taking siblings to school and doing shopping for the family.

“They were taking on parental roles…inappropriately so,” he says. “We saw 12-year-olds taking care of 4-year-old siblings and thinking about looking for a job to help support their family. That level of maturity…can a body and mind sustain so much at that age?”

These interviews gave Delva and his community partners enough information to go to the mayor of Ann Arbor to advocate for the city to protect undocumented families. “We asked that they not allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to come into these communities,” he says. “You’re an activist, of course you’re arguing—you’re saying look at what we’re finding, the pain these families live with. Children come home from school and worry their parents won’t be there anymore.”

Now, as director of BU’s Center for Innovation in Social Work & Health, created by an anonymous $12.5 million gift, Delva is driving new research that can inform novel policies to improve the lives of low-income and minority populations and reduce health disparities.

This story was written by Kat J. McAlpine and originally published by Bostonia