Dean’s Catalyst Awards Aim to Spark the Research Engine


From inventing a camera that can awake from sleep to capture a rare jaguar walking through the jungle to designing an array of tiny wires that detects a specific protein in the blood, the intrigue of new research ideas is high. But, the risks that come with untested areas of study can make it tough for engineers to find funding to start turning these ideas into reality.
In an effort to give promising faculty research ideas an initial boost, Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen has instituted the Dean’s Catalyst Awards in the College of Engineering. The first awards in the program, aimed at encouraging innovative, cross-cutting collaborative research that is likely to attract external funding in the future, were presented this semester.
“These grants will allow our faculty to move in new directions to begin some truly ambitious and innovative work,” said Lutchen. “We see tremendous value in encouraging cross-disciplinary initiatives and in helping the College of Engineering community leverage its expertise in new ways.”
The selection committee recommended funding five of the 16 projects submitted this year, putting particular emphasis on those that foster collaborations among multiple disciplines and those most likely to result in future proposals for external funding. In the future, three to five Dean’s Catalyst Awards – typically ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 each – will be awarded annually.

The following groups received this year’s Dean’s Catalyst Awards:

Sean Andersson (AME) and Natalia Broude (Center for Advanced Biotechnology) plan to stalk RNA as it meanders around a living cell. The researchers attach fluorescent tags to RNA molecules and watch their movements within the cell. Andersson and Broude are interested improving the technology needed to track the movements of RNA, which will lead to better understanding of its role in the cell. Current detection methods do not see the glowing molecules clearly since background fluorescence obscures them, much as city lights frustrate amateur astronomers. Detection methods today limit researchers: confocal microscopy is fast and high resolution, but only views a small area; a camera detects more slowly but has a much broader field of view. Andersson hopes to combine the best aspects of these methods to “develop new approaches to get the resolution in time and space we need to look at these systems.”

Thomas Little (ECE), Janusz Konrad (ECE) and Prakash Ishwar (ECE) want to be able to stare at seals, birds or bears for hours on end. The three researchers aim to develop a video sensor network that could be used for ecology fieldwork. Such a system must run for long periods of time, minimizing its energy consumption and limiting its capture of data to just the information of interest, like animal appearances that might be separated by hours. The team, which also collaborates with the Biology and Geography departments, plans to address these requirements by building a prototype computer system including solar panels and batteries as energy sources, a high-resolution camera sensor like those used in cell phone cameras, and a wide angle lens. An ecologist could select sub-sections of pixels or certain time intervals to view, allowing for the digital equivalent of a normal camera’s capability to pan, zoom, and tilt. The team will also work on ways to transmit large chunks of video data more efficiently and on enabling the cameras to “wake up” when something of interest, like a bear emerging from hibernation, occurs in its view.

Kamil Ekinci (AME) and Viktor Yakhot (AME) will combine their laboratory and theoretical expertise to study the vibration of nano-scale wires in lab-on-a-chip devices, when the chip is submerged in liquid.  Because of the delicacy of these devices, experiments typically take place in a vacuum, where the researchers can detect minute changes in vibrations when tiny pieces of matter – on the order of a few atoms – fall onto the wires. This austere environment, however, is far removed from that of the human body or a biochemical solution – places the researchers hope to eventually apply this technology to detect specific proteins or chemicals. They will use their award to study how fluid changes the vibrations of the nano-wires, and whether they can adapt the device to work well when wet.

Massoud Sharif (ECE) and Selim Ünlü (ECE) will use their award to improve how scientists retrieve data from microarrays. With the use of microarray technology now moving from lab benches into clinical medicine, requirements for accuracy in results are growing more stringent. These tiny chips house a grid of many different snippets of DNA, each anchored to a distinct spot. When researchers add a specific molecule to the array, they detect the resultant interactions between DNA and their molecule of interest using techniques including fluorescence, interferometry – detecting changes in patterns of resonant light, or reflection of light from a laser. In each of these detection methods, the light signal must be processed into a format that researchers understand. Sharif and Ünlü will work on improving signal processing techniques, developing new algorithms to overcome the problems of noise, distortion and randomness that can accompany the desired signals, obfuscating useful results.

Luca Dal Negro (ECE) and Robert Kotiuga (ECE) plan to create disorder, but also control it to make intense optical fields. In the past, researchers thought creating optical fields on a nano scale, with lengths shorter than the wavelength of light itself, only occurred randomly in metal nanostructures. If these optical fields could not be controlled, then engineers could not use them for nanophotonic devices. Dal Negro and Kotiuga will work on a new strategy to generate and control these tiny, intense optical fields on reproducible nano-scale arrays of metal particles. Unlike random arrays, “they appear random, but are not,” said Dal Negro. Photonic devices including chemical and biochemical sensors, nano-scale light sources and other building blocks for miniaturized optical systems may all benefit from this work. “The approach will introduce novel design rules for nanophotonics devices, stimulating the next miniaturization step in optical technologies,” said Dal Negro.

The application deadline for the next round of Dean’s Catalyst Awards is in January 2008. All full-time tenured and tenure-track Engineering faculty are eligible.