NEW JERSEY INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
RESEARCH LINKING LABORATORIES TO LIVES IN THE YEAR OF COVID -19
Table of Contents
NJIT RESEARCH MAGAZINE 2021 •
Senior Vice Provost for Research Atam P. Dhawan
Office of Strategic Communications
Cover Photo: istock/smartboy10 Photo/above: NJIT
Chief Strategy Officer Matthew Golden
Executive Director of Publications and Creative Services Karen Hume
Editor Tracey Regan
Managing Editor Julie Jacobs
Contributing Writers Jesse Jenkins, Andrew McMains
Art Director/Designer Diane Cuddy
roduction Manager P Babette Hoyle
Staff Photographer Pete Labrozzi
From the Senior Vice Provost for Research
Ethics in Research
NJIT in the World
Partnerships for Progress
Machine Learning/Additive Manufacturing
Discoveries in a Locked-Down 2020
Research at NJIT: By the Numbers
Photo: Oscar Masciandaro
From the Senior Vice Provost for Research
hat lessons can we, as researchers and citizens, draw from the COVID-19 pandemic, a cataclysm that transformed overnight the manner in which we live, operate businesses and deliver education in ways inconceivable just a year ago? In the near-term, it brought us together in multifaceted, highly productive collaborations that ushered in new modes to safely communicate, work and protect our health. Looking ahead, it injected urgency into our efforts to identify risks in our volatile world and develop new means to manage and even forestall them. As the virus descended on our region last March, identifying immediate needs, inventorying resources and capabilities and finding partners in the community — and the coordination that required — were crucial first responses. As so many of you, I’m proud of my university’s speedy and inventive contributions. From their homes, our students began sewing masks and connected with our Makerspace staff on campus to design and fabricate face shields for health care workers and emergency responders throughout our region. An additive manufacturing team developed a test swab that could be 3D-printed using inexpensive, accessible materials not yet exhausted by COVID supply chains, and made their design available free of charge on the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) 3D Print Exchange website. As you will read in these pages, our researchers pivoted to apply their expertise to new technologies to address COVID-19 and the pandemics to come. These devices include disease sensors, pathogen-killing lights and nanomaterials to stop the virus’s spread in the environment. Our computer scientists, informatics specialists and management researchers investigated new ways to communicate public health messages, build trust in scientific information and combat misinformation. In a wider collaboration with clinicians at University Hospital in Newark and transportation logistics experts associated with The Tuchman Foundation, our architects and health care researchers developed modular, mobile medical care facilities out of shipping containers to be deployed in disaster zones and regions that lack health care infrastructure. NJIT uses the prototype as our testing center; a New Jersey hospital quickly followed suit. From a societal perspective, the development of rapid and reliable COVID-19 tests and vaccines challenged us on every level, from scientific research, to public investment, to supply chain management, to large-scale manufacturing and distribution, to education and communications. The outcomes we achieved — research to translation in record time — would have been impossible without considering these elements simultaneously.
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As chair of the NIH Point-of-Care Technologies Research Network Expert Advisory Board, which participated in developing a $500 million Shark Tankstyle competition to produce COVID-19 tests that could be quickly evaluated, validated, manufactured and distributed, I saw firsthand the diverse expertise and larger coordination success required. NIH quickly injected further funds to link this R&D with large-scale manufacturing and distribution plans. While these efforts are enormously encouraging, it is clear we still have work to do, however, to ensure that going forward, we’re able to offer even speedier and more effective solutions to societal threats. We need to better coordinate the collective action that unites the strength of government and industry with our nation’s technical prowess. The testing initiatives undertaken by cities and states across the country, for example, were poorly linked, if at all, with high-speed risk modeling to inform policy and responses at the local, regional and national levels. They also lacked effective communications with cloud-based regional data centers to store, analyze and plan further actions, as well as simple methods to register and transmit this data. In future pandemics, we will need to use more involved data mining, deep learning and artificial intelligence tools to develop population-based models to update risk mitigation strategies. These models would incorporate past and current data on infection rates, contact-tracing information, population density in local areas, demographics such as age distribution, gender and ethnicity, and health care statistics from electronic health records and regional hospitals, among other factors. Human and machine intelligence must co-evolve: The data we feed computers must be reliable, while we must trust the resulting models. This investment in infrastructure, technology and resilience will benefit society in other profound ways we are just beginning to imagine. Let me end by saying that one of the true revelations of the past year was the unquenchable joy of discovery. Please enjoy in these pages a remora’s ride aboard a blue whale, a trip on a rocket to the International Space Station, a sojourn with a blind cavefish and a last meal with a 99-million-year-old “hell ant,” among many other adventures.
Atam P. Dhawan Senior Vice Provost for Research Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering
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anaging Risks in a Volatile World
Global disease spread, the onslaught of misinformation on social media, isolation and its impact on health and wellness, the wary relationship between human and machine intelligence, and missed detection of early-stage illnesses are a few of the challenges that shook civilization over the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t create them, but rather turbocharged them. By shining a harsh light on these societal vulnerabilities, however, the pandemic served as a wake-up call to NJIT researchers to aggressively identify risks, develop multidisciplinary teams to address them comprehensively, and make their procedures and technologies as widely applicable as possible. At the same time, the university established a Center for Ethics and Responsible Research to ensure that students and professors approach even the most technical research with the highest ethical standards and a laser focus on social progress.
NJIT Research Magazine 2021
DEVELOPING NEW PATHOGEN-FIGHTING TECHNOLOGIES Electrical engineer Hieu Nguyen is developing disinfecting light-emitting diode (LED) lighting that could include several settings that each employ a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum for a single purpose. The aim is to embed different wavelengths on multiple LEDs on the same chip to destroy not only COVID-19, but also other viruses, such as Ebola, and bacteria, such as E. coli, salmonella and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), as well as fungi. Chemist Somenath Mitra seeks to embed antiviral agents in a range of wearable gear and filtration systems, from personal protective equipment such as masks and gowns, to air and water filters at health care facilities. IMPROVING PUBLIC HEALTH COMMUNICATIONS As the CEOs of the world’s largest technology companies wrestled with consequential decisions around policing speech, a team of researchers led by Yvette Wohn, an informatics specialist who researches online abuse and the people who manage it, is coming up with methods to relieve the stress of often overworked and underpaid content moderators, as well as technologies that will augment their capabilities. Health care researchers investigating susceptibility to COVID-19 typically combine pandemic casualty data with environmental and socioeconomic data in their predictive models. By contrast, a trio of NJIT researchers is studying the impact of national culture on compliance with public health recommendations, and translating this knowledge into strategies to improve messaging.
MANAGING SOCIAL ISOLATION Julie Ancis, a psychology professor, is leading a new, first-of-its-kind undergraduate program in cyberpsychology to explore the interaction of technology and human behavior through the lens of psychology. She recently created Psychology Today’s cyberpsychology page, with first posts addressing digital-age phenomena such as technostress and digital depression that have come to the foreground during the recent historic surge in digital tech usage. Biomedical engineer Carlotta Mummolo, who studies human balance, is developing a wearable device to collect and store data from gait analyses, as well as home-care technology to deliver balance training in remote telehealth settings and to assess the therapeutic outcomes of prescribed physical exercises for elderly and sick patients. BUILDING HUMAN-COMPUTER TRUST Senjuti Basu Roy, who optimizes humancomputer collaborations, is investigating ways to train machines to better specify task and worker criteria for crowdsourced jobs and then to organize and distribute the work in the most effective way. She recently applied these skills to study the conditions in which people best learned potentially life-saving facts about COVID-19 in communities she assembled on Mechanical Turk. Aritra Dasgupta, an expert in visualization, is developing visual analytic techniques to help domain experts in areas such as climate modeling and disease forecasting ensure their datadriven models are accurate and that nonexperts understand the context and the significance of machine-detected patterns.
ADVANCING EARLY-STAGE DISEASE DETECTION Yelda Semizer is a cyberpsychology professor who uses behavioral psychophysics (the study of physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions they produce), eye-tracking and computational modeling to determine how people integrate sensory information to make perceptual judgments. She is designing procedures that will help professionals such as radiologists detect cancer and security workers at airports find contraband. Kevin Belfield, a chemist, is working with an international consortium to develop new contrast agents and biological imaging techniques that will allow real-time, 3D views of live tissues deep within the body, and to observe them respond to therapies as they are delivered. LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS FOR ETHICAL RESEARCH Britt Holbrook, a philosopher, recently launched the university’s new Center for Ethics and Responsible Research to create a campuswide culture of ethical STEM that permeates everything from NJIT’s faculty research to its academic programs. The center will provide guidance for faculty researchers, which can be particularly vital for those involved with emerging technologies. In the field of computer vision research, for example, new issues are rapidly evolving within the scientific community over the ethical use of surveillance data and online images of people’s faces to test facial recognition algorithms. His goal is to ground students in ethical principles, while also broadening their perspective beyond merely technical considerations and to drive home how their future actions will affect local communities. n j i t . e d u / r e s e arc h
Nanophotonics Nanoscopic Virus Killers
Novel LEDs Would Simultaneously Illuminate and Disinfect a Room Hclassrooms, offices and airport lobbies, but also disinfect them with invisible ieu Nguyen’s pandemic-inspired lighting would not only illuminate
Electrical engineer Hieu Nguyen recently won a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation to develop highly efficient nanowire technology for LEDs that will light rooms, while simultaneously disinfecting them, among other photonic and electronic applications. Photo/above: Oscar Masciandaro Photo/right: Pete Labrozzi
NJIT Research Magazine 2021
ultraviolet light that destroys pathogens such as the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. With three possible settings, his light-emitting diode (LED) panels would emit visible light, ultraviolet (UV) light or both, irradiating air, water and surfaces in enclosed settings. Backed by a CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation, he is exploring novel nanotechnology to generate light that would cut the energy consumption of these devices by half. “Combining both of these features in a single LED allows people to work in a room that is being kept sterile continuously — the powerful UV rays kill the virus within seconds,” explains Nguyen, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “These disinfection systems currently operate when the space has been vacated.” In the search for photonic weapons, Nguyen says, the trick is to identify wavelengths that are germicidal but not harmful to humans. To disable the coronavirus without penetrating the human body, the sweet spot is the higher regions of UV spectrum, called far-UV, where the wavelengths are shorter. “For safety reasons, most UV light can’t be used around people, because it damages human cells. Wavelengths at 254 nm prove to be harmful, for example,” he says, noting, however, that recent research indicated that far-UV irradiation
in the 200-222 nm range was effectively germicidal, but did not penetrate cells in the skin’s dermis layer. In 2018, some of the first tests on far-UV light showed that it was capable of deactivating the H1N1 influenza virus, while other studies suggest it also kills spores, such as Bacillus subtilis. “I’m developing LED lighting that could potentially include several settings that each employ a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum for a single purpose, meaning embedding different wavelengths on multiple LEDs on the same chip,” notes Nguyen. “These lights can destroy other viruses, such as Ebola, and bacteria, such as E. coli, salmonella and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), as well as fungi.” His work on virus disinfection expands upon his use of LEDs to kill bacteria in food processing and water systems. With funding from the New Jersey Health Foundation, he is developing LEDs operating in the 400-650 nm wavelength range, which includes the more energetic portion of the visible spectrum and near-UV light, for food storage and distribution, among other applications. “These bandwidths could also be integrated into normal lighting systems, making them suitable for restaurants, supermarkets, hospitals and homes,” he says. Bacterial cells contain light-sensitive compounds called porphyrins, which absorb light in the visible wavelength region of the electromagnetic spectrum. When that energy is transferred to oxygen compounds, it produces a poison that destroys the cell’s lipids, proteins and DNA. Ultraviolet light destroys a microorganism’s nucleic acids and disrupts its DNA, preventing it from replicating. While the pandemic has accelerated research on UV
disinfection, the field still faces a daunting hurdle: Most devices are incorporated into conventional lighting, such as lamps, that are inefficient and lose energy in heat. Nguyen is developing a new form of nanowire LED, based on a novel platform, to make these systems highly efficient. In a cleanroom, he fabricates UV semiconductors by combining aluminum, indium and nitride (AlInN) gases on a silicon substrate, where it forms a nanowire, an ultrathin structure of around 100 nanometers in diameter, but variable lengths. These nanowires improve upon their precursor, aluminum gallium nitride (AlGaN), because they emit light more efficiently and can be grown on many different substrates, from silicon, to metal, to sapphire. “I have been searching for new materials that will improve a range of photonic and electronic applications,” he notes. “While AlInN nanowires are difficult to make — the temperature during fabrication must be very precisely controlled — they appear to be very useful. They are able to emit light from a very wide range of the spectrum, from deep ultraviolet at 210 nm to near infrared at 1,900 nm.” He says these next-generation nanowire light-emitters are promising candidates not only for medical and biochemical applications, but also for solid-state lighting, (as part of data storage), high-speed communications, information processing, optical recording and zero-emission automobiles, among other areas. His research will lead to the first demonstration of nanowire LEDs operating in the ultraviolet range using AlInN nanostructures. “My goal is to create a new material platform,” Nguyen says. “Down the road, I’d like to use them to make lasers and transistors.”
Spurred by the rapid, invisible spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the early days of the pandemic, chemist SOMENATH MITRA is developing nanotechnology to trap pathogens in the environment before they reach people. Backed by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Mitra, director of the university’s Otto H. York Center for Environmental Engineering and Science, seeks to embed antiviral agents in a range of wearable gear and filtration systems, from personal protective equipment such as masks and gowns, to air and water filters at health care facilities. His engineered agents would be composed of carbon nanotubes to catch the virus with antiviral molecules attached to kill it. “My goal is to generate functionalized carbon nanotubes that will have several applications related to the COVID-19 outbreak and beyond. Carbon nanotubes are useful here because they are very strong, disperse well, form chemical bonds easily and are highly absorptive,” Mitra says. Providing health care facilities with carbon nanotubeenhanced air filtration systems and medical-grade water, to clean equipment such as ventilators and for use in injectable patient treatments, are near-term applications. “While air filters may not be able to remove all virus molecules in the air that circulates in hospitals, our aim, at least at first, would be to substantially decrease the viral load,” Mitra says. “The high-purity water hospitals use, which is delivered in bottles, is very expensive, and so we would like to establish filtration systems that allow them to produce it on-site.” His research on antiviral agents is an extension of his previous work on filtration systems that target bacteria. Architecture he created for membrane distillation immobilizes carbon nanotubes, which are an atom thick and about 10,000 times smaller than a human hair in diameter, in membrane pores. A key characteristic of carbon nanotubes, he notes, is their capacity to rapidly absorb contaminants and then release them relatively easily. “Our aim is to develop widely applicable technologies that we can use against a variety of pathogens, including viruses and bacteria, in future pandemics,” Mitra says.
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Ethics in Research Britt Holbrook directs the university’s new Center for Ethics and Responsible Research, whose aim is to create a campuswide culture of ethical STEM that permeates everything from NJIT’s faculty research to its academic programs.
As the Pandemic Raged, NJIT Launched a First-of-Its-Kind Cyberpsychology Program
Photo: Pete Labrozzi
A New Brand of Ethics: NJIT’s New Center Trains Tomorrow’s Responsible Researchers
mid the many new lab facilities that have recently risen across NJIT’s campus, Britt Holbrook is laying the groundwork for an initiative he contends will be just as vital in driving impactful research and innovation at the university and beyond for years to come — a center for ethics. Working alongside faculty from NJIT’s College of Science and Liberal Arts and Newark College of Engineering, Holbrook, an associate professor of philosophy, directs the university’s new Center for Ethics and Responsible Research (CER2). Its aim 8
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is to create a campuswide culture of ethical STEM that permeates everything from NJIT’s faculty research to its academic programs. Holbrook says the new center will be able to provide guidance for faculty researchers, which can be particularly vital for those involved with emerging technologies. In the field of computer vision research, for example, new issues are rapidly evolving within the scientific community over the ethical use of surveillance data and online images of people’s faces to test facial recognition algorithms. In its first year, CER2
is also researching and promoting new experiential learning opportunities for students through experimental pedagogical approaches. An example is Holbrook’s 300-level “Engineering Ethics” course, where students are now required to engage with Newark residents about issues in the built environment that affect them, such as the balance between luxury and affordable housing, the placement of incinerators and hazardous waste remediation. “These decisions revolve around policy and politics, but they don’t happen
without engineers. My goal is to broaden the perspective of our students beyond merely technical considerations and to drive home how their future actions as engineers will affect local communities,” Holbrook says. “This starts with listening. When my students discussed traffic congestion and poorly timed traffic lights in one city section, the residents told them in turn about the need to redesign sidewalks. Without their visit, they never would have known about the neighborhood’s priorities.” Through a National Science Foundation (NSF)supported collaboration with the University of Florida, both schools will compare how students in two groups — an ethics-infused and a regular engineering class — feel prepared at the end of their course to manage ethical issues that are likely to come up in their professional lives, surrounding new transportation infrastructure,
for example. “It is more critical than ever that our students understand and are prepared for the ethical aspects of what they do as they enter extremely demanding, competitive, technologydriven fields,” says Atam P. Dhawan, NJIT’s senior vice provost for research, who is also executive director of Undergraduate Research and Innovation. Forging connections with other academic institutions and ethics organizations across the country will be key to the venture’s mission beyond the campus borders. With the Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University and the National Ethics Project (NEP), CER2 was recently awarded a Public Interest Technology University Network Challenge grant. Public interest technology is an emerging field related to the study and application
of technology expertise to promote a more just technological future for the public good — encompassing everything from embedding ethical considerations into the study and development of artificial intelligence technology, to launching university sustainability initiatives that benefit the surrounding community. Through the project “Evaluating and Assessing Tech Ethics Education,” the partners will assess public interest technology education and pedagogy across the three universities. Holbrook has further plans for the collaboration. “The NEP has developed a suite of tools to evaluate the ethical culture of an entire institution, something they call a ‘360° Ethics Review.’ But they have yet to deploy the 360° Ethics Review on a single institution. … We are eager to serve as the first test case for that.” Holbrook and the NEP will submit a proposal to
Photo: Courtesy of Julie Ancis
the NSF this winter that will allow the NEP to perform a complete scan and evaluation of existing ethics-related activities at NJIT, which would serve as a benchmark for the university. The NEP and CER2 would then use that data in their application for a follow-on NSF Institutional Transformation grant. “If successful, that grant would allow the NEP to provide support for NJIT to make changes and a team that could evaluate the effects of those changes after they are made. Not only will we aim for institutional transformation, establishing a unique NJIT brand of ethical and responsible research, but also, the NEP will enable us to determine if we have succeeded,” says Holbrook.
In a year that saw web hits worldwide soar 70% through the months of January to April alone, NJIT launched a first-ofits-kind undergraduate program in cyberpsychology to explore the interaction of technology and human behavior through the lens of psychology. For its inaugural director, JULIE ANCIS — formerly Georgia Institute of Technology’s associate vice president of institute diversity, equity and inclusion — the program is a unique opportunity to educate people about and expand research in a dynamic new branch of psychology. “Understanding the psychological processes underlying all aspects of technologically oriented human behavior is more relevant than ever today,” says Ancis. “I am very excited about the future of this program, which includes graduate programs in cyberpsychology, increased research and scholarship, applied career opportunities for students and collaborations with colleagues across NJIT.” Students in Ancis’ “Foundations of Cyberpsychology” class examined everything from personality variables that influence online behavior, to relationships between social media and anxiety, to identifying fake online profiles. Courses such as “AI and the Human Mind,” which delved into behavioral and social elements of technologically oriented human behavior, drew virtual classrooms of aspiring psychologists alongside app and game designers. She also launched a new seminar series to showcase different facets of research and psychology within the field, which debuted last fall with Rand Waltzman, the lead information scientist for the RAND Corporation, who spoke about the spread and impact of disinformation in the age of social media. Ancis, who has written about the positive and negative impacts of technology during the pandemic, is introducing her peers to this new field. In 2019, she created Psychology Today’s cyberpsychology page, which she continues to author, with posts addressing digital-age phenomena such as technostress and digital depression that have come to the foreground during the recent historic surge in digital tech usage. In 2020, she offered a comprehensive review of the discipline with her article, “The Age of Cyberpsychology: An Overview,” which was published in September in the new American Psychological Association journal, Technology, Mind and Behavior.
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Human-Computer Interaction Skilled Search: Enhancing Visual Detection Capabilities
Helping Content Moderators Make ‘the Bad’ Go Away
Yvette Wohn, a behavioral scientist and media studies scholar who researches online abuse and the people who manage it, is working on a multi-institution team to develop methods to relieve moderators’ stress and technologies to augment their capabilities. Photos: Pete Labrozzi
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ontent moderators have a split second to determine whether an image of a partially clothed toddler is pornography or just an exuberant child splashing about in a backyard pool, or whether an oddly constructed word is a misspelling or a barely concealed slur. Much of what they review is more blatantly toxic still and generates a different form of stress. “Illegal and harmful online content does not magically disappear. Behind the scenes of any user-generated content platform is a massive workforce of people who make the bad go away,” notes Yvette Wohn, a behavioral scientist and media studies scholar in NJIT’s Department of Informatics who researches online abuse and the people who manage it. “They spend their time looking at the worst of the worst. With billions of uploads every second, their inbox never gets cleared.” While there is some consensus on taboos across platforms, such as terroristic threats and illegal activity, short of that content guidelines vary and often are not specific. Not all policies are top-down; there are microcommunities within platforms that set their own standards. “Facebook, for example, allows no child nudity. Should the person who posts an image of a child in the bath or a famous photo already in the public domain, such as the Vietnam War shot, ‘Napalm Girl,’ be banned? That’s a difficult, fraught decision,” she observes. “If the person you’re reviewing relies on content to make a living, such as an influencer who makes money on YouTube, it could have really serious consequences.” While Wohn allows it is difficult to forestall the most determined offenders and impossible to slow the proliferation of social media content, she believes there are ways to improve
the working conditions of moderators, who are often poorly paid contract workers or, more often, volunteers. With a team of computer scientists, informatics specialists, economists and historians at NJIT, the University of Michigan, UCLA and Rice University, she is determined to try. Their efforts, which are funded by a National Science Foundation Future of Work at the Human Technology Frontier grant, will focus on coming up with methods to relieve moderators’ stress and technologies that will augment their capabilities. Social media screens automatically block some profanity and racial slurs, but humans read, digest and decide on just about everything else. Wohn, who is one of the grant’s primary investigators, has been interviewing and observing moderators to understand how they make decisions on a moment-bymoment basis. “I wanted to see the first things they do when they look at content and how they process the information,” she recounts. “Because they can never catch up to the speed that people are uploading, but need to work quickly, the team will build some tools to assist them.” In the near-term, these tools will focus on removing easy decisions. Easily accessed profiles of posters visible only to moderators, for example, could help flag chronic offenders. Data that show when an account was created, especially if it’s moments before a nasty post, could reveal a banned person who is re-emerging under a new identity. Based on findings from their research on moderators’ current practices, Aritra Dasgupta, a colleague in NJIT’s informatics department, will build visualization tools to
translate these models into easy-to-use interfaces. “We have to make sure the data are shown to moderators in a way they understand,” Wohn notes, adding, “Many social media platforms, especially ones for volunteer moderators, still lack features that make it easy for moderators to execute complex tasks, and we also want to make the experience more pleasant.” She is currently testing ways to alleviate their stress. “When you’re dealing with negativity, it’s important to take breaks — there’s lots of evidence for that. We will investigate a variety of interventions, from breaks in which moderators view calming images such as landscapes or baby animals, to enforced breaks, when computers are automatically shut down.” Other team members are studying the economic conditions that shape the labor market and how workplace policies affect moderation practices and the well-being of workers, including models that corporations have adopted. Moderators are often in situations where they are poorly compensated, lack benefits and have little access to mental health care. They are themselves often targets of harassment from people who are upset about their content being removed. Just as Wohn and her collaborators grapple with text moderation, she notes that new forms of content are emerging. “Live voice media are becoming more popular, and this presents new challenges — if someone says something rude, you can’t just delete it. We are also looking at more complicated forms of hate speech, such as using emojis to express rude sentiments,” she says. “It’s clear we will have to come up with new tools as the online world evolves.”
While studying how radiologists detect cancers in images, vision researchers made a startling discovery: Experienced practitioners were able to flag an abnormal mammogram before they had even located the tumor itself. “Radiologists can discriminate between normal and abnormal breast tissue at a glance,” notes YELDA SEMIZER, an assistant professor of cyberpsychology, who is investigating what signals, outside of the tumor itself, tip them off. Textural changes in the surrounding breast tissue, she says, are the likeliest suspects. With funding from the New Jersey Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science, she will try to determine the nature of the visual data that aids in diagnosis, how doctors develop the ability to see these textural signs, and whether it is a skill that can be taught to people with less experience. She plans to enroll radiologists with different levels of expertise in studies to pinpoint the development of this rapid processing ability, while comparing their performance to that of novices. “When radiologists look at a mammogram, they don’t know if there is a lesion or where it is. These global, or nonlocalized signals, give them more information to make an informed judgment about potential malignance,” says Semizer, who uses behavioral psychophysics (the study of physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions they produce), eye-tracking and computational modeling to determine how people integrate sensory information to make perceptual judgments. In an earlier study, she and her collaborators synthesized images of tissue samples based on real tissues, broke them into small sections, and asked the physicians to rate their abnormality. They performed similarly across real and synthetic images when there was no visible lesion in the tissue. “These synthesized textures could be used as learning aids, especially when lesions are not easily visible. If we know the features differentiating normal from abnormal tissue, we can develop tools using these features to assist radiologists in the diagnostic process.” Beyond cancer detection, these vision experiments apply to many “noisy” environments, including at airports, where security personnel search bags for contraband. “Ultimately, I am interested in what limits the human visual system,” she says, “and how expertise can help overcome these limitations.”
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QA NJIT in the World
Q: WHAT DOES YOUR JOB AT NJ TRANSIT ENTAIL? A: I am the chief technology and security officer for the Office of Information and Digital Technology. I oversee the IT infrastructure operation and security, which houses the 150-plus software applications that run NJ TRANSIT, its two data centers, the network that connects our buses, trains and facilities back to the office and our cybersecurity infrastructure. My team builds our digital workspace with new features that allow employees to do their jobs more efficiently and with next-generation IT to support cloud computing and to create new applications for our customers. Q: WHAT TECHNOLOGY HAVE YOU ADOPTED RECENTLY? A: In 2019, we provided our employees with cloud-based platforms, including Microsoft Teams, so they were no longer tethered to the office. With the COVID-19 lockdown last March, they were able to work from home on day one.
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Photo: Oscar Masciandaro
The Emerging Science of Disease Forecasting Sara Del Valle ’00, M.S. ’01
At NJ Transit, IoT Networks Smooth the Commute Bilal Khan ’10
Chief Technology and Security Officer, NJ TRANSIT
Q: HOW IS NEW TECHNOLOGY IMPROVING TRANSPORTATION FOR PASSENGERS? A: In addition to new ticket vending machines and up-todate speakers for our PA systems, we’ve created several new mobile app capabilities. One new feature, launched in September with COVID-19 protocols and passenger comfort in mind, allows riders to see how full a bus or train is before they get on. Green, yellow and red colorcoded icons indicate light, medium or heavy ridership conditions. On buses, this data is collected by automated onboard passenger-counting technology. On trains, the data is collected automatically from new, handheld devices used by train crews to scan and validate tickets and passes. A new push notification service alerts passengers that their stop is coming up next.
Q: HOW ARE DATA ANALYTICS AND MACHINE LEARNING TRANSFORMING OPERATIONS? e use Internet-of-Things sensors — thousands of A: W cameras throughout our network and our new handheld devices, for example — that feed data into our models to guide decisions in real time: how to manage traffic, optimize routes, monitor and respond to safety and
environmental conditions, and make business decisions based on the revenues generated by different routes. Aggregating data from our employees’ devices allows us to uncover recurring problems in the system — say a VPN that is difficult to access — that it will then fix automatically. Q: WHAT’S ON THE HORIZON IN TERMS OF NEW TECHNOLOGY FOR NJ TRANSIT AND THE TRANSPORTATION SECTOR IN GENERAL? J TRANSIT is running a pilot program of self-driving A: N shuttles that will start on a closed section of Fort Monmouth. They will seat up to 15 passengers, travel at speeds up to 15 miles an hour and are 100% electric. In a second phase of this test, we will need to get permits to drive them on public roads and to carry passengers within the Fort Monmouth property. As initially conceived, these vehicles would make short trips within an area and feed NJ TRANSIT and other fixed-route services. In another technology area, we have a team in IT that is FAA-certified to use drones to survey and help maintain our routes. These devices are very useful after a storm, for example. We’re now exploring other ways to utilize them.
Deputy Group Leader, Information Systems and Modeling Group Los Alamos National Laboratory Q: W HAT IS YOUR JOB WITHIN THE INFORMATION SYSTEMS AND MODELING GROUP AT LOS ALAMOS? A: I spend half my time overseeing more than 40 scientists and 20 students and postdocs executing a diverse portfolio in support of national security — from assessing infrastructure impacts resulting from man-made and natural disasters such as hurricanes, to physicsbased modeling of the spread of chemical-biologicalradiological-nuclear agents, to data analytics of real-time heterogeneous streams to inform national security problems. The other half is focused on developing mathematical, statistical and computational models to understand and predict the spread of infectious diseases — what we call mathematical epidemiology. OW HAVE YOU ADDRESSED Q: H THE CURRENT PANDEMIC? y team provides science-based decision support to state, A: M local and federal organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Energy and the New Mexico Department of Health. Specifically, we provide weekly COVID-19 forecasts and assess the impact of interventions such as masks, closures and re-openings, as well as testing and vaccines, on COVID-19 spread. Disease forecasting is a new area that is still in its infancy. Historically, the field of mathematical epidemiology has focused on understanding disease spread and assessing the impact of “what if ” scenarios.
Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory Photography
Q: HOW DO YOU USE APPROACHES FROM WEATHER FORECASTING TO MODEL DISEASE SPREAD? A: Forecasting is the ability to predict what will happen in the future based on analysis of the past and current data. The weather forecasting community leverages historical data and current observations from sensors around the globe (e.g., satellites and weather stations) and mathematical models to provide probabilistic forecasts of the weather, such as hurricanes, for instance. My team exploits different types of data, including social media and climate, satellite imagery and disease surveillance data, and combines them with mathematical models to forecast infectious diseases. Individual decisions, such as wearing a face mask, can have an impact at the aggregate level, but it’s difficult to capture human behavior in real time. Therefore, there are limitations in terms of how far into the future we can forecast due to the uncertainty in human behavior, but our models appear to be robust in generating short-term forecasts. They provide decision support that can help with resource allocation questions, targeted educational campaigns and cost-benefit analysis of optimal intervention strategies. Q: HOW DOES YOUR TEAM USE SOCIAL MEDIA DATA TO IMPROVE YOUR MODELS? e use internet data, including social media, to A: W complement disease surveillance systems, identify emergent behaviors, assess sentiment toward public
health orders and estimate incidence. We know people self-diagnose prior to going to the doctor, so we have been able to exploit Google search queries and Wikipedia access logs to assess the level of disease prevalence within a community. Internet data is useful in providing real-time information due to reporting delays from official disease surveillance systems. Additionally, we have used Twitter data to identify emergent behavior, such as face mask usage, and sentiment toward vaccines. HAT NEW MODELING APPROACHES WILL Q: W HELP IN MITIGATING DISEASE SPREAD? A: I think the combination of data-driven and model-driven approaches is what we need to tackle future threats and challenges. Though, a big challenge for this field is data integrity, so approaches that can tackle this problem will be useful to increase the accuracy of modeling results. Data can be misleading, because it cannot capture the mechanistic dynamics of how diseases spread, such as the impact of super spreaders, emergent human behaviors and transmission routes (e.g., human-to-human vs. mosquitoborne). Mathematical models provide the foundation to understand how the world works, but when combined with heterogeneous and dynamic data, the results are likely to be more accurate and robust. My team is developing hybrid models that combine machine-learning approaches that exploit data with mechanistic mathematical models to build better models that can be flexible and can adapt to situations they weren’t anticipating. n j i t . e d u/ r e s e a rc h
Partnerships for Progress
Clearing Roadblocks in the Genetic Therapy Revolution
o overcome production hurdles for cell and gene therapies, NJIT’s New Jersey Innovation Institute (NJII) has opened clinical-scale centers that will work directly with drug developers to streamline the processing of new treatments and then manufacture them in large quantities. NJII’s new company, BioCentriq, was formed in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies, regulators at federal agencies that oversee biologic therapies and state economic development officials. It is the first such enterprise in the nation backed by a university. “Our goal is to provide a collaborative space where innovative approaches and technologies can be used to help make emerging therapeutics available to the patients that so desperately need them,” says NJII’s Haro Hartounian, a senior vice president and general manager of BioCentriq. In some cases, a company’s own scientists will work alongside BioCentriq technologists in the lab.
The challenges in developing and manufacturing these drugs consistently and at the necessary scale have slowed their entry to the market, while making them prohibitively expensive for many potential patients. “As unique as the people they come from, each collection of cells behaves differently in the manufacturing process. This variability causes consistency concerns,” Hartounian explains. As to transportation challenges, he adds, “Autologous therapies use cells that originate from and are directly returned to the patient in what is referred to as the ‘needle-to-needle’ process. Since manufacturing typically occurs at a centralized facility, this means that sensitive biological material is transported from the patient to the manufacturing site and back again, which requires strong coordination between the patient, doctor, specialty courier and manufacturing site.” BioCentriq seeks to speed up the production of medications, while maintaining clinical safety standards. The team will develop technologies to automate more of the development process and to increase continuous, rather than batch, processing capabilities. Limiting human interactions with materials in the lab will also reduce the risk of contamination. In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first gene therapies, known as CAR T-cells, to treat acute blood cancers. Calling cell and gene therapies “the wave of the future,” Peter Marks, M.D., the director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, remarked at BioCentriq’s virtual ribbon-cutting last fall that they are poised to “change how we do medicine.” BioCentriq’s Haro Hartounian at the South Brunswick center, where NJII scientists work with drug developers to streamline the processing of new cell and gene therapies. Photo: Pete Labrozzi
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He added, however, “The science has moved ahead magnificently over the years, but the technology has not kept pace — that is how we go about making these things — and needs to be brought along.” BioCentriq is composed of two facilities. At a process development center in South Brunswick, scientists genetically modify cells, inducing them to produce specified proteins, or antibodies, that will bind with antigens on the disease cells. For viral gene therapies, they extract viral particles that have been modified to become benign delivery agents and then process and purify them. “What we do in South Brunswick is essentially a pilot test of our production process for each drug, which we then move to our cleanroom facilities on the NJIT campus for clinical manufacturing. It is only in these highly sterile conditions that we can make materials for use in the human body,” explains Zainab Alali, director of quality and compliance. The company’s advisory committee consists of industry veterans such as Joanne Beck, the chief operating officer of Boston Pharmaceuticals; Kelvin Lee, the director of the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL); and Steve Dziennik, the director of Global Technical Operations Biologics at Merck. Marks serves as a liaison to the FDA. Partners include Pall Corporation, Bristol Myers Squibb, Cytiva, Panasonic Healthcare, Novartis and NIIMBL. In conjunction with BioCentriq, NJIT has also launched a 30-credit master’s program in cell and gene therapy, as well as a related four-course, 18-month apprenticeship certificate program. “Access to workforce is really limiting. You see the fierce competition for anybody of talent,” notes Lee.
A New Jersey Consortium Converts Shipping Containers Into Mobile Medical Care Units
n response to the extreme challenges to clinical capacity posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, three New Jersey institutions — NJIT, University Hospital in Newark and The Tuchman Foundation — together developed modular, mobile medical care facilities to deploy to areas of surging disease outbreaks and other disasters, as well as to regions that lack health care infrastructure. Fabricated from 40-foot-long repurposed shipping containers, the units can be customized for various medical uses, including clinical point-of-care services and the testing and treatment of communicable and noncommunicable diseases. They can be dispatched rapidly to regions around the globe within existing commercial intermodal networks, and staged horizontally upon arrival to create larger clinical field operations sites with effective patient separation and management. “This pandemic has challenged emergency health care systems and patient management capacity globally. But it has also emphasized the critical importance of distributed health care facilities in resource-constrained environments in both urban and rural areas,” says Atam P. Dhawan, senior vice provost for research at NJIT. “The mobile medical care units we are designing can be reconfigured and adapted to deliver a variety of medical needs to augment facilities at hospitals and nursing homes. They can also function independently in communities lacking these facilities.” Side-by-side units were tested over the summer for their effectiveness as triage centers in a series of staged patient-care simulations conducted by medical personnel at University
Hospital, the state’s only public hospital and northern New Jersey’s only Level-1 trauma center. “All of these units are standard and can be moved to a particular area when there is an urgent need. They can be sent to any place in the United States, Canada and Mexico in a matter of days,” notes Martin Tuchman ’62, CEO of the Tuchman Group, which specializes in shipping and logistics. The Tuchman Foundation funded work on the prototype. The group’s phase-1 prototype focused on simple health care provisioning, including initial COVID-19 point-of-care examination and testing. A potential phase-2 model would address increased health care complexity with an airborne infection isolation room required to treat and manage the critically ill. “If we’re able to scale up our model — that is, quickly transforming the same containers for use from testing centers to mobile field units capable of housing critically ill patients who have contracted infectious diseases — we will need to develop something highly adaptable and flexible. Some areas may lack ICU beds, others testing and triage centers,” says Steven Rubin, an adviser to The Tuchman Foundation who served as the project manager. “We’ll test the value of the box’s modularity, with the idea of potentially scaling it up vertically or horizontally, to accommodate dozens of beds if needed,” says the prototype’s designer, Julio Garcia Figueroa, an architect and university lecturer in the NJIT Hillier College of Architecture and Design. Moved to NJIT’s campus before the start of the fall semester, the mobile facility now houses the university’s COVID-19 testing center, where a steady flow of students, faculty and staff show up daily for random tests. “This public health crisis has tested our ability to innovate purposefully, swiftly
Above/left: A prototype of the mobile medical care unit developed by a New Jersey-based consortium to deploy to areas in need of health care infrastructure. Above/right: U.S. Senator Cory Booker (fifth from left) joins members of the New Jersey consortium that developed a mobile medical care unit, including NJIT, University Hospital in Newark and The Tuchman Foundation, a nonprofit corporation that provided initial funding to develop the prototype. Photos: Deric Raymond
and successfully, and I’m proud to say we have risen to the challenge,” notes NJIT President Joel S. Bloom. The prototype’s designers relied on a group of emergency room physicians, nurses and hospital operations experts for guidance on internal configurations, clinical uses and regulatory requirements. “Managing the COVID pandemic was challenging because of the clinical needs of these patients and the unique infection control requirements that posed. We had to isolate patients on a greater scale than ever before. At the peak of the surge, almost every patient in the emergency department needed to be distanced from other patients or placed in a negative pressure isolation room,” says Jonathan Green, executive director of University Hospital’s emergency department. In light of these experiences, the University Hospital team said they viewed the mobile units as potentially useful screening rooms to fast-track care for patients needing moderate levels of medical attention. Their ability to withstand extreme weather, such as high winds, and to control the temperature inside them, would also be an advantage, they say. NJIT and the foundation are now collaborating with RWJBarnabas Health, which placed four units at its hospital in Hamilton, N.J., for COVID-19 testing of patients, workers and community first-responders. n j i t . e d u/ r e s e a rc h
Soon after graduating, Nicholas Warholak joined NJIT’s Additive Manufacturing Lab, where he helped design a novel test swab for COVID-19 that can be 3D-printed using inexpensive materials and speedily assembled in a range of fabrication settings.
Making Drones Think
n disaster zones, military conflicts and construction, agricultural and industrial sites, drones are increasingly the go-to technology for gathering rapid, actionable information. To date, however, their narrow capabilities, often a single sensor-application, limit their value. With backing from a National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps grant, sophomore engineer Naomi Habib is taking up this challenge, working with a team to develop drones for a range of settings that will provide automatically interchangeable accessories in a single device. At present, this integrated technology does not exist. An emergency team responding to a chemical accident would likely need three separate drones to test for toxic gases, find people via infrared sensors and visually inspect conditions. “Our goal is to offer automated flexibility in the field, even in remote areas. Responding to feedback from our drones, our system would change accessories, say from one sensor to another, within a few seconds,” says Habib, the team’s lead entrepreneur, who is responsible for assessing customer needs, a grant-stipulated priority. “When coupled with machine learning and artificial intelligence, the drone controller would automatically select the best accessories for a given situation.” She and the team began by interviewing more than two dozen people in sectors that deploy drones, including an operations manager for Con Edison, a division chief for the U.S. Department of Defense, a microbiology expert who focuses on agricultural sustainability and the CEO of a drone company. Their feedback was universal, the team reports: “Yes, drones should have many accessories!” “Naomi is proposing a solution that will allow us to use
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Drones operating in areas ranging from disaster zones to construction sites are often limited to a single sensor application. With backing from a National Science Foundation I-Corps grant, sophomore engineer Naomi Habib is working with a team to expand their capabilities to include automatically interchangeable accessories. Photo: Pete Labrozzi
one drone with multiple smart accessories to solve several problems,” says Michael Ehrlich, an associate professor of finance who directs the campus-based NSF I-Corps program. As they identify market needs, the team is developing new technology that integrates mechanical, industrial, chemical and electronic engineering with information technology, as well as computer science. Their device will feature new algorithms and sensory feedback control systems. Such an integrated engineering device would be useful in areas that require a combination of high-resolution inspection followed by the need for a potentially wide range of work. These include factories and chemical plants where toxicity is a major concern, and large public spaces such as transportation infrastructure and hospitals, among others. The smart drone would automatically detect abnormalities that differ from
usual patterns or behaviors at a site and then switch from inspection, to detection, to appropriate action within a few seconds. In making her pitch to potential customers, Habib argues that the device would also lower costs, because the drone itself is the most expensive part in the system. “Naomi is very keen on the environment and as a future chemical engineer, this project will help her to inspect, measure and map various sustainable green aspects of the built environment,” notes Paul Ranky, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and the team’s principal investigator, who advises her along with her industrial mentor, Ivan Dominguez, a manufacturing systems engineer.
Photo: Deric Raymond
A Testing Swab Impervious to Wrinkles in the Supply Chain
n early 2020, Nicholas Warholak, an industrial designer, got the call he’d been waiting for since graduating from NJIT the prior spring: an invitation to join the university’s Additive Manufacturing Lab (AddLab), which creates functional prototypes with embedded electronics for sectors ranging from the military, to health care, to criminal justice. Warholak had been on board for a month when the team dove into the sort of urgent, turnaround project he relished, designing a test swab for COVID-19 that could be 3D-printed using inexpensive materials and speedily assembled in a range of fabrication settings. “In the early days of the pandemic, materials such as spun rayon were scarce, and traditional resin printing methods for PPE (personal protective equipment) were more expensive, so we focused on what was readily available,” Warholak recounts. “We used common PLA filament, an inexpensive plastic, to produce the swab bodies, and cut our rayon for the swabbing end from large sheets not yet exhausted by the COVID supply chain.” The resulting AddLab swab consists of two interlocking
arms that work together like forceps to grip the swabbing material. By sliding the two arms against each other, the device ejects the sample, depositing it into a vial. By removing a step and a piece of equipment from the process — the need to cut the swab tip with scissors — the team reduced the chance of contamination while speeding up the test. To further slash time and costs, they designed a swab that doesn’t require a support structure during production. “Often, 3D printers lay down a scaffolding made from the same filament as the part, which is broken off and discarded after the print is completed,” says Warholak, who also worked on folding configurations for the swab tip. “The NJIT swab is designed around geometries that eliminate the need for a support structure. Over a 1,000-unit run, a savings of 10 seconds and 0.1 grams per unit translates to over 2.5 hours and $2.00 of filament. On the scale that is needed globally, which is millions, the savings become even more significant.” The swab can be fabricated in remote settings using inexpensive 3D-printing technology from a design that is downloaded either from the cloud or a website. As physicist
John Federici, the lab’s director, puts it, “We’ve created a device for medical personnel in need of inexpensive, rapidly producible supplies when their normal channels fail.” The inventors made the swab’s design publicly available to large and small manufacturers, free of licensing fees, during the COVID-19 emergency. They committed to the Open COVID Pledge and posted their design on the National Institutes of Health’s 3D Print Exchange website, which provides technology related to biomedical science. Warholak’s first brush with the AddLab was as an intern on a team of engineers, industrial designers, computer scientists and physicists that created a fleet of robots to navigate allterrain, GPS denied-environments, such as caves and tunnels. He recalls, “Working with people from other fields gave the industrial designers knowledge of other disciplines and the green light to test our designs. How often do we have an idea that would be fabulous if we only knew how to do the coding or the wiring?”
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In a Locked-Down World, Mysteries Still Beckoned As the pandemic closed in, discovery called and imaginations soared. Brooke Flammang’s traversed the ocean on a remora’s wild ride aboard a blue whale; Boris Khusid’s launched on a Space-X rocket to a lab on the International Space Station; Eric Fortune’s and Daphne Soares’ swam alongside blind fish, with communications systems akin to AM radio, in remote caves in the Amazon; Phillip Barden’s traveled back in time to the Cretaceous Period, where a “hell ant” had its last meal; Bin Chen’s exploded at the heart of a solar flare; Anand Oza’s undulated with fish schools in diamond formations; Andrey Stejko’s probed the solar interior through sound waves, while John Stefan’s detected emerging flares with velocity data.
The Secret Surfing Life of Remoras Hitchhiking on Blue Whales
New Fossil Discovery Shows How Ancient ‘Hell Ants’ Hunted With Killer Headgear
Researchers studying the unique fluid environments of blue whales traveling off the coast of Palos Verdes and San Diego, Calif., captured the first-ever continuous recording of remora behavior on a host organism, using advanced biosensing tags with video recording capabilities. A new study, authored by NJIT biologist BROOKE FLAMMANG and mechanical engineer SIMONE MARRAS with collaborators, documents the “suckerfish” in hitchhiking action below the ocean’s surface, uncovering a refined skill set the fish uses for navigating intense hydrodynamics. The study shows the fish select the most flow-optimal regions on the whale’s body to stick to, such as behind the whale’s blowhole, where drag resistance for the fish is reduced by as much as 84%. They move around to feed and socialize on their ride even as their host hits burst speeds of more than 5 meters per second, by utilizing previously unknown surfing and skimming behaviors along special low-drag traveling lanes that exist just off the surface of the whale’s body.
NJIT biologist PHILLIP BARDEN and researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Rennes in France have unveiled a 99-million-year-old fossil preserving an insect predator from the Cretaceous Period — a “hell ant” (haidomyrmecine) — as it embraced its final victim, an extinct relative of the cockroach known as Caputoraptor elegans. The ancient encounter, locked in amber recovered from Myanmar, offers a detailed glimpse at a newly identified prehistoric ant species, Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri, and presents some of the first direct evidence showing how it and other hell ants once used their killer features — snapping their deadly, scythe-like mandibles in a vertical motion to pin prey against their horn-like appendages. The rare fossil offers a possible evolutionary explanation for its unusual morphology and highlights a key difference between some of the earliest ant relatives and their modern counterparts, which today uniformly feature mouthparts that grasp by moving together laterally.
To help lay the groundwork for a warning system to protect Earth from space weather events, a team of NJIT physicists, including JOHN STEFAN, a Ph.D. student, is developing a technique for imaging the solar interior’s emerging active regions. It is considered likely that active regions form when a “clump” of magnetic field rises to the surface from the interior. The team used velocity data from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory to generate images of the solar interior, similar to the way an ultrasound maps our bodies, based on the travel time of sound waves. In his presentation at NASA’s Virtual SC20 Supercomputing Conference, Stefan noted that while the resolution of the images is very poor, they still provide useful information to determine the state of the shallow interior and provide signatures which hint that an active region will emerge. The next step is to apply their methods to a broader range of historical data, about 300 active regions, to see how statistically significant these signatures are.
Two NJIT biologists, ERIC FORTUNE and DAPHNE SOARES, show how a cave-adapted glass knifefish species of roughly 300 living members (Eigenmannia vicentespelea) has evolved from surface-dwelling relatives (Eigenmannia trilineata) that still live just outside their cave door — by sacrificing their eyes and pigmentation, but gaining slightly more powerful electric organs that enhance the way they sense prey and communicate in absolute darkness. These weakly electric fishes from a remote area of the Brazilian Amazon Basin, which have adapted to life in caves over tens of thousands of years, are able to interact with each other over longer distances than known possible in a way similar to AM radio. They tap into a special channel for long-distance messaging via changes in the amplitude of electrical signals sent to one another and can communicate at distances of meters, which is a long way for fish that are around 10 centimeters in length.
Ranking the ‘Smartest’ Schools of Fish When It Comes to Travel Formations
In ongoing experiments on the International Space Station, chemical and materials engineer BORIS KHUSID, his Ph.D. student QIAN LEI and collaborators from NASA and NYU are exploring how colloidal particles, microscopic particles suspended in liquid that are building blocks for various materials and products on Earth, behave under zero gravity. The team is particularly interested in the fundamental physics of colloidal crystallization in which the particles remain suspended and do not form sediment as they would on Earth. A primary objective is to create large, defect-free, three-dimensional photonic crystals under microgravity to manipulate light. Three-dimensional photonic crystals may one day be used in optical computers. Their experiments could open new doors in the field of “colloidal engineering” for the manufacture in space and on Earth of next-generation materials in sectors ranging from telecommunications and medicine to quantum information and quantum optics. Photo: NASA
Photo: Stanford University, Cascadia Research Collective and Journal of Experimental Biology
Shocking Adaptations Discovered in Electric Fish of Brazil’s Amazon
Photo: Dayana Ferreira Torres
Forecasting Explosive Events
Photo: NJIT, Chinese Academy of Sciences and University of Rennes, France
The concert of motion that fish schools display is not merely elaborate, synchronized swimming. Their collective movement is a strategic adaptation that improves the group’s chances for survival as a whole, from defense against predators to foodfinding and mating. NJIT mathematician ANAND OZA and collaborators at NYU showcased a new mathematical model highlighting yet another feature of these formations: which structures give a school’s swimmers the biggest advantage when it comes to energy efficiency and speed. The team demonstrated quantitatively, for example, how group members are influenced through the constant connection between each swimmer’s flapping wings and the flow vortices generated by the collective. They captured a range of subtle hydrodynamic interactions that occur within various fish schools, showing how much energy was exerted by each fish with its flapping movements. The model kept track of the forces from small whirlpool-like vortices the swimmers shed with every stroke, showing how much the fishes were propelled along by vortex flows generated by their schoolmates.
Experiments in Space That Reveal New Properties of Basic Earth Materials
Capturing the Central Engine of a Solar Flare NJIT physicist BIN CHEN and collaborators revealed new, detailed views inside the “central engine” of a large solar flare in images captured by the Expanded Owens Valley Solar Array — a solar radio telescope facility operated by NJIT’s Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research. Their new findings, based on observations of the event at microwave wavelengths, offer the first measurements characterizing the magnetic fields and particles at the heart of the explosion. They showed an enormous electric current “sheet” stretching more than 40,000 kilometers through the core flaring region, where opposing magnetic field lines approach each other, break and reconnect, generating the intense energy powering the flare. The team’s measurements also indicate a magnetic bottle-like structure at the top of the flare’s loop-shaped base (known as the flare arcade) at a height of nearly 20,000 kilometers above the Sun’s surface. They suggest it is likely the primary site where the flare’s highly energetic electrons are trapped and accelerated to nearly the speed of light. Photo: NJIT-CSTR, B. Chen, S. Yu; NASA SDO
Earth to Scale
Seeing Into the Sun Through Sound ANDREY STEJKO, a Ph.D. student in solar physics, is developing new modeling tools for solar exploration, called GALE (Global Acoustic Linearized Euler), used for 3D global modeling of the acoustic properties of the Sun. Much like seismology on Earth, his simulations aim to probe the solar interior through sound waves generated by convection, or energy transported near the solar surface. When these sound waves interact with flows of gas inside the Sun, they are moved in a certain direction and the resulting frequency shift can offer a 3D image of the Sun’s inner workings. These internal flows are known to affect the Sun’s magnetic cycle. Typically, as helioseismology researchers look deeper into the solar interior, the signal noise increases, and the data is harder to interpret. Using NASA’s Pleiades supercomputer, Stejko created a full 3D acoustic model of the Sun and the mass flows in its interior, offering a better understanding of the small changes that different profiles of flow can create, and of what observed helioseismic signatures imply for the structure of the solar interior overall. Photo: Stejko/NJIT
Putting on Pond Ears in a Pandemic David Rothenberg
Distinguished Professor, Humanities
Musician, philosopher and author of Bug Music, Why Birds Sing, Survival of the Beautiful, and Nightingales in Berlin, among other nature-inspired books, recordings and films
month after being told we were not supposed to go anywhere, I decided to leave the house. Was this an essential trip? I thought so. I walked through the woods to a marshy pond whose name I had never looked up — Hidden Lake, it turns out. It is not so hard to find. A 30-minute hike from the main road, it’s far enough away to be ignored, close enough to visit often. The water is shallow, full of life. The woods were silent that day; the pond basked in the early springtime sun. Strange bugs propelled themselves backward on its surface, their arms rowing like oars. These are the famous water boatmen, Corixidae, renowned for their tiny size and booming mating call, sometimes as loud as whales. They are more famous still for how they make all of this sound — by vibrating their penises underwater. In this quiet world, the underwater clamor I picked up with my hydrophone was a shock, like a loud comb scratching a table’s edge. We know of this bug, because its story is extraordinary. That is a rarity. The vast majority of sounds in a springtime pond, energized by the Sun, remain unknown even to science. Jerome Sueur, of the Museum of Natural History in Paris, puts that figure at 90%. Why? No one bothers to take the time in these inconspicuous spots to listen, really listen — to wait patiently even though there may be no sound beneath the surface for 10 minutes, then 20, then nearly an hour. You need to decide that waiting for a sound is interesting in itself. It slows you down, attunes 24
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you to the tempo of nature. Helps you fit into the world’s natural soundscape. I work at the juncture between music and bioacoustics. I’ve played music live with humpback whales in Hawaii, lyrebirds in Australia, nightingales in Berlin and cicadas in New Jersey. I make my own music inspired by and directly out of these sounds, which I perform in concerts all over the world. Cicada Dream Band and Berlin Bülbül are two of my recording titles. The pandemic has narrowed our horizons, focusing attention close to home. Using a simple, inexpensive underwater microphone, it is easy to listen to a wide range of underwater pond sounds. Some are the regular rhythms of plants “breathing,” an audio record of photosynthesis in action. Some are likely frogs, others possibly fish. The stridulating insects are the most interesting — short percussive tones made as the animals vibrate one part of their body against another. I was surprised by the polyrhythmic beauty of these sounds lurking beneath the surface of even the most unassuming of little ponds and compelled by their mystery: Who or what makes each of these sounds? At another marshy spot near my house, this one called Lost Pond, I listened more closely to the sounds of the water boatmen — their short scratchy vibrations appearing at long rhythmic intervals, once every few minutes. Are they counting? No one knows. Toward the end of my recording, there are chirps and shrieks. Are these fishes or frogs? That, too, remains a puzzle.
We still can’t travel, but sounds can. I sent a German friend, photographer and poet, Hanna Mattes, a recording from Lost Pond without telling her what it was. “Just listen,” I said, “and think what it suggests.” She added words with long spaces in between, like the lonely insect songs. “Breathe in,” she intones. “Breathe out.” Space, sound, drone, rhythm. “I am the universe.” Thrum, bleat, rumble. “You are the universe.” I’m not the only one listening to ponds, by no means. Thousands of musicians are stuck at home with no concerts
to play and many are out listening to nature in search of new sounds. Online, I met the English musician, David de la Haye, who has been recording underwater pond sounds as well, and likens the effect of listening to them to ASMR — “autonomous sensory meridian response” — an internet-ready meme for the kinds of sounds that make you tingle all over when you hear them repeatedly. He’s right, I realize. These soft tinkling rhythms have a mysterious chilling and calming effect. My work is a form of musical environmentalism, inviting
people to appreciate and connect to nature more deeply by perceiving its beauty in new and unexpected ways — to marvel, as I do, at the surprising qualities that emerge from the dynamism of the living world. Anything that encourages humanity to value these wonders may inspire us to save it. So go out and listen to what surrounds you. The air above the pond remains silent, but underwater it is teeming with music. What other beautiful mysteries lie a short trek away, just waiting for us to listen?
David Rothenberg, a musician and philosopher, deepens his connection during the pandemic with a marshy pond near his house called Hidden Lake, where he recorded the underwater clamor of bugs such as Corixidae and plays his clarinet. He notes, “No one bothers to take the time in these inconspicuous spots to listen, really listen.” Photos: Pete Labrozzi
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Biomechanical Engineering Measuring When, Where and How a Person Loses Balance
Saving the Wounded Brain From Itself
ocked by a shock wave induced by an improvised explosive device, a soldier’s brain becomes its own worst enemy. Its immune sentinels, the microglia, respond sluggishly to the attack before eventually turning on their own forces. “The brain is very effective at dispatching white blood cells to injured parts of the body, but not at efficiently managing its own army of defenders. They don’t respond immediately, and days after the injury, they may not have shut off. In those cases, the brain doesn’t recognize that it’s been repaired and begins to damage its own tissue,” explains Namas Chandra, a pioneer in the field of blast-induced brain injuries and associated neurotraumas. Chandra, who studies the biomechanisms of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the hours, days and weeks following an impact, is now researching the role that the initial trauma — the severed blood vessels and neural connections that disrupt delivery of specialized proteins that serve as the body’s repairmen — plays in subsequent biochemical damages in the injury’s chronic stages. The goal is to identify precise therapies to deliver to individual cells in the brain to head off these cascading effects. Soldiers exposed to multiple blasts are susceptible down the road to neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Chandra recently demonstrated for the first time, for example, that pure shock waves can cause concussions
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and that repeated exposures pose serious risk factors for these disorders. Studies from recent conflicts indicate that 20% of the U.S-deployed force suffers from TBI. Of immediate concern, he says, are two commonly identified pathological factors: oxidative stress, a biochemical imbalance in the brain that increases with the severity of the injury, and a parallel phenomenon, the breakdown of the blood-brain barrier (BBB) that protects the brain. “The body requires some level of activation to repair an injury, but if the system overworks, creating too many of the activated oxygen-containing molecules that assist in this task, it can kill cells or attack their DNA, causing mutations,” Chandra notes. “So initially, we’re looking at supplying antioxidants that turn these mechanisms off by deactivating these molecules, known as reactive oxygen species, and returning the brain’s chemistry to normal levels.” In earlier animal experiments, his lab found that microglia became activated within four hours of impact, and that these effects were accompanied by enhanced permeability of the BBB. The team thus hypothesized that oxidative stress is a major causal factor in the membrane’s breakdown. Furthermore, they believe it prolongs the disruption, causing continued damage to brain cells from compounds within the circulating blood that breaches the barrier. In a study published in 2019 in Nature Reports, Chandra’s
team pretreated test animals with an antioxidant, apocynin, which reduced the levels of oxidative stress, suppressing neuroinflammation. Interestingly, the drug showed no beneficial effects during the acute phase of the injury, suggesting that the conditions they are targeting are predominantly caused by secondary biochemical factors. These discoveries will lead to investigations of other relationships involving increased oxidative stress and the breakdown of the BBB, individually or collectively, that are associated with different injury mechanisms or disease conditions. The brain poses unique challenges to treatment, however. Its protective mechanisms make it difficult to penetrate the
BBB, which hampers the delivery of medications. Moreover, the risk of reaching the wrong cells is also a concern, as the medications could prove toxic to them. “We’re focusing on nanotechnology-based delivery mechanisms that can penetrate the membrane and reach particular cells, such as overactive microglia,” Chandra notes, adding, “Some of these methods have been used to treat brain cancers.” In follow-on studies, they will establish a timeline for administering these interventions when they will be most effective, while also determining how to do it, whether in shots or nasal sprays, for example, he adds. In his Center for Injury Biomechanics, Materials, and
For the elderly, people recovering from strokes and accidents and those living with disorders that affect movement, such as Parkinson’s disease, falls present the risk of grave injury. While balance training and rehabilitation Carlotta Mummolo therapy can avert them, there is no medical consensus on standard practice in these clinical Photo: Carlotta Namas Chandra, exercises in the absence of consistent, reliable methods to Mummolo who studies the measure a person’s state of balance. biomechanisms To address this gap, CARLOTTA MUMMOLO, an assistant of traumatic professor of biomedical engineering, is proposing a brain injury, is now researching comprehensive methodology for benchmarking balance the role that the capabilities that takes into account an individual’s initial trauma biomechanical parameters, determines regions of balance, — the severed which are multidimensional ranges of subject position and blood vessels and neural velocity, and quantifies the person’s ability to recover from connections that perturbations during various movements. She wants to use disrupt delivery these regions as maps to determine on a step-by-step basis, of specialized for example, when, where and how individuals lose balance by proteins, the body’s repairmen measuring their position and speed as they move. — plays in In a recent collaboration with a computational neuroscientist subsequent and a neurobiologist, she is focusing on the physiological biochemical effects of aging on the motor performance of humans and damages in the injury’s other organisms. chronic stages. “Our goal is to expand the number of years in which people Photo: Pete Labrozzi remain healthy. We are looking at a multidisciplinary approach to quantify motor and cognitive functions across multiple species to capture aging-driven declines of performance and Medicine, Chandra conducts experiments in a laboratorypossible interventions,” says Mummolo, whose team presented scale shock tube that simulates blasts in the field set off by the project to top biomedical researchers in the field of aging hand-held grenades, and pipe and truck bombs. His patented at the New York Academy of Science’s Interstellar Initiative, equipment, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, winning the “Outstanding Team Presentation” award. has been replicated at the U.S. Army Proving Grounds in She is also developing a wearable device to collect and store data from her gait analyses, as well as home-care technology Aberdeen to test future products for soldiers. In a separate line to deliver balance training in remote telehealth settings. of research, he is also helping to develop more protective gear. “Mobility has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 “We want to know how these blasts affect other body pandemic, leading to muscular deterioration, among other functions, such as hearing loss, as well as mood and behavior, health problems,” she notes. “Monitoring the state of mobility but we have only a preliminary sense to date,” he says. “We and balance performance is essential for preventing the are just beginning to study their effects, using longstanding appearance and progression of certain diseases, as well as for assessing the therapeutic outcomes of prescribed physical psychological tests to measure anxiety and depression.” exercises for elderly and sick patients.”
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N Assisting Cities to Reap Value From Brownfields the Market Spurns Above/left: Stephen Marks, the town administrator for Kearny, N.J., and Colette Santasieri, executive director of the NJ Brownfields Assistance Center @ NJIT, take stock of an abandoned gas station that abuts a public walkway on a bank of the Passaic River. Above/right: Sean Vroom, Colette Santasieri and Melissa Dulinski of the state-funded NJ Brownfields Assistance Center @ NJIT help municipalities such as Newark with redevelopment strategies by establishing both larger goals and specific community needs and then finding the best properties to realize them from brownfield inventories they have created. Photos: Pete Labrozzi
NJIT Research Magazine 2021
ewark Planning Officer Christopher A. Watson needs an inventory of every brownfield in the city. It is a tall order, considering there are hundreds of these parcels, some contaminated, that were abandoned when sheet iron, patent leather and electrical instrument manufacturers departed this former industrial powerhouse. With help from the NJ Brownfields Assistance Center @ NJIT, however, he is confident he will get there, while also identifying the best properties to market for redevelopment to advance Newark’s larger development goals. The center’s executive director, Colette Santasieri, starts with a series of questions about municipal priorities: Which wards lack affordable housing and where are their brownfields located? Is there a section that needs light industry to support Port Newark? The team’s next step is to examine nearby brownfields and rank their prospects for remediation and redevelopment. As Watson eyes areas like the East Ward and the North Ward in particular, he is thinking about “how we can be more inclusive in our development, because a lot of these sites are not downtown. They’re in our neighborhoods, right? And if we want to rethink our neighborhoods in their next physical iteration, then we need to bring back the assets into the fold.” Principally, the center helps municipalities develop brownfield strategies by establishing larger goals and then
finding the best properties to realize them. In addition, its administrators and project managers help municipalities assess individual properties, explaining the nitty-gritty of grant applications and how to navigate New Jersey’s regulatory process and interpret technical reports on contamination. The center’s website offers a primer on brownfields, starting with its definition (“properties that are abandoned or underutilized because of either real or perceived contamination”) and drilling down to sources of funding and the basics of planning, engaging communities, assessing properties and cleaning them up. Funded by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA), the center launched in early 2020 as a free resource for county and municipal governments. Its staff of four brings private- and public-sector experience in environmental planning, civil engineering and environmental remediation, honed in part from guiding federally funded brownfield projects on the East Coast via a sister organization, Technical Assistance to Brownfield Communities. NJEDA sees the center as a valuable ally to municipalities that provides customized, one-on-one support and complements state programs for remediating and redeveloping brownfields. The center is working with the Town of Kearny as it develops a new master plan, including identifying known and suspected contaminated sites and recommending grants to acquire and remediate them. “The community has identified, for example, the former Skinner Brothers service station on Passaic Avenue as a blighted property and potentially unsafe structure, and requested that the town demolish the building and turn the site into green space,” notes Stephen Marks, the town’s administrator. “This local capacity-building is crucial to achieving long-term successful brownfields remediation that not only cleans up contaminated properties, but also advances other important environmental justice goals and helps to strengthen the local community and economy,” says Elizabeth Limbrick, senior brownfields adviser for policy and communications at NJEDA. “This is particularly important as we move toward recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has devastated communities across New Jersey with disproportionate impacts on historically marginalized communities.” Indeed, cities like Newark and Trenton generally face
Downsizing the McMansion
Maurie Cohen Photo: Maurie Cohen and istock/ architetta
more challenges than suburban communities in attracting developers to transform brownfields. That said, they typically offer easy access to public transportation and other infrastructure that is patchy in the suburbs. And if cities can at least identify the contaminants in well-situated brownfields — there are grants for this — they can reduce the cost and risk for developers. “The one thing that every one of them has said is, ‘If you can reduce my risk, that makes the site more attractive,’” says Santasieri, who includes developers in the webinars and workshops she organizes for municipal leaders. She is expanding the center’s outreach to developers, and more broadly, the private sector. By creating a two-semester, experiential learning course on brownfields recovery, she will harness the talents of NJIT students. During the summer, her staff created a series of infographics for the center’s website that explain environmental assessment and cleanup in a digestible way. For Watson, the center represents a valuable partnership with the university where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in urban systems and urban environment. Santasieri is a graduate of the same program and now they are collaborating to spark investment in Newark. “I appreciate the level of involvement and the level of skill that is being offered to us,” he adds. “When you get these types of services and they’re free and they have the possibility of even added value through money — through grants and all those things — it’s always a win-win situation.”
What might homes of the future look like if countries were really committed to global calls for sustainability? Much wider adoption of smart design features and renewable energy for low- to zero-carbon homes is one place to start. The United Nations estimates households consume 29% of global energy and consequently contribute up to 21% of carbon dioxide emissions. MAURIE COHEN, a professor of humanities and member of the international sustainability organization, FutureEarth, also makes the case for transitioning away from the large, single-family homes that typify suburban sprawl. “The notion of ‘bigger is better’ will need to be supplanted by the question of ‘how much is enough?’” he posits. Standardized building codes that define minimally “sufficient” home size (150 square feet for an individual and 450 square feet for a four-person household), he notes, could be expanded to include maximum sufficiency limits. Taking into account sustainability and equity considerations, he estimates those limits could be downsized to 215 square feet and approximately 860 square feet, respectively. By contrast, the average home size in the U.S. today is 1,901 square feet. In a recent article in the journal, Housing, Theory & Society, Cohen points to recent housing innovations that could serve as models for the efficient use of space: the tiny-house movement; the construction of accessory dwelling units on the West Coast; microapartments in New York City and San Francisco; the emergence of co-living/co-working facilities in Europe; and the niche market for substantially smaller units in the Nordic countries. Since the 1950s, home size in many wealthy countries has been increasing while household size has been declining. The average size of a newly built single-family home in the U.S. has nearly tripled from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,740 square feet in 2015. Meanwhile, the average number of people per household has decreased by 24%, from 3.3 persons to 2.52. If architects and the building industry followed the numbers and adopted sufficiency limits, the average floor space per person would need to be reduced from 754 square feet to 215 square feet, “which perhaps surprisingly, is roughly comparable to the amount of space available during the baby boom of the 1950s,” Cohen notes.
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Evolutionary Biology A Global Consortium Pursues the Holy Grail of Biological Imaging
A Cryptic Cavefish Leads Investigation 350 Million Years Into the Past
saac Asimov once said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘eureka,’ but ‘that’s funny’...” “That’s funny” is how Brooke Flammang summed up her reaction in the spring of 2015 after receiving a curious cellphone video from fellow NJIT biologist Daphne Soares, who was fresh off an exploration of fish species endemic to the cave systems of Thailand. What Soares’ minute-long video showed puzzled Flammang, who has made a career studying and comparing diverse anatomy and biomechanics of marine life around the world. “Daphne had been in Thailand studying the loss of vision in cavefish at the time, when she shared a video of this blind cavefish and asked me if I thought the fish swam strangely,” recalls Flammang. “I instantly replied back to her, ‘Walking is a very strange way to swim.’” The 2-inch-long cavefish of Southeast Asia’s hillstream loach family (Balitdorae), named Cryptotora thamicola, has displayed a spectacular ability to move unlike any fish species on Earth — walking on rocks and even climbing up waterfalls with a salamander-like gait in its fast-flowing native habitat, the Tham Maelana and Tham Susa karst cave systems in northern Thailand. Flammang and Soares soon showed that the rare walking fish, of less than 2,000 known in existence, possesses a robust pelvic girdle and enlarged sacral rib with added muscle attachments that allow it to rotate its hips for walking, more closely resembling the structures of some amphibians rather than any living fish. Beyond the finding, however, Flammang saw a much bigger opportunity — a one-of-a-kind chance to
NJIT Research Magazine 2021
Kevin Belfield Photo: NJIT
explore how the first land-walking vertebrates may have come about more than 350 million years ago, when early tetrapods underwent the fin-to-limb transition that allowed them to swap aquatic life for land during the Devonian period. “There have not been many models or preserved fossil records available to help us understand how the pelvis evolved and formed in the first tetrapods that developed appendages from fins to walk on land,” says Flammang. Fast-forward to today, Flammang and NJIT Ph.D. candidate Callie Crawford are leading a four-year international investigation with collaborators at Louisiana State University and the Florida Museum of Natural History, funded in 2019 by a $1 million “Understanding the Rules of Life” grant from the National Science Foundation, to study nearly every aspect of Cryptotora’s biology from an evolutionary perspective. The team is conducting the first-ever DNA-based analysis tracing the evolutionary history of Cryptotora and the rest of the hillstream loach family tree to understand how these key pelvic and rib structures evolved. So far, they have discovered that Cryptotora is not the only land-walking fish in its family of 100 factions found across Asia. The collaboration’s genomic and skeletal study of more than 70 specimens revealed three distinct morphotypes, or pelvic and rib structure types, have formed in the family throughout their evolution. Along with Cryptotora, 10 other family members possess much more robust pelvic girdles and sacral ribs required to manage advanced degrees of land navigation. It is an adaptation that may have helped them avoid being washed away in various fast-flowing environments throughout the region.
Biologist Brooke Flammang (front), Ph.D. candidate Callie Crawford (left) and undergraduate Amani WebberSchultz (right) travel to Thailand’s Tham Maelana cave as part of a four-year investigation into the rare walking cavefish Cryptotora thamicola and the origins of quadrupedal walking. Photo: Flammang/NJIT
“These three morphotypes are not grouped by closely related taxa, but instead appear spread out across the phylogeny,” says Crawford. “That indicates to us that the extent of the modification of these features is less reflecting shared ancestry and more likely a product of adaptation to the flow regimes of their environments. We’re seeking more knowledge of the habitat of each species, including water flow rates, surface types of their environment and how the rivers and streams change between rainy and dry seasons.” In Flammang’s Fluid Loco Lab, the team is using the phylogenomic, morphological and experimental biomechanical data they have gathered to construct a biorobotic model inspired by the hillstream loaches.
“The first phase of the model will replicate the morphology of Cryptotora and be actuated to create the same kinematics for walking,” explains Flammang. “Once we have validated the robot to be biologically relevant, we can alter its morphology to be more like fossil transitional forms and evaluate their walking performance.” The model, which will replicate the range of skeletal morphologies discovered in the fish family, will enable them to measure the stability physics and muscular forces at play that allow certain species to push their bodies off the ground as they walk. Ultimately, these insights could more firmly characterize the exact physics and muscular and anatomical requirements that were needed to drive the original fin-
to-limb transition, establishing a unifying principle for evolutionary biologists that defines the pelvic girdle contribution to quadrupedal walking. “Physics are the key to the environmental-organismal interactions on which selective pressure drives morphological and behavioral change,” says Flammang. “The goal is to discern the fundamental principles that allow a vertebrate to support its body weight while walking as a fish with a pelvis, and apply these principles to study how early quadrupeds may have walked.”
A consortium of research institutions that stretch across the globe is developing new contrast agents and imaging techniques for what KEVIN BELFIELD, a chemist participating in the project, calls the “holy grail” of biological imaging: noninvasive, 3D views of live tissues deep within the body. A key element of the initiative is to train the next generation of scientists across several disciplines to further advance these techniques. “The ability to assess the state of organ and tissue functions in real time is a foundation of precision medicine,” notes Belfield, dean of NJIT’s College of Science and Liberal Arts and an expert in multiphoton fluorescence microscopy. “One of our goals is to detect diseases in their early stages, such as cancers that progress silently until they are incurable, to come up with individualized treatments based on particular characteristics, such as overexpression of targetable biomarkers, and then to observe how the relevant tissues respond to them as they are delivered.” The 11-member consortium, which is funded by the European Commission and coordinated by chemists led by Cristina Sissa of the University of Parma in Italy, has divided up tasks based on expertise. Belfield and his team develop fluorescent contrast dyes that “light up” targeted proteins and organelles in specific cells and tumors, which uniquely absorb them. Using two-photon microscopy, they are able to irradiate tissue with wavelengths that are not harmful and can penetrate up to 2 millimeters beneath the surface to provide high-resolution images. “As an example, we will be able to see the exact outlines of a tumor at a cellular level to this depth,” Belfield says. “This helps surgeons to capture the margins of tumors, which are difficult to see, and increases the efficacy of therapy.” Known as Micro4Nano, the group is tackling a number of technological hurdles in areas such as hyperspectral imaging, which harnesses a broad range of the spectrum to capture light emitted by structures within cells that have absorbed fluorescent agents, and Raman microscopy, which captures chemical information. Beginning this fall, top graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from the European Union will work on fluorescent microscopy alongside Belfield and other chemists in NJIT labs.
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E-tail LOGISTICS After studying Amazon fulfillment warehouses, Sanchoy Das, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering who devises optimization and analytical models, is developing his own algorithms – for stocking, picking, packing, truck assignments and distribution, among other operations – to better understand Amazon’s and to create new models for a wider range of companies.
Tracking a Culture’s Role in Public Health Campaigns Zhipeng (Alan) Yan
Photos: Pete Labrozzi
Turbocharging the Internet Fulfillment Revolution
anchoy Das recalls his first jaw-dropping view of an Amazon fulfillment warehouse in 2013. The word “explosive” came to mind. Gone were the single-product sections where boxes of diapers and paper towels were stacked next to each other in neat rows. Instead, these products were dispersed throughout the building in hundreds of different locations, tucked into bins with unrelated items such as ketchup and motor oil. But what looked like chaos, he learned, was in fact a sophisticated model optimized for speed. By offering free, expedited shipping, Amazon’s orders mushroomed. The e-tailer responded by building in efficiencies to compensate for the lost fees, as it shaves days, hours and minutes off fulfillment times, continually asking the question: “How fast can I get this order fulfilled?” “This was an entirely new paradigm,” notes Das, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering who devises optimization and analytical models for sectors ranging from
NJIT Research Magazine 2021
retail supply chains to hospitals. Because Amazon’s models are proprietary, he set out to develop his own algorithms — for stocking, picking, packing, truck assignments and distribution, among other operations — to understand them and to create new ones other companies could use. He and his research team visited Amazon fulfillment warehouses in Wilmington and Indianapolis to conduct an observational study and figure out the data, information, human and product flows throughout the system. He discovered that Amazon was capturing every detail about customer orders and then integrating this data into powerful decision models, which controlled every activity in the fulfillment supply chain. For example, they realized that item demand was not just an aggregate monthly number, but tracked by day of the week and time of the day, and then correlated with the demand of hundreds of other items. Probability models, he says, are critical to increasing the efficiency of these warehouses.
“You want to accelerate the speed with which pickers fulfill orders, and that implies increasing the probability that ordered items are stocked close to each other. The company’s stocking algorithms are designed so that a picker can collect the 20 items she’s assembling within a few aisles. Her list pops up on a device that directs her to a succession of bins,” Das says, adding, “To increase delivery speed, however, orders might be split between picklists and warehouses in different locations. Consolidation algorithms put orders together, while minimizing the number of parcels shipped. “I’ve seen a huge change in retail supply chains over the last 15 years, as customers increasingly buy products online, and expect free shipping and next-day fulfillment,” he notes. “This requires very smart data-driven supply chains. Amazon, for example, uses deep analytics to predict what orders will come in today.” Competitors such as Target, Walmart and The Home Depot have spent several years trying to catch up. The capital
requirements to build fulfillment warehouses with integrated robotics and automation systems, and the machine intelligence to run them, make it a challenge. “Even today, most warehouses collect a few days of orders and then plan on how to ship them over several days, while Amazon warehouses operate in real time, making thousands of decisions every minute. It’s no longer a level playing field,” observes Das, adding, “Our research goal is to develop new control models and algorithms and make them available to a wider variety of companies. These include warehousing companies like Prologis, and small and big retailers like Walmart, Kohl’s and even the Dollar Store. Additionally, eCommerce software service companies, like Shopify, are expanding into the physical fulfillment side, and the models we are developing could be used in their new warehouses.” Das says he assumed the gap between Amazon and its competitors would widen over the pandemic, but it did not. Many “shook up” their supply chains and used a lot more data and decision models to manage the shift from store to online buying. Indeed, over the first five months of the pandemic,
The Home Depot reported a 100% increase in digital sales with 60% fulfillment from its stores, Walmart a 97% increase in digital sales and Target a 273% increase in same-day fulfillment digital sales, he says. Disruptive new companies emerged. As the pandemic closed restaurants across the U.S., innovators at Brinker International, which owns the Chili’s chain, developed a new, virtual, pure-delivery restaurant called It’s Just Wings that leveraged the underutilized kitchen capacity of associated restaurants and the fulfillment network of DoorDash. “Were these fulfillment systems not in place, the effect of the pandemic would have been a lot more severe for a lot of companies,” Das says, also noting that 52% of the products Amazon ships are from third parties. “Speed — the necessary condition — is what determined the victors.” Going forward, he says, more retail will go online. “While some shopping experiences can’t be replaced, I think we’ll see fewer commodities purchased in person, because these items have no in-store purchasing excitement. Think groceries.”
Researchers investigating susceptibility to COVID-19 typically combine pandemic casualty data with environmental and socioeconomic data in their predictive models. By contrast, a trio of NJIT researchers is studying the impact of national culture on compliance with public health recommendations, and translating this knowledge into strategies to improve messaging. “There is ample literature on the relationship between infectious disease and natural factors such as environmental conditions and comorbidities, but few studies investigate sociological or economic attributes, and even fewer attempt to relate pandemics to culture,” notes ZHIPENG (ALAN) YAN, a professor of finance and the associate dean at Martin Tuchman School of Management (MTSM). “However, pandemic ‘hot spots’ are often localized regions that are culturally homogeneous and different from their surroundings.” Yan and his MTSM collaborators, Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship CESAR BANDERA and Ph.D. student JIALI WANG, applied Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s dimensions of culture — measures of national traits, such as individualism vs. collectivism and acceptance of political hierarchy — to discern patterns in more than 70 countries’ COVID-19 infection, death and recovery rates. The United States has the highest rate of individualism in the world with a Hofstede score of 91 out of 100, as compared with China and Pacific Rim countries, which have scores of 20. “We found that a 10-point increase of individualism correlates with a 4% increase in the death rate and a 35% reduction in the recovery rate,” Yan notes. “This disparity defies expectations based on metrics such as differences in GDP per capita, life expectancy, population density and sanitation.” The team cautions health officials, however, to avoid challenging behaviors such as mask resistance directly. Bandera concludes, “While individualism promotes strong entrepreneurial activity, it can also instill a sense of personal invulnerability. So instead of messaging that confronts this belief head-on and risks backlash by implying people don’t know how to care for themselves, it could focus on the peril to family and friends in their orbit. This applies to all public health protocols, including seasonal vaccinations.”
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Human-in-the-Loop Computation Building Human Trust in Machine-Generated Models
Crowdsourcing the Truth
n the early days of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, researchers scrambled to decipher the novel virus — its transmission pathways, its effects on the body, its vulnerabilities. Senjuti Basu Roy, a computer scientist, wondered in turn how lay people absorbed the reams of emerging information they received from social media, weeding fiction from fact. “I was struck by the amount of information — and disinformation — that was propagated over platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, so I decided to study the conditions in which people best learned these potentially life-saving facts,” says Basu Roy, who develops computational frameworks that integrate humans and machines to optimize tasks. Her recent National Science Foundation CAREER award focuses on methods to crowdsource gig jobs and she seized on a timely application. She recruited a virtual community through the platform Mechanical Turk and divided it into three cohorts: workers with varying degrees of knowledge about the disease; a control group of professionals with similar expertise such as nurses and emergency medical technicians; and a random control group. Participants each received 10 questions, such as how the disease spreads and the number of days to quarantine, with two days to answer them. Members of the cohorts were required to interact with one another at least three times. They earned bonuses for going beyond that. “I focused on the first group of people with varying degrees of knowledge, because I’m interested in how people learn things from their peers in these settings and become more skilled. I wanted to see how they make conversation and solicit, share and process that information to get the job done,” she recounts.
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While the groups were leaderless, highly skilled people drove the conversation. But all members appeared motivated to learn more, and open to new offerings of updated data. Participants provided evidence for their answers, summations of group discussions and, after the test, reports on what they learned. In some cases, their knowledge went beyond the parameters: One reported learning about the history of the pandemic, including when and how information about its ferocity first emerged from Wuhan. Her takeaway? “The ideal group for this sort of crowdsourced worker training is one that mixes people with different skill levels in small, compatible communities. Together, they are able to complete a task — in this case successfully answer my questions — while improving their skills.” More generally, she is investigating ways to train machines to better specify task and worker criteria and then to organize and distribute the work in the most efficient and economical way. To date, this is a painstaking, manual process, as crowdsourcing platforms offer little guidance. “A publishing house, for example, needs translators to produce a brochure in Arabic, quickly and inexpensively, at 80% of the proficiency of a domain expert. But it’s on the requester to post the job successfully. The platform only finds you workers — it doesn’t tell you how many you need or how to organize them to complete the task efficiently.” Basu Roy developed what she calls a “middleware system” — a middle layer that sits between multiple stakeholders across platforms in a crowdsourcing ecosystem — that helps requesters set goals and constraints. These include parameters such as thresholds on quality, latency and cost, and an analysis
Photo: Aritra Dasgupta
Senjuti Basu Roy, who optimizes humancomputer collaborations, is investigating ways to train machines to better specify task and worker criteria for crowdsourced jobs and then to organize and distribute the work in the most efficient and economical way. Photo: Pete Labrozzi
of the workforce that is available to undertake the task. “The algorithm would recommend the number of translators to hire and how they should collaborate, simultaneously or sequentially, for example, and how the work should be broken up,” she explains. “As it learns from job to job, it will refine this guidance while also assessing the availability of workers and their skills.” For speed and accuracy, many tasks require input from both humans and computers. Machines operate quickly and comprehensively, but fail on some knowledge-intensive tasks. People work slowly, but discriminate in ways machines
cannot. Basu Roy, who explores optimization opportunities in human-in-the-loop systems, determines which tasks are best assigned to each and how to coordinate them in processes ranging from cleaning and labeling data — a key qualitycontrol step in training artificial-intelligence systems — to deriving new metrics to improve these models. Early on in her career, she worked with cardiologists to build machine-learning models to predict which patients were most likely to be readmitted to the hospital within 30 days of discharge. A key finding was that machines detected patterns, but humans came up with useful new metrics to improve the
models. A computer measured both end-diastolic volume — the amount of blood in the left ventricle — and ejection fraction — the amount it pumps out with each contraction. But it took a doctor to see that the relationship between them was a strong indicator of heart function. “Crowdsourcing will be a leading component in the future of work with more and more gig jobs,” she says. “To do this thoughtfully, we must continue to assign humans higher levels of intellectual work.”
Climate scientists simulating global warming, epidemiologists forecasting regional pandemic trajectories and social media interfaces recommending content to consumers all rely on complex algorithms and data-driven computational models. However, interpreting these models necessitates substantial human effort — and trust. To augment these endeavors, ARITRA DASGUPTA, an assistant professor of informatics, develops visual analytic techniques that help domain experts ensure their models are accurate and nonexperts understand the context and the significance of machine-detected patterns. Interactive visualization enables the rapid exploration of alternative model ranking schemes by adjusting the importance of relevant criteria, for example, and alternative hypotheses about model performance in real time, without writing additional code. “Imagine ranking hundreds of models based on tens of performance criteria, including statistical metrics such as correlation, for multiple variables such as temperature and cloud cover, where relationships between model inputs and performance variations need to be discovered,” explains Dasgupta, who earlier led interactive visualization projects at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. His techniques are also designed to help doctors, for example, develop trust in a model’s predictions by understanding which features in the data, such as medications taken by patients, are responsible for a prediction about any particular record in the data, such as why a particular patient was classified as at risk. In a new collaboration with UCLA and the University of Michigan, he is applying his techniques to moderation of social media content. He focuses on integrating automatically detected patterns of misinformation with contextual visual cues — evidence of factual inaccuracy, for example — to help naïve users and moderators assess the credibility of the information they consume and act on. “Visual communication of data-driven facts is an important tool for ensuring high-quality information is consumed and understood by broad audiences,” he notes, “especially when such information is highly consequential, as we have seen with COVID-related information and misinformation.”
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New Facult y
COLLEGE OF SCIENCE AND LIBERAL ARTS
NEWARK COLLEGE OF ENGINEERING
Michael S. Eberhart, assistant professor of chemistry, researches artificial photosynthesis, which mimics natural photosynthesis on the molecular level, to harness light’s energy to create solar fuels such as hydrogen from water and liquid hydrocarbons from atmospheric carbon dioxide. He uses nanoscale environments to control and direct photoinduced electron transfer processes.
Lin Dong, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, explores mechanical engineering fundamentals in materials and biomedical science that will lead to innovations in medical treatment. Principal applications of her research include energy harvesting systems, soft robots and smart tactile devices.
Satoshi Inoue, assistant professor of physics in the Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research, focuses on solar flares and coronal mass ejections, explosions that impact Earth’s electromagnetic environment. He uses numerical simulations of coronal magnetic field and coronal plasma as they evolve in time to reveal how solar flares are triggered. Yelda Semizer, assistant professor of cyberpsychology, uses computational modeling, behavioral psychophysics (how physical stimuli produce sensations and perceptions) and eye-tracking to determine how people integrate sensory information to make perceptual judgments. She explores the limitations of the visual system and the role of expertise in overcoming them. Amir K. Varkouhi, assistant professor of gene and cell therapy, generates genetically modified immune and stem cells for therapeutic applications in inflammatorybased diseases. He also designs nucleic acid delivery systems, including engineered virus particles known as viral vectors, as well as nonviral vectors, that deliver genetic material to cells.
NJIT Research Magazine 2021
Alex Dytso, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, focuses on areas of rapid technology development, including wireless communications, machine learning and signal processing. He works, for example, on data-processing algorithms to better manage growing demand in communications systems and to train systems to restore corrupted and noisy data. Philip W. T. Pong, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, designs advanced sensing technologies that improve visibility, or “eyes in the field,” to provide power systems data to monitor conditions and make decisions. His contactless sensing technology, based on electromagnetic sensors, noninvasively measures critical electrical parameters and detects anomalies.
Mengqiang Zhao, assistant professor of chemical and materials engineering, develops methods to synthesize, characterize and process nanoscale materials for energy storage devices and portable diagnostic devices to detect diseases and toxic chemicals in the environment. These include the large-scale synthesis and processing of atomically thin materials with unusual properties. YING WU COLLEGE OF COMPUTING Mark Cartwright, assistant professor of informatics, applies human-computer interaction and machine learning in the area of music and environmental audio in machine listening. He aims to endow machines with the ability to perceive and understand sound as humans do to improve, for example, assistive hearing devices and environmental acoustic monitoring systems.
Chang Yaramothu, assistant professor of applied engineering and technology, develops automated concussion diagnosis devices that incorporate virtual reality headsets for use in pediatric populations. His research concentrates on quantifying eye movements, balance and neuronal blood flow to diagnose concussions and design personalized therapeutic regimens for recovery.
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Facult y A ccomplishments
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION CAREER GRANT Senjuti Basu Roy, assistant professor of computer science, streamlines the process of specifying task and worker criteria for crowdsourced jobs and devises task deployment strategies to organize and distribute the work efficiently and economically. Her “middleware” system is a customizable framework that sits between multiple stakeholders in a crowdsourcing ecosystem. Gennady Gor, assistant professor of chemical and materials engineering, creates computer-based models and tools to guide engineers in the design of “intelligent” porous materials that respond in controlled ways to stimuli such as heat, pressure and electricity, and can be used in the making of advanced membranes, sensors and soft robotic devices. Hieu Nguyen, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and an expert in photonics, focuses on the development of highly efficient ultraviolet light-emitters based on a novel platform: nanowire semiconductors made from aluminum, indium and nitride. Applications for his LED devices range from sterilization, to solid-state lighting, to high-speed communications. Cong Wang, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, taps the power of crowdsourcing and artificial intelligence to teach robots to learn by interacting remotely with large numbers of humans. He seeks to improve the dexterity of robotic hands and enable robots to develop “physical intelligence” that can be transferred to new situations. 38
NJIT Research Magazine 2021
AMERICAN ACADEMY OF OPTOMETRY FELLOW Chang Yaramothu, assistant professor of applied engineering and technology, develops diagnostic and therapeutic devices for vision disorders. He recently designed procedures using eye movements and virtual reality headsets that focus on three metrics — the number of eye movements, balance and neuronal blood flow — to diagnose concussions and design personalized regimens for recovery. JOHN C. BURNHAM EARLY CAREER AWARD Rosanna Dent, assistant professor of history, explores the history of research into Indigenous A’uwẽ-Xavante communities of Brazil and the ways Indigenous subjects shape the disciplines of the academics who study them. She is collaborating on a digital archive project that makes academic research and cultural documentation available to Xavante communities. AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF AERONAUTICS AND ASTRONAUTICS JAMES A. VAN ALLEN SPACE ENVIRONMENTS AWARD Louis Lanzerotti, distinguished research professor of physics, is the principal investigator of NJIT’s Radiation Belt Storm Probes Ion Composition Experiment (RBSPICE), instruments aboard NASA’s two Van Allen Probes. Among other discoveries, the devices have revealed hitherto undetected zones of high-energy helium ions within the radiation belts, fundamental plasma instabilities and new sources of ion outflow.
NATIONAL ACADEMY OF INVENTORS FELLOW Rajesh Davé, distinguished professor of chemical and materials engineering, focuses on particle engineering and materials science to advance knowledge of drug particle formation and costefficient manufacturing. He develops methods to enhance the effectiveness of medications in a variety of ways: increasing the absorption rates of drugs with poor water solubility, delaying the release of medications that degrade in the acidic environment of the stomach and masking the bitter tastes of drugs to make them more palatable for children and people with trouble swallowing. MengChu Zhou, distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering, optimizes systems through engineering and automation. Zhou and collaborators recently patented a design for a water treatment system that operates at low temperatures and low pressure using any renewable energy or residual energy from industrial processes that otherwise would be wasted as heat. He is also currently working on information and control flows in semiconductor manufacturing that will increase productivity with cost- and time-saving improvements. NATIONAL ACADEMY OF INVENTORS SENIOR MEMBER Eon Soo Lee, associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, develops nanotechnology-enhanced point-of-care biochips with the potential to detect deadly diseases such as ovarian cancer and pneumonia early in their progression. His devices are built on multiplex sensing platforms with microfluidic channels capable of self-separating blood over selfdriven flow. Photo: NJIT
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Research at NJIT: By the N um bers
24 NJIT instruments in Antarctica
student/faculty-designed, appcontrolled, 3D-printed gyroscopic robot that balances on two wheels
Carnegie Classification® of Institutions of Higher Education research ranking
Fellows of the National Academy of Inventors
face shields fabricated in NJIT’s Makerspace and donated to health care workers and emergency responders
patents and intellectual property assets held by NJIT faculty
masks sewed by architecture student Laura Gould and her mother
research institutes, centers and specialized labs
mobile medical care units fabricated from repurposed shipping containers
increase in external research funding
NJIT Research Magazine 2021
winners of National Science Foundation CAREER Awards
spent on undergraduate student research stipends
University Heights, Newark, NJ 07102