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Developing New Brain-Computer Therapy for People with Autism


utism was first described by U.S. researchers more than 70 years ago, and today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 59 children are identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), affecting more than 3.5 million Americans. Although clinical techniques are used to help patients with ASD respond to stress and other factors, none are known to couple with technology that could monitor brain response in real time and provide the patient with feedback. However, thanks to a $550,000 award from the National Science Foundation to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and clinicians at the UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital, a new intervention using electroencephalography (EEG)-guided, noninvasive brain-computer interface (BCI) technology

could complement clinical treatments and improve emotion regulation in people with ASD. The multidisciplinary team includes Murat Akcakaya, PhD, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Carla A. Mazefsky, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology in Pitt’s Department of Psychiatry. The proposal is funded through an NSF CAREER award, which supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. “People on the autism spectrum today have access to effective clinical strategies or technologies, but none are coupled effectively to provide realtime feedback in real-life activities. This limits reinforcement techniques that the patient can utilize

continued on page 6

Using Nature to Protect Cities from Extreme Weather


r. Akcakaya is also co-PI on a $2 million NSF award at Pitt to study nature-based strategies that can help prevent urban flooding and give underresourced communities the ability to prepare for, recover from, and adapt to extreme weather events. The project, entitled “Catalyzing Resilient Urban Infrastructure Systems: Integrating the Natural & Built Environments,” is part of the NSF’s Leading Engineering for America’s Prosperity, Health and

Infrastructure (LEAP HI) program, which has awarded five projects a total of $9 million this year. The goal is to develop the engineering tools that will allow communities to integrate nature-based green infrastructure, such as green roofs, rain gardens and porous pavements, with existing built infrastructure to manage storm water in ways that help prevent flooding while improving water quality and ecological health. The collaboration will fundamentally reinvent the urban water cycle using a continued on page 7

2 | Fall 2019

Pitt in SPACE


STP-H6 Developed through Partnership Between NASA, SHREC, ECE and MEMS


going beyond the capabilities of previous space computers,” said George, who is also founder and director of SHREC.

It is “one of the most powerful spacequalified computers ever made and flown,” said Alan George, department chair of the Swanson School of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who led Pitt researchers and graduate students on the project.

The new space supercomputer is more than 2.5 times more powerful than its predecessor, which was launched to the space station with STP-H5 on SpaceX-10 in February 2017. It includes dual high-resolution cameras capable of snapping 5-megapixel images of Earth, for detailed aerial shots like the city of Pittsburgh, all in a system about the size of a breadbox.

novel supercomputer developed by a University of Pittsburgh team is now safely berthed on the International Space Station, continuing a NASA partnership meant to improve Earth and space science.

On the space station, the supercomputer serves as a research “sandbox” for spacebased experiments on computing, sensing, image processing and machine learning. Researchers said the main objective of these experiments is progression toward autonomous spacecraft, like a more advanced version of the self-driving cars seen in Pittsburgh. This radiation-tolerant computer cluster, called the Spacecraft Supercomputing for Image and Video Processing (SSIVP) system, is part of the U.S. Department of Defense Space Test Program-Houston 6 mission (STP-H6), developed at the National Science Foundation Center for Space, High-performance, and Resilient Computing (SHREC). It journeyed to the ISS on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 Dragon cargo spacecraft on May 4, 2019. The SSIVP “features an unprecedented combination of high performance, high reliability, low power and reconfigurability for computing in the harsh environment of space,


The H5 system will remain on the space station, working separately from the soon-tobe-launched H6 system on a dynamic set of space technology experiments until at least 2021. The H6 system is expected to be in service for three to four years. The large amounts of data the new system captures will pose their own challenge. “There are limitations in communications between ground and spacecraft, so we’re trying to circumvent these limitations with high-performance onboard data processing to more quickly transfer data,” said Sebastian Sabogal, a third-year PhD student studying electrical and computer engineering. “We also want our systems to be highly responsive to processed sensor data to enable spacecraft autonomy, which would reduce the amount of human interaction needed to operate the spacecraft and interpret data.” “Everyone in the space community wants to build sensor systems that are more powerful

Fall 2019 | 3


and autonomous,” George said. “We must process the data where it’s gathered, which requires very powerful computers, but space is the most challenging place to build and deploy powerful computers.” Space, too, is a challenging place for computers to thrive due to high fluctuations in temperatures, strong vibrations during launch and higher levels of radiation – all of which can affect performance, said Sabogal. During its time in space, the supercomputer will gather and monitor data on weather patterns, deforestation, and the effects of natural disasters on Earth and the effects of space and radiation on electronic devices, among many applications in Earth and space science.

“When I initially came in, it was one of the big projects going on here,” said Evan Gretok, a second-year PhD student studying electrical and computer engineering. “I was asked if I was up for a challenge, and I was put on developing some of the flight software for some of the secondary objectives of the mission.” These secondary objectives include studies regarding flight services, hardware configuration and image processing.


Gretok also earned his master’s degree in the same field at Pitt this year. He has been working with the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to certify the supercomputer’s ground-station software for mission operations, which will be controlled by Pitt researchers in the SHREC lab, meets NASA standards.

SHREC also collaborated for the first time with the Swanson School of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, which designed, assembled and tested the system chassis to meet NASA’s structural requirements for the computing system.

“It’s really humbling to be part of a team that has this kind of access to such innovative technology,” Gretok said. “The amount of opportunities that open up for Earth observation for data analytics and for these students to develop their own applications and algorithms is exciting to see.”

For students, these space missions are an opportunity to hone their engineering expertise and interact closely with experts at NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Other leading researchers for the project include Matthew Barry, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and

The above image features the Spacecraft Supercomputing for Image and Video Processing. It marks the first known instance of the “Pitt Script” in space. (Courtesy of Alan George)

materials science, who also works with the Center for Research Computing and was in charge of thermal modeling for the computer, and David Schmidt, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, whose team was in charge of the design and construction of the aluminum chassis to house the electronics, ensuring that it meets NASA specifications. Author: Amerigo Allegretto, University Communications. Originally posted in Pittwire; reprinted with permission.

Sebastian Sabogal and Evan Gretok, PhD students in electrical and computer engineering, pose by their workstation in SHREC (Center for Space, High-performance, and Resilient Computing), where they monitor their supercomputing cluster’s progress. They’ve worked on the cluster’s design, hardware configuration and image processing. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)

4 | Fall 2019


Letter from the Chair Dear friends and colleagues, The past academic year (2018-19) has been an amazing and unprecedented one for our Pitt-ECE department. We celebrated the 125th anniversary of our founding in 1893 by two engineering pioneers and giants, George Westinghouse and Reginald Fessenden. One of our students in computer engineering (CoE) was recognized as the top graduate of the university; one in electrical engineering (EE) was recognized as the top graduate of our Swanson School of Engineering; and one of our faculty members was recognized as the top educator in our school. Our Pitt-ECE faculty won numerous new grants and awards, annual research expenditures surpassed $6M for the first time, we welcomed three new faculty members, and we concluded a search to add five more this fall. With the help of all Pitt-ECE faculty, our curriculum committee completed a two-year effort to dramatically upgrade our two undergraduate programs (CoE and EE), which we will roll out for rising sophomores this fall. This upgrade includes (a) a sophomore year common to both majors featuring two-course sequences in analog hardware, digital hardware, software design, and analytical methods and taught entirely in our department as a comprehensive foundation, (b) new and upgraded junior core courses in each major, (c) a new

junior core course for both majors on design fundamentals, (d) an upgraded senior core course on capstone design, and (e) a new design facility dedicated to junior and senior design studies. Most excitedly, a group of Pitt-ECE students and faculty successfully completed the first half of a four-year space experiment with their novel space computers on the International Space Station and delivered for launch on SpaceX-17 an upgraded system for another four-year mission. Another group developed a new high-voltage, high-capacity electric power lab and distribution-level location with a microgrid, high-tech control and operation, and connectivity to solar, wind, and natural gas generation. As wonderful as the past academic year has been for Pitt-ECE, we are even more excited about the future. The Pittsburgh region has become a magnet for research and technologies in autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence, biomedical systems and data analytics, power generation and distribution, space systems and missions, and much more. Pitt-ECE is ideally positioned to make the most of the many ECE topics and opportunities in these growing fields. Sincerely,

Alan D. George, PhD Professor, Department Chair and R&H Mickle Endowed Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Sniffing Out THC

Collaborative Research Results in Marijuana Breathalyzer


s recreational marijuana legalization becomes more widespread throughout the U.S., so has concern about what that means for enforcing DUI laws. Unlike a breathalyzer used to detect alcohol, police do not have a device that can be used in the field to determine if a driver is under the influence of marijuana. New research from the University of Pittsburgh is poised to change that. An interdisciplinary team from the Department of Chemistry and the Swanson School of Engineering has developed a breathalyzer device that can measure the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound in marijuana, in the user’s

breath. Current drug testing methods rely on blood, urine or hair samples and therefore cannot be done in the field. They also only reveal that the user has recently inhaled the drug, not that they are currently under the influence. The breathalyzer was developed using carbon nanotubes, tiny tubes of carbon 100,000 times smaller than a human hair. The THC molecule, along with other molecules in the breath, bind to the surface of the nanotubes and change their electrical properties. The speed at which the electrical currents recover then signals whether THC is present. Nanotechnology sensors can detect THC at levels comparable to or better than mass spectrometry, which is considered the gold standard for THC detection. continued on page 14

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he National Science Foundation BIGDATA program awarded $1,200,000 to a research team led by the Swanson School of Engineering to study the big brain data for complex brain disorders and design new algorithms that address computational challenges in multi-site collaborative data mining. Heng Huang, the John A. Jurenko Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is principal investigator of the study, “Asynchronous Distributed Machine Learning Framework for Multi-Site Collaborative Brain Big Data Mining.” Dr. Huang currently leads seven NSF projects and an NIH R01 project on machine learning, big data mining, computational neuroscience, health informatics, and precision medicine.


“Research in emerging fields, such as brain imaging genomics and human connectomics, holds great promise for a systems biology study of the brain,” said Huang. “This research can help us better understand complex neurobiological systems, from genetic determinants to the interplay between brain structure, connectivity, function, and cognition.” While researchers currently have access to brain data collected from a series of funded projects, they have failed to attain additional data collected by different local institutes due to data privacy and security issues preventing cross-institutional distribution. In this project, Huang will create a framework to address these issues and facilitate data and computing resource sharing.

“In collaborative data analysis, the participating institutes keep their own data, which are analyzed and computed locally, and only share the computed results via communicating with the server,” explained Huang. “The server communicates with all institutes and updates the computational model such that the trained machine learning models indirectly use all data and are shared to all institutes.” According to Huang, most machine learning algorithms were not designed for such distributed architecture because of difficulties in designing efficient algorithms and providing theoretical foundations. This is the first project to create these types of algorithms for the study of brain imaging genomics and human connectomics. The goal is to alleviate these computational challenges and enable investigators in neuroimaging, genomics, neuroscience, and other brain-related disciplines to securely and more efficiently further their research. “The result of our project will be new distributed machine learning algorithms with theoretical foundations that can be used for multi-site collaborative big brain data mining, creating large-scale computational strategies and effective software tools,” said Huang. “We hope that this work will help researchers harness the full potential of big brain data, potentially leading to the next major brain science discoveries.”

Analyzing Anesthesia Complications with Big Data


r. Huang also received a $1,182,305 NSF award to support research into using machine learning and Big Data to analyze electronic anesthesia records and prevent postoperative complications and death. “SCH: INT: New Machine Learning Framework to Conduct Anesthesia Risk Stratification and Decision Support for Precision Health” (Award No. 1838627). Dr. Huang will analyze more than

two million cases of anesthesia data taken from 303 UPMC clinics and treatment centers. Huang is collaborating with University of Pittsburgh co-principal investigators Dan Li, assistant professor in the School of Nursing, and Fei Zhang, certified registered nurse anesthetist in the Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine. The research team

will design new deep learning algorithms and software to mine patient data and identify common risk factors in patients about to receive anesthesia. They will then develop a “decision support system” to better inform doctors when patients are at high risk for post-operative complications and in-hospital mortality.

6 | Fall 2019


Turning Waste Heat to Energy


s much as half of all U.S. energy production each year is lost as waste heat, but new research led by the Swanson School of Engineering, in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, seeks to make converting that heat back into usable electricity more efficient.

to scavenge heat from sources such as electronics and even the human body,” says Xiong. “A two-dimensional semiconductor like this would be useful for everything from high-performance 2D transistors to wearable electronics that harvest body heat for power.”

Feng Xiong, PhD, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Swanson School, and Jonathan Malen, professor of mechanical engineering at CMU, received a $500,000 award from the National Science Foundation to develop a thermoelectric semiconductor using tungsten disulfide to convert waste heat into energy. Using a novel doping approach, they will enhance the tungsten disulfide’s electrical conductivity while lowering its thermal conductivity – it will be able to efficiently conduct electricity without conducting heat. Tungsten disulfide is thin and flexible, making it a promising new option with diverse potential uses.

The project length is three years, with a possible extension into a fourth. The award is split between Xiong’s lab ($270,000) and Malen’s lab ($230,000). The team will work closely with local communities to encourage students from all backgrounds to explore engineering careers and foster interest in nanotechnology. Outreach efforts will include lab demonstrations, summer internships and career workshops.

“Once we’ve developed an effective technique to improve thermoelectric efficiency, it will pave the way for the wide use of thermoelectric devices

“Climate change is a pressing concern in today’s world and developing ways to use our resources more efficiently is critical,” says Xiong. “Converting waste heat into electricity could improve energy efficiency dramatically and sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Through this project, we hope to encourage the next generation to explore even more innovative options.”

Developing New Brain-Computer Therapy for People with Autism... continued from page 1 on his or her own, without the need for a clinical appointment,” Akcakaya explained. “However, by utilizing EEG to couple clinical techniques with BCI technologies, we can develop a closed-loop system that will help patients better learn how to recognize emotional triggers and respond with appropriate techniques generalizing the effects of clinical treatment strategies to real-life activities.” Akcakaya and Mazefsky will develop social interaction scenarios in virtual environments while recording EEG responses simultaneously in order to detect patterns that represent changes in distress levels. The virtual scenario will then present audio or visual cues to help remind them how to handle stress. The project will also develop new machine learning algorithms and neuroscience methods to identify EEG features associated with emotion regulation to classify between distress and non-distress conditions, and to distinguish among different distress levels.

The two will also investigate the promise of these EEG and virtual reality approaches within the context of Mazefsky’s randomized controlled clinical trial funded by the US Department of Defense. The clinical trial is testing the efficacy of an intervention Mazefsky and colleagues developed, called the Emotion Awareness and Skills Enhancement (EASE) program, in 12- to 21-year-old verbal youth with ASD. “EASE emphasizes awareness of one’s own emotional responses as a foundational skill that promotes the ability to manage intense negative emotions, which is taught through mindful awareness,” Mazefsky explained. “By coupling the clinical strategies we teach in EASE with technological interventions, we believe we can enhance patients’ ability to distinguish different distress levels and therefore potentially reap even greater (and more generalized) benefit.”

The CAREER award will also enable Akcakaya to develop courses related to the research and outreach activities to promote STEM and ASD research to K-12 populations and the broader public. Outreach will focus especially on individuals with ASD, their families, and caretakers. “Early diagnosis and intervention can help patients with ASD and their families improve quality of life, and so providing clinicians with a new tool that both enhances and reinforces what patients learn is critical to closing the loop between triggers and responses,” Akcakaya said. “Machine learning based on biological responses could also be integrated in to the existing technologically driven intervention techniques targeting patients across the autism spectrum. Eventually, the technology could be incorporated in an accessory like a smart watch or glasses, enhancing patient privacy and building confidence.”

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Using Nature to Protect Cities from Extreme Weather continued from page 1

Creating a Neuromorphic Vision System That Mimics Human Sight


elf-driving cars rely on their ability to accurately “see” the road ahead and make adjustments based on what they process. They need to, for instance, react to a pedestrian who steps out from between parked cars, or know to not turn down a road that is unexpectedly closed for construction. As such technology becomes more ubiquitous, there’s a growing need for a better, more efficient way for machines to process visual information. New research from the University of Pittsburgh will develop a neuromorphic vision system that takes a new approach to capturing visual information that is based on the human brain, benefitting everything from self-driving vehicles to neural prosthetics. Ryad Benosman, PhD, professor of ophthalmology at the School of Medicine with appointments in electrical engineering and bioengineering, and Feng Xiong, PhD, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, received $500,000 from the National Science Foundation to conduct this research. Conventional image sensors record information frame-by-frame, which stores a great deal of redundant data along with that which is useful. This excess data storage occurs because most pixels do not change from frame to frame, like stationary buildings in the background. Inspired by the human brain, the team will develop a neuromorphic vision system driven by the timings of changes in the dynamics of the input signal, instead of the conventional image-based system. “With existing neuromorphic camera systems, the communication between the camera and the computing system is limited by how much data it is trying to push through, which negates the benefits of the large bandwidth and low power consumption that this camera provides,” says Xiong. “We will use a spiking neural network with realistic dynamic synapses that will enhance computational abilities, develop brain-inspired machine learning to understand the input, and connect it to a neuromorphic event-based silicon retina for real-time operating vision.” This system will work more efficiently than existing technology, with orders of magnitude better energy efficiency and bandwidth. “We believe this work will lead to transformative advances in bio-inspired neuromorphic processing architectures, sensing, with major applications in self-driving vehicles, neural prosthetics, robotics and general artificial intelligence,” says Benosman. 

systems approach that will be designed to operate with predictive and expanded performance metrics tailored to local conditions. Akcakaya will collaborate with the Swanson School’s Carla Ng, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and principal investigator Kimberly Gray, Kay Davis Professor and Chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University, on the project. Daniel Bain, assistant professor of geology and environmental science and associate director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Water Collaboratory, will also contribute. Linda Young, Dr. Peter Haas and Drew WilliamsClark at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago; and Nicole Chivaz and Laura Brenner Kimes at Greenprint Partners in Chicago, are also on the team. Sarah States, director of research and science education at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, will contribute expertise towards biodiversity assessments and outreach activities in Pittsburgh. 

8 | Fall 2019


Engineering Synergy Retooling Electrical and Computer Engineering Programs


ollowing almost two years of intense investigation, research, and feedback, the Swanson School of Engineering begins a new chapter in the 126-year history of one of its departments. The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering received approval to adopt new curricula for its two undergraduate programs (electrical engineering, computer engineering) to provide greater synergy between the two fields, create more opportunities for hands-on learning, and address the needs of employers who demand that graduates have a greater breadth and depth of knowledge. The new curricula was implemented for rising sophomores and were greatly influenced by input from faculty, alumni, industry, and students. Alan George, department chair and the R&H Mickle Endowed Chair and Professor, explained that the time was perfect to modernize and seamlessly integrate the two programs and encourage greater flexibility in learning. “The genesis of Pitt’s ECE program is one for the history books. The electrical engineering (EE)

curriculum was born in 1893 from the minds of George Westinghouse and Reginald Fessenden, two of the leading engineering pioneers of the late 19th century, while creation of the computer engineering (CoE) program in 1996 was a response to the incredible growth of the industry,” George explained. “And yet, for several decades there was a disconnect between what would become two very integral fields. This split was a missed opportunity for strength from synergy, especially today when both electricity and computers are ubiquitous to everyday human life.” The beginning of the curricula redesign began shortly after George’s appointment as department chair in 2017, when there was already a growing desire by faculty and students to improve the two programs, especially in response to industry trends and new guidelines released by IEEE and ACM (the two leading professional societies in ECE). The effort then escalated in 2018 with major contributions from many ECE faculty members, and with the appointment of two new undergraduate program directors in ECE:

Assistant Professor Samuel Dickerson, who would serve as the director for computer engineering; and Assistant Professor Robert Kerestes, who was appointed as director for electrical engineering. Both are also triple alumni (B.S., M.S., PhD) of Pitt in their respective disciplines. Four Strategic Curricular Changes According to Dickerson and Kerestes, the changes in each program follow four strategies: • Following the foundational first-year experience, the sophomore year for both majors features four, two-course sequences in analog hardware, digital hardware, software design, and applied math, with a strong balance of classroom and lab studies. • A modernized suite of required courses is featured in the junior year, including six core courses and one advanced math course unique to each discipline, plus a new course on Junior Design Fundamentals for both majors. continued on page 15

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New Design Education Lab Sparks Next Generation of ECEs Sometimes a learning environment needs to not only be inspiring, but also “electrifying.”


he Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering’s new space combines cuttingedge technology with a sleek, contemporary design to reflect the modernization of the department. “The space brings together everything an electrical and computer engineer can do. It provides an environment for our students to gain the knowledge and experience to build things on their own,” says James Lyle, ECE department technology lead. Located on the 12th floor of Benedum Hall, the lab serves as a classroom, a meeting place for workshops and study space. It’s open 24 hours and gives students access to a variety of tools and equipment. Features include: • Custom-designed work benches • Testing equipment (soldering stations, power supplies, multimeters, oscilloscopes, etc.) • Five smart TVs • Clean, wireless workspaces Professors and instructors can use the smart TVs during their lessons and demonstrations, and students can use them to facilitate group projects. They are fully accessible by students for wireless pairing with their smart phones, laptops or other devices. Pitt ECE alumni Thomas Cook and Corey Weimann led the design of the room’s “work benches” while they were still undergraduate students. Instead of a typical,

austere work bench, the lab’s benches are topped with butcher block to provide a non-conductive, durable surface for working on electronic projects. Cook and Weimann also designed the benches to complement the room’s aesthetics. “Since the room is entirely glassed in, we designed the benches to look appealing to people walking past the lab, especially prospective students who are on tours with family,” says Cook. “Another goal of the room and desks was to make students comfortable and give them lots of space to learn and work on their projects without being confined to a small area.” “The lab provides students with a space to design and test hardware. It was common for students to develop software for their senior design projects; now we’re seeing more complex projects with software and hardware components,” says Samuel Dickerson, assistant professor and undergraduate director of computer engineering. For example, Dickerson and ECE Assistant Professor Ahmed Dallal advised a team of electrical engineers for the Swanson School’s Spring 2018 Design Expo. The team, called SoleSense, designed an IoT-enabled shoe with biometric capabilities and won the prize for Best Overall Project. “I think we’re going to see a lot more ECE students winning design competitions like the SoleSense team, and I really look forward to the caliber of Senior Design project in upcoming semesters,” says Dickerson.

10 | Fall 2019


AWARDS HONORS Faculty Awards Recognizing his role in developing undergraduate programs, innovative teaching and leadership in his field, Assistant Professor Samuel Dickerson won the 2019 Board of Visitors Award for faculty excellence in teaching, research and service, and for contributions to the University, the Swanson School, and the engineering discipline. He was also the recipient of the Swanson School’s Outstanding Educator Award, which recognizes his excellence in teaching and innovative work in developing and improving the department’s undergraduate program. Wei Gao was promoted to full professor. His research focuses on the design, analysis, measurement and implementation of mobile, embedded and networked systems, as well as their applications in Internet of Things and Smart Health. He received his PhD in computer science from The Pennsylvania State University, and was an NSF CAREER award recipient in 2016 (“Interconnected Mobile Computing in Wireless Networks,” #1812407). Ervin Sejdi’c, associate professor, participated in the sixth annual Arab-American Frontiers of Science, Engineering, and Medicine symposium, November 4-6, 2018 in Kuwait City. The meeting is presented by the US National Academy of Sciences and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences and brings together

a multidisciplinary group of young scientists, engineers, and medical professionals from across the US and the 22 Arab League countries. Assistant Professor Feng Xiong was a recipient of a 2019 seed grant from Pitt’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation for the project, Amplifying the Efficiency of Tungsten Disulfide Thermoelectric Devices. The award supports graduate students and post-doctoral fellows on one-year research projects focused on sustainability. Student Awards Ryan Brody, a second-year MS student, was selected to receive Siemens’ Peter Hammond Scholarship for $10,000. The scholarship is named for Peter Hammond, inventor of the Perfect Harmony drive and long-time engineer at Siemens. Hammond’s Perfect Harmony drive is a high-power machine that controls the speed of large motors; today, it is a key part of Siemens’ medium voltage variable frequency drive portfolio. The resulting energy savings on large pumps, fans, compressors, and other industrial equipment have had an enormous environmental impact, the carbon footprint equivalent of removing millions of cars from the road. Brody plans to complete his master’s degree and pursue a PhD focused on power conversion in electric vehicles.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Power and Energy Society (PES) selected University of Pittsburgh seniors Nathan Carnovale and Shamus (James) O’Haire as recipients of the 2018-19 IEEE PES Scholarship Plus Award. This is Mr. Carnovale’s second IEEE PES Scholarship in as many years. The IEEE PES Scholarship Plus Initiative awarded scholarships to 174 electrical engineering students from 96 universities across the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico. Applicants were evaluated based on high achievement with a strong GPA, distinctive extracurricular commitments, and dedication to the power and energy field. Kaylene Stocking BSBioE BSCoE ’19 received the 2019 Emma W. Locke Award at the University’s 43rd annual Honors Convocation. The award is given to a graduating senior in recognition of high scholarship, character and devotion to the ideals of the University of Pittsburgh. For the past two years, she worked in the BIONIC Lab led by Takashi D. Y. Kozai, assistant professor of bioengineering, where she studied how researchers can improve the longevity of neural implant technology. Stocking’s research led to three journal publications, two presentations and a Goldwater Scholarship honorable mention. She was also an undergraduate teaching assistant, an Honors College ambassador and member of the Pitt orchestra.

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Pictured from left to right are Sami Mian, Zachary Mattis, and Haihui Zhu at the Kennedy Space Center for the Cornell Cup Finals Expo.

Pitt Team Makes Finals in Cornell Cup V2 Communications was Among 12 North American Finalists Competing at NASA Kennedy Space Center


team of Pitt ECE students competed as finalists in this year’s Cornell Cup – Arm Enabled with their project, V2 Communications, an intervehicle communication network.

The Cornell Cup – Arm Enabled is a design competition that invites engineering students to submit an invention or project featuring embedded technology. It offers finalists funding, access to expert reviews, and the opportunity to present at a two-day expo at the NASA Kennedy Space Center. The team competed against 11 other finalist teams from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, University of California - Irvine, Purdue University, Boston University, University of Pennsylvania, Virginia Tech, and Drexel University from May 3-4. The goal of V2 Communications is to develop an inter-vehicle communication network so that any cars with a Controller Area Network (CAN) bus system can share real-time driving data such as speed, acceleration, and engine status with other cars within 100 meters – information that may lead to fewer accidents and greater traffic throughput capacity on the road. The system

includes security measures, ensuring it is resistant to packet injection and spoofing attacks. The team included Haihui Zhu, rising junior in electrical and computer engineering, and Zachary M. Mattis BSECE ’19. The pair were interested in the concept of cars “talking” to one another on the road and decided to pursue the project last fall. Sami Mian, doctoral candidate, and Samuel Dickerson, PhD, assistant professor and director of the Undergraduate Computer Engineering program, served as advisors for the team. Now, the team will spend time researching the market and determining what’s next for V2 Communications. “There are some technology companies already working on vehicle-to-vehicle communications. For example, Peloton Technology focuses on automated delivery and provides truck platooning,” Zhu explains. “One of the next steps is to do research on these companies and understand the market need. We also plan to improve our V2 solution with mmWave sensors and 5G beamforming.”

12 | Fall 2019


New ECE Faculty




Assistant Professor

Assistant Professor

Research Associate Professor

Dr. Abdelhakim received her PhD in electrical engineering from Michigan State University in 2014, and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electronics and communications engineering from Cairo University in 2006 and 2009, respectively. Her current research focuses on securing cyberphysical systems by leveraging machine learning. Prior to Pitt, she was a research scientist at OSRAM research center (2015-2016); working on Internet of Things applications, security mechanisms, wireless optical communications and indoor positioning systems. She was a postdoctoral research associate (2014-2015) at Michigan State University, where she worked on developing reliable communication networks and distributed decision making in sensor networks and high-speed communication systems. Her research interests include cyber-physical systems, cybersecurity, machine learning, wireless communications, networks design, stochastic systems analysis and information theory.

Dr. Bayoumy received his bachelor’s degree in electronics and electrical communications engineering in 2009, and his M.Sc. in engineering physics in 2012, both from the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University. In 2014, he joined the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at University of Pittsburgh, as a graduate research and teaching fellow. His research features the development of optical fiber-based sensors for monitoring harsh environments. He is a recipient of the Swanson School of Engineering Dean’s Fellowship and multiple research and teaching awards. Since 2016 he has been appointed to the Postgraduate Research Program at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) administered through Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).

Dr. Huppert holds undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and genetics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He completed his PhD at Harvard University in the program for Biophysics at the A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging of the Massachusetts General Hospital. Huppert joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Department of Radiology in 2008 and worked as one of the core MRI physicists in the MRI Research Center from 2008-2019.  Huppert’s lab develops data analysis methods for brain imaging including near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), and functional MRI with a focus on multimodal analysis and data fusion approaches. His lab also supports the NIRS brain imaging program at Pitt, which currently has over two dozen funded projects and more than a dozen different labs on campus working on projects ranging from infant development to gait impairments in the elderly. His lab also authored several open source data analysis packages for NIRS, and is a founding member of the Society for NIRS.   

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Assistant Professor

Visiting Assistant Professor

Assistant Professor

Dr. Lee received his PhD in electrical and electronic engineering from the University of Michigan, in 2014 and then served as a postdoc from 2014 to 2015 and a research scientist from 2015 to 2019. His interests include low-power energy-efficient circuit design to develop millimeter-scale energy-autonomous sensing/ computing systems for biomedical, ecological, and industrial applications.

Dr. Mahmoud received his B.Sc. in electronics and electrical communications engineering and his M.Sc. in engineering physics from Cairo University, Egypt, in 2011 and 2015, respectively. He received his PhD in computer engineering from the Swanson School in 2019 and his research interests include, but are not limited to, machine learning, especially deep learning, for image processing; memristor-based neuromorphic computing systems; and video prediction using generative adversarial recurrent neural networks. He has published four conference papers, one book chapter, and one journal paper in prestigious conferences and journals, including, IEEE EMBC, ACM-DATE, IEEE IJCNN, and IEEE TNANO.

Dr. Youngblood received his PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota in 2016 where his research focused on integrating 2D materials with silicon photonics for highspeed optoelectronic applications. From 2017 to 2019 he worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford developing phasechange photonic devices for integrated optical memory and computation. His research interests include bi-stable optical materials, 2D material optoelectronics, and photonic architectures for machine learning.

14 | Fall 2019


Alumnus David Toth Captures Swanson School Distinguished Alumni Award


t its 55th annual Distinguished Alumni Banquet, the Swanson School recognized David Toth, BSEE ’78, President and CEO (retired) of NetRatings, Inc., with its overall Distinguished Alumni Award. Mr. Toth was recognized for his impact in Internet audience analysis and computer hardware and software design. “We may not think about it, but in some ways the Internet itself is not a product. It is a conduit, a medium. And we are not its customers,” said Martin. “We, its users, are the product, and David and his peers were the first to realize that how people use the internet could provide an amazing amount of information, maybe even more so than more traditional media such as television, magazines, and newspapers.” Toth has held several senior executive roles throughout his career. He co-founded NetRatings, Inc. in 1997 and served as President & CEO, leading the company to its position as the foremost provider of Internet audience information and analysis. Toth

formed strategic partnerships with Nielsen Media Research and ACNielsen; together, the three companies developed Nielsen// NetRatings service, the leading global Internet Audience Measurement service with deployments in 29 countries throughout the world.

In 2003, Toth was recognized as the Swanson School Distinguished Alumnus for the Department of Electrical Engineering, having graduated from Pitt with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1978.

Prior to forming NetRatings, Toth was Vice President at Hitachi Computer Products where he led the Network Products Group and was responsible for the development, sales, and marketing of numerous hardware and software products. Other former affiliations include Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Interlink Computer Sciences and PPG Industries. Toth is currently a member of the Board of Directors at HiveIO, LeadCrunch.AI, and He was formerly a Director at NexTag (acquired by Providence Equity Partners), TubeMogul (acquired by Adobe) and Edgewater Networks (acquired by Ribbon Communications).

Sniffing Out THC... continued from page 4 “The semiconductor carbon nanotubes that we are using weren’t available even a few years ago,” says Sean Hwang, lead author and a doctoral candidate in chemistry at Pitt. “We used machine learning to ‘teach’ the breathalyzer to recognize the presence of THC based on the electrical currents recovery time, even when there are other substances, like alcohol, present in the breath.” Hwang works in the Star Lab, led by Alexander Star, professor of chemistry with a secondary appointment in bioengineering. The group partnered with Ervin Sejdic’, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Swanson School, to develop the prototype. “Creating a prototype that would work in the field was a crucial step in making this technology

applicable,” says Sejdic’. “It took a crossdisciplinary team to turn this idea into a usable device that’s vital for keeping the roads safe.” The prototype looks like a breathalyzer for alcohol, with a plastic casing, protruding mouthpiece, and digital display. It was tested in the lab and was shown to be able to detect the THC in a breath sample that also contained components like carbon dioxide, water, ethanol, methanol, and acetone. The researchers will continue to test the prototype but hope it will soon move to manufacturing and be available for use. “In legal states, you’ll see road signs that read ‘Drive High, Get a DUI,’ but there has not been a reliable and practical way to enforce that,” says Star. “There are debates in the legal community

about what levels of THC would amount to a DUI but creating such a device is an important first step toward making sure people don’t partake and drive.” The paper detailing this research, “Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) Detection using Semiconductor-enriched Single-Walled Carbon Nanotube Chemiresistors,” (DOI: 10.1021/ acssensors.9b00762) was published in the journal ACS Sensors and was coauthored by Sean Hwang, Long Bian, David White, Seth Burkert, Raymond Euler, Brett Sopher, Miranda Vinay and Alexander Star, from the Department of Chemistry, and Nicholas Franconi, Michael Rothfuss, Kara Bocan, and Ervin Sejdic’, from the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Fall 2019 | 15


Robert Van Naarden, ECE Distinguished Alumnus


obert Van Naarden, BSEE ’69, CEO of Delta Thermo Energy was presented the ECE Department’s Distinguished Alumni Award. He began his technology career after earning bachelor of science degrees in physics and electrical engineering and master of science degrees in computer science and electrical engineering. While pursuing his PhD he was offered a position with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) to design defense critical systems computers. He was on the original design team of the PDP 11, which became the world’s most successful mini computer. After migrating through various engineering and engineering management roles, he originated the idea to design and market the world’s first microcomputer, the PDP 16, based partially on the successful PDP 11 design. He later became the youngest Profit and Loss Group Manager at DEC and managed its fastest growing business. While in Philadelphia, Van Naarden earned an Executive Master of Business Administration

Engineering Synergy...

degree at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, sponsored by Digital. In 1979, he co-founded Convergent Technologies (CT), which became the fastest growing company in the computer industry. He and his partner at Convergent started another company, Ardent Computer, which was focused on the single user supercomputer space. After four years, the company merged with its principal competitor, Stellar Computer, to form Stardent Computer. Two years later, at his direction, the company was sold by splitting it up into its four components/divisions.

Thermo Energy an alternative energy company which uses innovative technologies for converting waste materials to energy. Van Naarden also serves as a General Partner at BVB Capital Group and on the boards of several technology companies.

Van Naarden moved on to start and fix a variety of other companies: Supermac, Firepower, Netframe, AMT, Sensar and Authentidate, where he started the company as its founder and CEO. In 2004 he became CEO of Empire Kosher Poultry, Inc, turning it into a profitable company within nine months after running at a loss for seven years. After four years, Van Naarden returned to his roots in technology and is currently the CEO of Delta

continued from page 8

• Senior year includes four discipline-specific electives, three technical electives, and one general elective, providing greater depth and the ability for students to develop specialties and explore other fields. • Lastly, design concepts, skills, and experiences are greatly expanded throughout the two programs, both explicitly (new junior and upgraded senior design courses) and implicitly (design-oriented lab experiments in many new and upgraded courses). “One of the complaints we heard from recent graduates – and which we both experienced as students – is that we don’t let them have “fun” until senior year,” Dickerson said. “Like any engineering discipline, electrical and computer engineers are very hands-on people, and so it’s critical for students to engage in those activities earlier than senior year, as well as understand the integration of design with theory.” “The input of our visiting committee, alumni, and industry was critical in helping us focus on integrating the electrical and computer engineering skills that decades ago were independent, but today are complementary

and intertwined,” Kerestes added. “I also think that by leveraging the strengths of our department – for example, from power engineering and systems in EE to embedded computer systems and applications in CoE – we can integrate those in the junior year and better prep our students for employment in co-op or industry, or help them better decide whether they want to continue to graduate school.” Both acknowledge the level of difficulty increases with the new curricula, but the changes will enable the students to do much more as electrical and computer engineers. And George agreed that such challenges are necessary to better prepare students for an increasingly competitive global environment. “I think that, after our students graduate, each will find that the new curriculum has benefited them by making them more adaptable, nimble, and impactful engineers,” George said. “Just as Westinghouse, Fessenden, and the first computer engineers could only have theorized how our disciplines would evolve over the century, we need to prepare our students to adapt to the next technological breakthroughs that we haven’t yet imagined.

Swanson School of Engineering Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering 1238 Benedum Hall 3700 O’Hara Street Pittsburgh PA 15261 Return Service Requested


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IEEE PES Scholars


he Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Power and Energy Society (PES) selected Nathan Carnovale, a senior studying electrical engineering at the Swanson School of Engineering, for the John W. Estey Outstanding Scholar Award. Carnovale is one of six Pitt students selected for the IEEE PES Scholarship Plus Award this year. The John W. Estey Outstanding Scholar Award is given to the top PES Scholar in each of the six IEEE U.S. regions. Region 2 covers Delaware, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, northern Virginia, southern New Jersey, West Virginia, and Washington, DC and serves more than 25,000 of IEEE’s estimated 400,000 members. Carnovale was first awarded the IEEE PES Scholarship Plus Award in the 2017-2018 academic year and again in 2018-2019. Eli Brock (’22), Sabrina Nguyen (’20), Anthony Popovski (’21), Elizabeth Rager (’20) and Nolan Scanlon (’19) were also among the 135 high-achieving undergraduate students in electrical engineering from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico to be recognized as 2019-2020 PES Scholars.

With six awardees, Pitt has the second highest number of recipients out of the 78 universities represented. PES Scholars receive a financial award, one year of IEEE PES student membership, and mentorship from leading professionals in the power and energy industry.


Profile for PITT | SWANSON School of Engineering

2019 Swanson School Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Newsletter  

2019 Swanson School Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Newsletter