W o r c e s t e r
P o l y t e c h n i c
I n s t i t u t e
W PI Research discovery and innovation with purpose
A message from President Dennis D. Berkey
The Elements of a Successful Research Enterprise While research has always been a cornerstone of academic achievement, today it carries a greater responsibility. Our society faces problems and opportunities of large scale — clean energy, affordable health care, cybersecurity, making the most of our natural resources, and revitalizing the economy—that call for innovative solutions and new ways of organizing our research efforts. Most of today’s complex problems require the collective ingenuity of many bright minds, often from diverse disciplines, working together in an environment that focuses, facilitates, and supports their work.
forefront of national efforts to save energy and our natural resources by reusing metals and other materials more efficiently; and Dalin Tang is employing mathematical modeling techniques to help physicians diagnose and treat arterial plaques, a chief cause of stroke. WPI researchers are as diverse as their work. Some are driven by the discovery of scientific knowledge; others by the solutions they see on the horizon. Some have been part of the Institute for decades; others have joined us recently as part of an investment that has brought 36 new full-time faculty members to WPI over the past two years. But all are focused on doing important work. That work moves more quickly and often takes valuable new directions when faculty members collaborate with researchers from different disciplines and from other organizations. Fostering those connections is
“We’re defining a clear research mission; we’re attracting bright, productive scholars; and we’re providing a research environment that supports faculty work and encourages collaboration.” At WPI, we have been working to advance our research enterprise along these very lines — developing our purpose, our people, and our place. We’re defining a clear research mission; we’re attracting bright, productive scholars; and we’re providing a research environment that supports faculty work and encourages collaboration. At the heart of research at WPI is a goal that is simple to articulate but hard to achieve — to focus on solving important problems that contribute value to society. The remarkable work of Tanja Dominko, featured in this report, exemplifies vividly the value of this approach. She has found a novel way to transform adult skin cells into stem-like cells that may one day be used to replace tissue lost to injury, grow new organs, or cure degenerative diseases like diabetes. On completely different but equally important tracks, Diran Apelian is at the
another important facet of the WPI research enterprise. We are a small enough university to be free of barriers among the disciplines, but large and complex enough to have the richness of resources and intellectual capacity to make substantial contributions to important problems. But we also have developed a culture and designed research spaces that facilitate collaboration. One promising fruit of this culture, detailed in this report, is the joint work of Luis Vidali and Erkan Tüzel in the exciting new cross-disciplinary field of biophysics. In the pages that follow, I invite you to get to know the faculty and students who make up our research community, to visit the places that bring them together to pursue important work, and to learn more about what drives them in their pursuit of new knowledge and solutions that will enrich and improve our lives.
W PI Research discovery and innovation with purpose
28 Academic Leadership
Dennis Berkey, President Eric Overström, Provost ad interim Selçuk Güçeri, Bernard M. Gordon Dean of Engineering Karen Kashmanian Oates, Peterson Family Dean of Arts and Sciences Mark Rice, Dean, School of Business Editor
Michael Dorsey, Director of Research Communications Design
Pamela Mecca Photography
Patrick O’Connor Dan Vaillancourt Production
Charna Westervelt, Director of Publications Peggy Isaacson, Copy Editor Dianne Vanacore, Production Coordinator WPI Research is produced annually for the Division of Academic Affairs by the Division of Marketing and Communications Address correspondence to: Editor, WPI Research Worcester Polytechnic Institute 100 Institute Road Worcester, MA 01609 508-831-5609 email@example.com wpi.edu/+research
Entire contents ©2011 Worcester Polytechnic Institute
2 | Research Notebook
Notable research stories from the past year.
4 | Life Forces
An inside look at the machinery of life.
10 | The Next Big Thing
Faculty predict where their work may take them — and us.
16 | Virtually Real
Remarkable journeys into virtual and augmented reality.
22 | The Innovation Exchange
How a poster session jump-starts innovation.
28 | Arresting Heart Disease
Keeping the heart from failing, and fixing it when it does.
34 | Research Highlights
Faculty awards, honors, books, and grants.
40 | Tools of the Trade
Exploring the microscopic world in 3-D.
On the cover Anakin the mannequin, who helps out with research in WPI’s Human Interactions in Virtual Environments (HIVE) lab, sports a head-mounted virtual reality display. See story, page 16. Watch videos related to this issue In the pages that follow, you’ll see Microsoft Tags like this one. Snap them with a smart phone to link directly to videos about research described in this issue. You’ll need to download an application to your phone at http://gettag.mobi. All of the videos are available at YouTube.com/WPI.
Research NOTE B OO K A Step Toward Cleaner Coal Power Yi Hua “Ed” Ma, professor of chemical engineering, received a $1.5 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy to work in collaboration with three corporate partners to demonstrate that a patented hydrogen separation technology that uses a palladium membrane can lower the cost of generating electricity with advanced coal gasification systems while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions by isolating the carbon dioxide produced by coal gas combustion. This program will be incrementally funded up to a total of $8.4 million over its 51-month time frame.
WPI Part of National Mathematics Center
James Duckworth (in cap) photographs a test of a new flashover detection device developed at WPI.
WPI is a partner in the National Center for Cognition and Mathematics Instruction, established with a $10 million award from the U.S. Department of Education. The virtual center is applying the latest cognitive science principles to redesign a widely used middle school mathematics curriculum. Under the direction of Neil Heffernan, associate professor of computer science, WPI is receiving $500,000 over five years to use ASSISTments, an intelligent tutoring system developed at the university, to study how best to space out practice opportunities and feedback to maximize student learning.
Researchers Develop Technology to Protect Firefighters from Flashover
After a 1999 warehouse fire killed six firefighters in Worcester, John Orr, professor of electrical and computer engineering, challenged his WPI colleagues to develop technology to safeguard those who protect our lives and property. Since then, with more than $5 million in federal funding, a team of researchers has developed and extensively tested a system that can precisely track first responders inside buildings and monitor their vital signs. Over the past year, with $1 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), they added to that system new technology that will warn firefighters of impending flashover — a deadly event in which everything in a room suddenly ignites. Electrical and computer engineering faculty members James Duckworth and David Cyganski and Fire Protection Engineering Department head Kathy Notarianni collaborated on the project, which produced a prototype device that firefighters can deposit as they move through a structure. The device underwent burn tests in WPI’s Fire Sciences Laboratory and at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, culminating in a burn test (shown above) in the summer of 2010 in a small structure that simulated a furnished living room. The sensor worked as hoped — providing enough warning for firefighters to safely get clear.
Deans Inaugurate New Era at WPI For the first time in its 145-year history, WPI’s academic divisions are under the direction of deans. (From left, above) Selçuk Güçeri, Bernard M. Gordon Dean of Engineering, Karen Kashmanian Oates, Peterson Family Dean of Arts and Sciences, and Mark Rice, dean of WPI’s new School of Business, joined the university this year from prestigious institutions: Güçeri from Drexel University, where he was dean of engineering; Oates from the National Science Foundation, where she was deputy director for the Division of Undergraduate Education; and Rice from Babson College, where he was Murata Dean of the F. W. Olin Graduate School of Business. In addition to leading their respective academic areas, the new deans will work with faculty members across the Institute to advance WPI’s academic and research programs.
Conferences Focus on Safety, Geolocation, Surfaces, and Neuroprosthetics The leading conferences on first responder location, wireless geolocation, surface metrology, and advanced implantable neuroprosthetics took place at WPI in 2010. These international meetings were all developed and driven by WPI faculty researchers. > Second International Conference on Surface Metrology. Surfaces cover everything, and the characteristics of those surfaces — particularly their texture or roughness — can be meaningful for professionals in a wide range of fields, including archaeology, art conservation, forensic science, medical devices, engineering, and manufacturing. More than 100 scientists, art conservators, and engineers from these and other fields — hailing from more than 10 nations — exchanged ideas and learned about the latest advances and best practices in the field.
> Fifth Workshop on Precision Indoor Personnel Location and Tracking for Emergency Responders. More than 100 academic, corporate, and government researchers, government representatives, and first responders discussed the latest developments in this emerging field. As location and tracking systems move toward commercialization, this year’s meeting included a focus on the need for technology standards.
> Second International Workshop on Opportunistic Radio Frequency Localization for Next Generation Wireless Devices. Akin to the rapid evolution of social media, mobile geolocation is changing how people interact and shop, and how businesses connect with consumers. More than 50 invited experts from industry and academia agreed that the rapid growth of geolocation apps for smart phones and other wireless devices has created new opportunities for mining data about consumer behavior for patterns that will drive future technological innovation.
Clockwise from above: Jalal Mapar, program manager at the Department of Homeland Security, addresses the Workshop on Opportunistic Radio Frequency Localization; Worcester (Mass.) firefighters take part in a technology demonstration during the Workshop on Precision Indoor Personnel Location and Tracking for Emergency Responders; Johnny Matheny of West Virginia, who lost part of his left arm to cancer, poses a question during Neuroprosthetics 2010.
> Neuroprosthetics 2010. Neuroprosthetics, advanced limb replacements that will be integrated with the body and nervous system, hold great promise for improving the lives of amputees, including military service members who’ve been injured in combat. Clinicians and scientists from Europe and the United States who are at the forefront of this field gathered to discuss two key challenges: osseointegration, or implanting a titanium post in the remnant bone to serve as an attachment point for the prosthetic, and soft-tissue regeneration, or forming an infection-resistant seal around the post with regenerated tissue.
Luis Vidali, left, and Erkan T端zel examine a sample of Physcomitrella patens, a moss they use as a model organism.
By design, WPI approaches life sciences research in a collaborative way, driven by a desire to solve important problems that often cross departmental boundaries. That model also applies to recruiting new faculty. As the university’s life sciences program has grown significantly in recent years, department heads have thought strategically, targeting emerging, multifaceted disciplines and reaching out as a group to recruit the right talent. One such success story at WPI is the growing concentration of work in biophysics.
Forces by Michael I. Cohen
The convergence of lab-bench experimentalists and mathematical theorists, biophysics explores the systems contained within the cell, where a complex web of physical interactions drives biological processes. Working across traditional academic borders, biophysicists apply molecular modeling to the search for new cancer therapies, study electric fields that may herald the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, and create mathematical models to understand the basic process of cell growth. Structural Dynamics in Plant Cells It didn’t take long for Erkan Tüzel and Luis Vidali to find each other. Both were recruited to WPI in 2009, and even before they had set up their respective offices, they were talking about how to collaborate. With support from the Eppley Foundation for Research, Tüzel, assistant professor of physics, studies the dynamics of microtubules — strong filaments that give cells their structure — and molecular motors that transport
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“Bringing physicists and biologists together teaches us all how to communicate with each other. That improves all of our understanding and helps build more effective collaborations.” — Erkan Tüzel proteins along microtubules like trains traversing an intercellular railway. Vidali, assistant professor of biology and biotechnology, uses molecular genetics to explore the basic processes of plant growth, which also involve filaments and motors. “We were interested in similar problems, so we decided to try to solve some together,” says Vidali. Their first collaboration focused on a plant gene called myosin XI, which Vidali studies in moss. The gene encodes a protein that works as a molecular motor that can move material along the filaments that form a plant cell’s cytoskeleton. Experiments in Vidali’s lab had shown that when both copies of the gene are turned off, the cells fail to grow properly. Instead of growing from their tips, with new cells extending in a linear fashion, moss with silenced myosin XI genes produced small rounded cells that left the plants severely stunted. The next step was to test whether the lack of myosin XI affects the dynamics of the cytoskeleton, which is made of filaments of a protein called actin. While different from the microtubules Tüzel studies, the dynamics of actin filaments are similar enough so he could quickly adapt some of his mathematical models to fit the problem. Vidali tagged the actin filaments with a fluorescent marker that could be seen through a confocal microscope. He took images of the movement of actin over time, which became data points for a model Tüzel developed to analyze the movement of actin and correlate it with the loss of myosin. The model showed that the missing protein did not affect the movement of the cytoskeleton, even in the stunted plants, suggesting that myosin XI may play a more complex role in plant cells than was previously realized.
Based on that initial project, Tüzel and Vidali have moved on to extended questions about the functioning of microtubules and molecular motors. “Through this collaboration, Erkan can invest his resources in the computational part, and my lab can invest resources in the experimental part, so we can approach the problem from both directions and potentially see better results faster,” Vidali says. Beyond working together as colleagues, Vidali and Tüzel regularly bring their students and postdoctoral researchers together to discuss their progress and to look for new avenues to pursue. “Bringing physicists and biologists together teaches us all how to communicate with each other,” Tüzel says. “That improves all of our understanding and helps build more effective collaborations.” The Physics of Alzheimer’s Characterized by progressive dementia, memory loss, and cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s is a fatal disease that claims its victims bit by bit. “To me, this is the cruelest disease,” said Izabela Stroe, assistant professor of physics, who came to WPI in 2008. “If you lose an arm or a leg, that’s terrible, but you can go on. But if you lose your mind and your memories and your thoughts, what is left?” Stroe doesn’t approach this subject in the abstract. Growing up she learned mathematics from her uncle, a high school teacher who developed Alzheimer’s. “He was a great teacher, and I watched him slowly lose everything — even the ability to recognize his own family,” she says. “I greatly admired him for all of the things he knew, and in the end everything was gone. I do this work because I hope that one day I can help people like my uncle who are afflicted by this terrible disease.”
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According to the National Institutes of Health, some five million Americans have Alzheimer’s. The prevalence of the disease doubles every five years beyond the age of 65, so the incidence is rising as the population ages — it is expected to afflict between 11 and 16 million Americans by 2050. The disease begins when small toxic chains of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) start to associate into larger and larger structures. They coalesce into fibrous bundles that attach to the neurons, eventually covering them in plaque that blocks the transmission of signals. The precise cause of Alzheimer’s is unknown, and there currently is no way to diagnose the disease until the brain is seriously damaged. Stroe, in collaboration with researchers at the University of California, Davis, is developing technology that she hopes will lead to a method for early detection. “If we can do this,” she says, “then perhaps that can lead to better therapies.” The plaque in the Alzheimer’s brain is made primarily of a large protein called amyloid-beta. The building blocks
of amyloid-beta are small molecules called amyloid precursors. Stroe is working to measure the precursors in the bloodstream and to detect when they first begin to aggregate. As the precursors form bundles, some of the water molecules that were attached to them get squeezed out. Stroe believes she can detect the movement of those molecules with a technique called dielectric relaxation spectroscopy. The samples are placed in a capacitor and exposed to an electric field, which produces a shift in the sample’s dielectric relaxation spectra. The shifts seem to correlate with the aggregation of precursors into bundles. “This is not a trivial problem,” she says, “but we have early data that is supportive of our approach, and this is encouraging.” Fighting Cancer with Molecular Modeling George Kaminski’s research is aimed at finding new ways to fight cancer. An associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry who came to WPI in 2008, Kaminski
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George Kaminski and Izabela Stroe with a model of a protein, the subject of their shared research interest.
ways that will prevent them from causing damage. Compounds that bind to proteins are called ligands. Pharmaceutical companies have libraries of millions of compounds that could be therapeutic ligands against particular proteins. Through a complicated experimental process, they add them to the target protein to see if they bind. “And just binding isn’t enough,” Kaminski says. “If a ligand binds to everything, then it’s toxic. You want a ligand that binds only to the bad protein — like a lock and key.” Kaminksi’s approach to matching lock and key is based on robust physics implemented in computer code and is aimed at significantly cutting the need for more expensive and slower wet chemistry research. In theory,
applies the laws of physics to the movement of molecules in human cells. Using advanced mathematics and a lab filled with high-powered computers, he seeks to supercharge the process now used to develop new pharmaceuticals by creating more accurate simulations of how new drugs might bind to proteins. Proteins, the building blocks of all cells and tissues, also regulate most physiologic processes. The over- or underproduction of proteins, or the creation of toxic proteins by mutated genes, are behind many diseases — including cancer. Often, the physical structure and chemical make-up of toxic proteins are known. The challenge for drug development is finding compounds that will bind to harmful proteins in highly specific
José Argüello, left, and postdoctoral fellow Nithyananda Thorenoor.
one can characterize the energy fields of the protein and the ligand and predict if they will bind — and how tightly — using quantum mechanics and other principles of physics. Electrons play a critical role in molecular binding, but accounting for the movement of every electron in just one protein-ligand combination is beyond the reach of current computational technology. So Kaminksi and his team must develop mathematical models that simplify the system, yet retain the essential physics that will yield an accurate answer. “It’s all about approximation and figuring out what you need to retain in the model,” he says. Even this simplified approach entails serious number crunching; some of the calculations run for several days
on fast computers. Over the next several years, Kaminski, who is funded by the National Institutes of Health, hopes to be able to predict protein-ligand binding based on the chemical and structural parameters of specific compounds. If successful, he says his approach will speed up the drug development process by narrowing the field of likely cancer-killing compounds worth testing. “In recent years we’ve seen a great increase in computational power that could be applied to biologic systems, but creation of an adequate toolset has been lagging,” Kaminski says. “We are trying to build a bridge by combining the right physics with this new computational power.” n
Understanding a Heavy Metal Ballet As biology has zoomed in from the level of the organism,
Argüello’s pioneering studies have helped
to the cell, to the molecules that make up living things,
reveal the molecular dance required to move
questions of fundamental physics have come into focus.
these ions, which are harmful to the cell unless
Today, basic scientists study molecular processes that
safely bound to proteins, through the membrane
operate in an ever-changing three-dimensional environment
and into the cytoplasm, where they can reach
where the laws of physics are essential tools for under-
their destination: the proteins that become active
standing the machinery of life.
once bound to them. It is a complex process in which the ions are handed from protein to
At WPI, José Argüello, professor of chemistry and bio-
protein, like a baton in a relay race.
chemistry, explores mass transport at the molecular level in biological systems, a phenomenon at the intersection of
In recognition of his contributions, Argüello earned a four-
physics, biology, and chemistry. He studies the structure
year term on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Macro-
and function of proteins that transport heavy metals such
molecular Structure and Function (A) study section, a panel
as copper, zinc, cobalt, and iron across cell membranes.
of leading scientists who study the role of heavy metals in
These micronutrients perform fundamental tasks in all liv-
biological processes. “I believe quality scientific research
ing organisms. By helping maintain protein structure and
needs to be innovative, yet also grounded in solid prelimi-
aiding in catalytic activity, they make possible a host of
nary data,” he says, noting that as he evaluates proposals
critical biological functions, including oxygen transport in
for NIH funding, he looks for programs with great ideas
animals and photosynthesis in plants.
and experienced research teams to pursue them.
“I believe quality scientific research needs to be innovative, yet also grounded in solid preliminary data.” — José Argüello
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BIG thing by Joan Killough-Miller
Stem-like cells that may replace damaged or diseased tissue in the body. New approaches to making and reusing materials that could reduce waste and save energy. Wireless geolocation technology that might add a new, personal dimension to medicine and shake up the study of human behavior. All are nascent technologies with uncertain payoffs, but each has the potential to yield profoundly important — even revolutionary — breakthroughs. Meet the WPI researchers who are driving this work and learn where it’s taken them — and where it might one day take us.
Opposite page: Kaveh Pahlavan, professor of electrical and computer engineering, seated, and master’s candidate Umair Khan attach sensors to a mannequin used to study the characteristics of body area wireless networks.
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Enabling a Wireless World “Science starts with science fiction,” says Kaveh Pahlavan, noting that the handheld communicator that Captain Kirk flipped open on Star Trek was an icon for the early developers of today’s smart phones. “Science fiction is like a proposal to society, which then evolves into technology.” Pahlavan, professor of electrical and computer engineering, studies the behavior of radio signal propagation — the basic science behind high-speed wireless networking and precise geolocation technologies. He
works in multipath-rich indoor environments, where most modern wireless applications have emerged. In 1985 he founded the Center for Wireless Information Network Studies (CWINS) at WPI and received the first NSF funding granted in that area. Today Pahlavan’s work brings experts in telecommunications, public safety, and urban planning to WPI to explore the future of location-based applications for the wireless industry. Currently, Pahlavan is bringing that science to a new frontier — the human body. Under a $1.2 million
award from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), he is laying the groundwork for wireless body area networks (or BANs), which will enable a new generation of wireless devices that can travel through or be implanted in the human body. Interactive BANs would allow remote monitoring and treatment of health conditions from within the body, turning the science fiction movie Fantastic Voyage — in which a miniaturized submarine travels through the bloodstream to dissolve a blood clot in the brain — into reality.
Radio frequency (RF) propagation, Pahlavan explains, becomes very complex indoors, where the surfaces of a room act like a hall of mirrors, bouncing signals back and forth, and creating hundreds of overlapping paths. “Inside the small spaces of the human body — which is largely liquid — we don’t know how the signal will behave,” Pahlavan explains. He uses software simulations, testbeds, and “phantoms” (hollow vessels with structures that mimic the different densities of human organs) as stand-ins for live subjects in order [ 11]
to analyze the behavior of these signals as they pass though the human body. In the larger world, the basic science of RF propagation modeling is vital to decision makers in the telecommunications and advertising industries, who see opportunity in the ability to analyze and predict consumer behavior. Tracking human movement and traffic pattern also holds value for urban planning, homeland security, and crowd management. Leaders in these diverse fields gathered at WPI recently for CWINS’s second International Workshop on Opportunistic Radio Frequency Localization for Next Generation Wireless Devices to discuss technology, markets, and standards for these rapidly emerging technologies. Pahlavan compares the need for a unified understanding of the behavior of radio waveforms across any medium to the parable of an elephant in the dark being defined by “researchers” who can each feel only one part of the beast. “I want to shed true light on the elephant,” he says. “Our study of propagation gives you that light.”
Generating Possibilities In Tanja Dominko’s lab, researchers are converting cells from the adult human body into stem-like cells that can regenerate healthy tissue in injured or diseased body parts. They have found ways to restore these differentiated cells almost, but not quite, back to the pluripotent state of embryonic stem cells, which are capable of differentiating into any type of tissue. Dominko, associate professor of biology and biotechnology and president of CellThera Inc., has received an NIH EUREKA (Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration) grant, on top of funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Army Research Office (ARO), for her work, which holds great promise for healing combat-related injuries. “As a species, we ‘forgot’ how to respond to an injury,” Dominko says, explaining that amphibians can grow new limbs, while humans heal by forming scar tissue that compromises function. Her investigations involve analyzing the molecular components of an Tag. See page 1.
Opposite page: Tanja Dominko, associate professor of biology and biotechnology, left, with PhD candidate Olga Kashpur, has developed a technique for manipulating adult cells into stemlike cells that can regenerate wpi.edu/+research
tissue. At left: Human skin cells
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are shown before, left, and after manipulation, when they are becoming muscle cells.
extract derived from eggs of the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis), as well as testing environmental factors that can be manipulated to induce cells to regain their developmental “memory.” This novel approach activates genes that already exist in the cell, rather than inserting new or altered genetic material, or relying on embryonic stem cells, which carry the risk of immune rejection, tumor formation, and mutations. A team of WPI and CellThera investigators has succeeded in turning on the stem cell genes OCT4,
SOX2, and NANOG in human fibroblasts (skin cells) by lowering the amount of atmospheric oxygen the cells are exposed to, and by adding a naturally occurring protein called FGF2 (fibroblast growth factor 2) to the culture medium. “Once we’ve figured out how this cell type is triggered in the dish, the next logical step is to do that in the body,” Dominko says. With biomedical engineering professors at WPI, she has shown that reprogrammed cells transplanted via fibrin microthreads into skeletal muscle wounds of mice improved healing and reduced
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scar formation by 70 percent. Further study is needed to test the stability and functionality of the grafts, and to scale up to the level of the human body, but the potential exists to regenerate functional tissue to treat almost any disease. This new understanding of cell plasticity could also lead to new breakthroughs in cancer treatment. “If we can go from a differentiated cell to an undifferentiated cell, it should be possible to ‘reverse engineer’ a way to intervene and control immortal cells that are replicating out of control in our bodies,” she says. “There’s a lot of biology to support it — I don’t think it’s science fiction.”
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A Vision for Sustainability Diran Apelian looks back to the Industrial Age as a time when America’s natural resources seemed infinite, and waste disposal was as simple as a nearby slag pile or stream. Today, the efficient use — and reuse — of materials is a top priority for the nation and the world. “We talk about energy as being renewable or nonrenewable, yet we forget that materials are not renewable,” he says. “There’s only so much titanium or vanadium, for example. One-third of the world’s copper is now sitting in landfills.” Apelian, Howmet Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the university’s Metal Processing Institute, was appointed chair of an Energy Materials Blue Ribbon Panel commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2010. The study brought together 21 thought leaders to identify research and policy priorities for a “new energy economy.” The group’s vision report, Linking Transformational Materials and Processing for an Energy Efficient and LowCarbon Economy, identified key areas where materials science and engineering (MSE) could have the most impact in reducing energy usage and lowering carbon emissions. Sustainable manufacturing of materials was one of four MSE technologies found to hold the most promise for reducing the energy- and carbon-intensity levels of the U.S. economy. Resource recovery and recycling was a near-term priority that would have an immediate impact. The report also called for significant investment in R&D, along with a concerted national effort to cultivate and educate the skilled workforce that will be required for the future energy sector. Apelian jokes about centering his career on garbage, but stresses that it is a major engineering problem. With seed funding from the NSF, he founded the Center for Resource Recovery and Recycling (CR3) in 2009 in partnership with three other universities, to focus on
research solutions. “If we just reduce the waste that we have presently in our buildings, our cars, our plants, we will save immensely,” he says. “We can’t just keep filling landfill after landfill when our mines are being depleted.” CR3 is the nation’s first center focusing on this critical subject, he says. As the lead institution, WPI focuses on metal recycling and the whole life cycle analysis during the design stage. Colorado School of Mines explores functional materials such as rare earth metals and solar panels. The focus of Purdue University is electronic waste, and KU Leuven (in Belgium) looks at precious metals. “WPI, with these partner universities, is leading
the efforts to develop recycling technologies and working on the educational and policy issues,” Apelian says. Additionally, WPI is having a national impact, he says, through its research centers and in the classroom, where programs like the first year Great Problems Seminars help students develop a global understanding of the issues required to be responsible citizens, technologists, and leaders. “We’re influencing the nation’s policies on enabling technologies in materials science that play a role in the renewable energy economy, and identifying the materials needed for a new energy paradigm to achieve the DOE’s mission: to reduce our carbon footprint and increase our use of renewable energy.” n
“If we just reduce the waste that we have presently in our buildings, our cars, our plants, we will save immensely. We can’t just keep filling landfill after landfill when our mines are being depleted.” — Diran Apelian
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Joseph Farbrook, assistant professor of humanities and arts and a renowned digital artist, used the online community Second Life to build Strata-Caster, an elaborate interactive art installation that one traverses while sitting in a real wheelchair.
“I’m interested in game technology, but as an artist, I want to use it as a medium for exploring ideas.”
— Joseph Farbrook
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In the late 1950s, filmmaker Morton Heilig developed a remarkable machine called the Sensorama. Seated before it, a viewer watched and listened to a 3-D stereoscopic film of a motorcycle ride while his seat tilted or vibrated to simulate the feel of the moving bike and fans blew wind scented with outdoor smells in his face. It was the beginning of virtual reality.
virtually by Alexander Gelfand
real It would take computers decades to become powerful enough to approach Heiligâ€™s achievement. Today, drawing on that power, scientists and engineers are beginning to realize the long-hoped-for promise of virtual and augmented reality. At WPI, researchers are working at the forefront of this field, developing technology that lets users experience virtual worlds with all of their senses, helping surgeons use real-time medical imaging to look inside the body as they operate, and using virtual reality to help us see the real world in new ways.
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Mirroring Real Life in Second Life “I’m interested in game technology, but as an artist, I want to use it as a medium for exploring ideas,” says Joseph Farbrook, assistant professor in WPI’s Humanities and Arts and Interactive Media and Game Development programs and an artist who helps students learn to create provocative art using digital technology. Thus was born Strata-Caster, a virtual art installation that allows viewers to navigate an artificial world using a controller that looks — and behaves — like a wheelchair. Users sit in the chair and spin its wheels to move through a series of themed installation spaces — or rooms — that are projected on a large screen. The rooms were built in Second Life, the popular virtual-reality world where players can adopt identities, or avatars, of their choosing. Each space is filled with objects that Farbrook designed himself, or bought within Second Life. And therein lies the crux of the piece. “People are purchasing things in Second Life and making replicas of all the things we have in the real world,” Farbrook says. “We’re bringing our physical culture into a place where it doesn’t have any relevance. But we’re so programmed by our present culture that we can’t let go of it.” The notion that we are unnecessarily importing real-world concepts into virtual-reality environments applies to more abstract baggage, as well. Conflict, social hierarchy, economic disparity . . . these things are also replicated in Second Life, Farbrook says. “People say that’s just the way things are. But it’s not necessarily the way things have to be. These ideas have just become so ingrained in our culture that we take them for granted.” Hence the wheelchair. The idea, Farbrook explains, is to “de-familiarize” viewers by putting them in a setting they are not used to, and then have them roll through a series of environments that do much the same thing, thereby calling attention to “cultural constructions that are totally arbitrary, and that may not even be relevant to our time.” Making high-tech, high-concept art isn’t easy. The undergraduate computer science and robotics majors
who designed the wheelchair interface used light sensors to track the motion of the wheels, but Second Life only accepts arrow-key input or the letter-key equivalent. So after coding a virtual wheelchair that obeys the laws of physics, they had to translate all the wheel data into a series of keystrokes. It took a lot of work, but by the time Farbrook presented Strata-Caster at the 37th annual SIGGRAPH conference on computer graphics and interactive techniques in the summer of 2010, “the wheelchair really behaved like a wheelchair.” The conference organizers built an enclosed space for him veiled with big black curtains, and a projector was rigged to avoid casting shadows on a 15-foot diagonal screen. “It was a very immersive experience,” Farbrook says. A Virtual Assist for Surgeons Gregory Fischer is quick to point out the potential benefits of using robots and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to guide delicate surgical procedures like inserting electrodes deep in the brain or implanting tiny radioactive seeds in the prostate to kill cancerous tumors. For one thing, MRI images can be continuously updated, allowing doctors to compensate for the way internal organs shift and swell when poked and prodded by needles and probes. “Instead of working from stale images on a light box in an operating room, we are focusing on using real-time, hi-res images,” says the assistant professor of mechanical engineering. And using robotic devices to align and insert those needles and probes from inside the MRI scanner would obviate the need for doctors to work within the constraints of a tube that is roughly 5 feet long and 2 feet wide. There’s only one problem: MRI scanners wreak havoc on electronic devices, and electronic devices and metallic objects wreak havoc on MRI scanners. MRI scanners work by bathing patients in a magnetic field 30,000 to 60,000 times the Earth’s magnetic field, bombarding them with radio waves, and inter-
preting the electromagnetic signals that the molecules within their bodies generate in response. That 1.5-3 Tesla magnetic field has been known to suck in wheelchairs and hospital beds, so putting ferrous materials inside the scanner is clearly prohibited. Meanwhile, placing anything inside the scanner’s bore that generates its own electrical signals will create image-marring artifacts. That rules out just about all standard electromagnetic parts in robots, including actuators, sensors, and controllers. The solution? Fischer is developing robots made without metal, using custom-built electronic components that will neither interfere with, nor be destroyed by, MRI technology. He and his team have so far experimented with pneumatic, hydraulic, and ceramic piezoelectric actuators. And he’s using fiber-optic force sensors to build
remote-controlled robots that can provide haptic feedback: a doctor standing several feet from the scanner, guiding a robot arm as it inserts a needle in someone’s body, will feel the same resistance as the robot itself. “Doctors,” he says, “are reassured when the sense of touch is restored.” A robotic needle-placement system customized for prostate work is currently being tested at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and Fischer plans to begin testing a system tailored for deep-brain stimulation as soon as possible at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In each case, he’s trying to build systems that doctors and nurses can maintain with minimal fuss. “We’re trying to make these systems very easy to use — simple and reliable,” he says. After all, brain surgery is hard enough without having to reboot your robot helper.
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Gregory Fischer, right, and PhD candidate Hao Su with a robot designed to implant electrodes for deep-brain stimulation while inside an MRI scanner.
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“In virtual reality, researchers typically focus on one of the senses. But in the real world, we use all of our senses together. So I think to be really effective, we need to look at the senses not in isolation, but in concert.” — Robert Lindeman
[ 20 ]
So Real You Can Touch It Imagine that you are standing inside a room in a virtual environment. You open a window, and feel a breeze caress your cheek. You hear a voice behind you, and as you shift your weight to walk toward it, you feel your right shoulder graze the windowsill. Most virtual reality (VR) environments don’t feel quite so real. But Robert Lindeman, associate professor of computer science and director of the Human Interaction in Virtual Environments (HIVE) lab, is hoping to change that. “In VR, researchers typically focus on one of the senses,” Lindeman says. “But in the real world, we use all of our senses together. So I think to be really effective, we need to look at the senses not in isolation, but in concert.” That integrated, holistic approach has led Lindeman to investigate everything from sound and sight to touch and smell, all with an eye toward increasing a person’s sense of “presence”— the subjective feeling one has of being totally immersed in a virtual environment. And those investigations have led to a series of inventions, like the TactaVest, a modular neoprene garment studded with miniscule pager motors of the sort that make cell phones and Sony PlayStation controllers vibrate. The TactaVest includes segments for the shoulders, elbows, and back; and individual motors can be made to vibrate with varying intensity when the person wearing the device brushes up against objects in a virtual world or is hit by a bullet in a first-person shooter game. One of Lindeman’s students is adapting this “vibrotactile” approach to represent sensor data from teleoperated robot systems like military drone planes.
The data from such robots is typically represented graphically on computer screens, forcing operators to interpret a great deal of visual information. Offloading some of that information to other senses gives them “an experience that’s closer to the real world, because it’s multimodal and multisensory.” Another student is adapting the kind of balance board used in Nintendo’s Wii Fit exercise system to let users “surf ” through virtual space simply by shifting their weight as they stand atop an elevated platform loaded with motion sensors. And Lindeman himself recently investigated the use of bone-conduction technology to generate directional sound in augmented and virtual reality environments. The technology transmits vibrations through the mastoid bone to the cochlea, allowing computer-generated sounds to mingle with real-world ones. Now, Lindeman has combined the fruits of these various endeavors to create the TactaCage, an octagonal frame built out of PVC tubes and outfitted with cameras and PC fans. The cage’s occupant dons a VR headset, headphones, and a TactaVest, and stands on top of a balance board dubbed the “Silver Surfer.” He shifts his weight to move forward, and feels fan-driven air move against his body. He hears sounds with specific points of origin, and feels something in his back or elbow when he bumps into a virtual wall. Before long, a user will be able to don a motion capture suit festooned with light-emitting diodes while cameras in the cage capture his physical movements and represent them in the virtual environment. Imagine raising your hand in Second Life and seeing your avatar do the same. “We’re trying to get closer to reality,” Lindeman says. n
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Inside the TactaCage, Robert Lindeman, associate professor of computer science, right, and PhD candidate Paulo de Barros, outfit a mannequin with the TactaVest, a device that adds the sense of touch to virtual worlds. PhD candidate Jia Wang, seated, left, and masterâ€™s candidate Tonje Stolpestad run a student-designed aerial surfing simulation inspired by the Marvel Comics superhero Silver Surfer.
the Innovation Exchange
by Maureen Deiana
The audience of fellow researchers is welcoming, but may not share your passion; informed, but not likely to be tuned into the context of your work. This is the annual wpi.edu/+research
Graduate Research Achievement Day (GRAD) at WPI. It is more like the real world
[ 22 ]
than professional-track conferences, where everyone lives and breathes the same areas of interest. Here, graduate students are challenged to make a “clean, smooth pitch about what they’re doing and why it matters,” explains Richard Sisson, dean of graduate studies and George F. Fuller Professor of Mechanical Engineering.
WPI’s annual showcase of graduate research talent compels students to think as entrepreneurs do and communicate about the real-world relevance of their work.
Launched in 2006, GRAD is an opportunity for students to emerge from their labs, practice talking about their work in a manner anyone can understand, and revel in being part of a thriving research community. Although not required, participation is growing — from 140 posters presented in the first year to 217 in 2010. “Most faculty say, ‘You will participate,’ because this is the place to get it right,” Sisson adds. There are also awards to win, reputations to build, and chances to discover and benefit from what is happening in other labs around campus.
Walk from poster to poster — or follow partcipating students from year to year — and you get a sense of the breadth and depth of work under way as well as the scale of WPI’s research enterprise. “This is the premier research event at WPI,” says Grant McGimpsey, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, director of the WPI Bioengineering Institute, and, from 2007 to 2010, associate provost for research and graduate studies. “It’s our chance to celebrate that graduate students are more than cogs in the wheel; they are at the sharp end of
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our quest to solve problems and generate knowledge. ”The energy in the room is infectious,” he adds, “It’s like coming to the town center on market day. There are the straight scientific pitches, and those that are more entrepreneurial. Either way, you need to be able to sell your work.” Graduate students are rising to the challenge.
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“Almost more important than what you’re doing is why you’re doing it. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the technology is if it doesn’t meet a need.” — Greg Cole, PhD Candidate, Mechanical Engineering First Place, Innovation Presentation Competition
Prime the Pitch with Passion Being among friends makes GRAD “a safe place to hone skills and gain a fresh perspective,” says Greg Cole, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, who credits GRAD with giving him the confidence to present more broadly and in a more meaningful way. “I used to write a speech and wonder why the people I wanted to impress kept cutting me off,” Cole says. Now he brings his passion and has learned to listen for and answer questions. Cole’s presentation on MRI-compatible surgical systems earned him top honors in the Engineering Division poster competition at GRAD 2010. He also won first place in the new Innovation Presentation Competition, or “elevator speech” contest. With no posters as props, students have the podium for five minutes to sell an idea, as an entrepreneur would pitch a venture capitalist. “Almost more important than what you’re doing is why you’re doing it,” he adds. “It doesn’t matter how brilliant the technology is if it doesn’t meet a need.” Right now, for Cole, the need is in health care, specifically to overcome the technical and financial obstacles of using live MRI-guidance in deep brain stimulation procedures (see page 18), such as that used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Getting to the “Aha!” Moments “By the third year, seeing the event grow, it really sank in that I am part of an impressive research community,” says Zach Pardos, PhD candidate in computer science, whose poster on educational data mining to track learning rates, guessing rates, and other characteristics of the individual student, took second place in the 2010 Science Division. Pardos has come to appreciate the peer review that is a natural part of GRAD and believes it’s an opportunity to build a reputation. “We don’t judge each other, but we do observe, and because it’s a recurring event, my theory is that GRAD actually improves the quality of research at WPI.” As if to prove it, a few weeks after GRAD, Pardos placed fourth in a field of 600 competitors for the national 2010 Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining Cup. “Presenting my poster at GRAD gave me a sense of what I needed to touch on for the ‘Aha!’ moments
“It prepares you to think about your research in terms of the higher level contribution you’re making.” — Lori Pelletier, Recent PhD Recipient, Manufacturing Engineering Special Judges Award, Innovation Presentation Competition
I’m after.” The best strategy, he’s learned, is “to focus on my contribution and why it matters” to teachers and students in the classroom. The third time was also the charm for Lori Pelletier, whose GRAD 2010 presentation garnered her a special judges award in the Innovation Presentation Competition for the “project with the largest societal impact” and third place in the Science Division poster competition. Pelletier, the director of performance improvement for UMass Memorial Health Care in Worcester, presented her work on physician measurement in primary care.
Of her GRAD experiences, she says, “It prepares you to think about your research in terms of the higher level contribution you’re making; to frame it, quantify it — and in my case — to finish the dissertation.” She did so, and defended it successfully, just weeks later. Pelletier’s performance measurement model is being applied at UMass Memorial, and its broad acceptance, particularly by the physician community, is especially gratifying. “The whole reason for leaving a very good job and focusing my doctoral studies on health care was to make an impact on a very important societal problem,” she says. [ 25 ]
Getting to the Heart of the Matter For Tracy Gwyther, being tapped for the GRAD 2010 elevator speech competition was a game changer. The PhD candidate in biomedical engineering realized that to communicate with an audience with no science background or concept of life sciences research, she’d have to rethink virtually every word. By doing so, she crafted a winning story. “To be able to talk on a detailed technical level is one thing, and it’s very important,” Gwyther says. “But you also have to be able to get your message out so a broader audience can understand the importance of your work. You have to paint a picture.” Gwyther’s research is on the use of tissue-engineered blood vessels in cardiovascular bypass surgery. Using “everyday words and food analogies” is one of her picture-painting strategies: A patient’s cells are placed in shallow Bundt pan–like molds to make rings, fed a high-nutrient blend, and stacked like bagels on a rope to fuse together as a tube, the shape of a native vessel. Production is simple,
fast, and consistent — essential factors for clinical and economic feasibility. Jacques Guyette, working on his PhD in biomedical engineering, also aims to “mend the broken heart,” a phrase he worked into the title of his poster to move away from a “typically rigid” model of description and presentation. It’s a move that comes with the self-confidence of having done three previous GRAD posters, frequent stand-ups among his peers, and talks at professional conferences — and one that helped him take top honors in the Life Sciences and Engineering Division. “Part of the graduate experience at WPI is to learn to better describe what you do, and be able to sell it,” Guyette says. What he’s “selling” is a novel therapy for repairing cardiac muscle after an infarct, or heart attack, by delivering adult stem cells to the damaged tissue. “It’s important to get your story down for a broader audience — to stand and deliver,” he says. “You get so focused when you’re in your lab. This is a day to think and talk about the big picture.” n
Where Innovation Meets Business Savvy In the early 1980s, Mark Rice was a graduate student
Leaders — and innovation — can come from any discipline,
and part of a “band of techies” that
so preparation can and should extend beyond students
founded a solar energy company. “We
aiming for business degrees. “Particularly for research-
spent 99.9 percent of our time devel-
ers whose intellectual property has commercial potential,
oping our technology, and assumed
awareness of strategy setting, financing, marketing, opera-
that was enough to be successful,” he
tions, selling — all the knowledge and skills we teach in
recalls. But like too many engineers with
business school — will enhance the potential for building
big ideas and no business sense, they
a competent commercialization team,” Rice says.
eventually saw their research funding dry up and the company shut its doors.
WPI’s School of Business is an entrepreneurial venture in its
own right. As with any new undertaking, there will be early
[ 26 ]
Fast forward 30 years. Now, as the inaugural dean of
adopters — for example, professors who influence engineer-
WPI’s School of Business and an internationally recognized
ing and science students to enroll in entrepreneurship class-
scholar of technological innovation and entrepreneurship,
es. “The idea of combining technological sophistication
Rice is resolute: “Here we are today, and the world’s prob-
with business savvy is very powerful,” he says. He looks
lems at the intersection of technology and business — includ-
forward to engaging venture capitalists and serial entre-
ing the need for alternative energy —are even more press-
preneurs as advisors for a new generation of technological
ing. To turn research into innovation and innovation into
entrepreneurs. “We should seize this opportunity to prepare
impact, we need to prepare entrepreneurial leaders. WPI
WPI students to solve the world’s extremely complex and
is one of the places that can do it.”
“You have to be able to get your message out so a broader audience can understand the importance of your work.” — Tracy Gwyther, PhD Candidate, Biomedical Engineering Second Place, Innovation Presentation Competition
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In the time it takes you to read this sentence, someone in the United States will suffer a heart attack, stroke, or other coronary event. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease takes a life every minute, making it the leading cause of death. Some who have treatable heart conditions will not know it until it’s too late, while those who suffer heart attacks will remain at greater risk of further trouble down the road. Researchers at WPI are tackling heart disease on a number of fronts, developing groundbreaking methods for early detection, assessing when surgery is warranted, and fixing damage when it occurs. Their steadfast efforts will help hearts stay healthier longer and heal better.
Arresting Heart Disease by Ami Albernaz
Stalking a Silent Killer To most, the word “algorithm” sounds cold and abstract. But algorithms can be building blocks of life-saving technology. Take one developed by Ki Chon, head of WPI’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, which was licensed by Cleveland-based ScottCare Corporation for use in a new heart monitor. Able to detect atrial fibrillation (AF), a type of irregular heartbeat, more accurately and rapidly than existing technology, Chon’s
algorithm represents a significant advance in the fight against a condition that, left untreated, can be fatal. AF affects an estimated three million Americans, though many don’t realize they have it. In AF, the atria — the heart’s two upper chambers — beat out of sync with the ventricles. Episodes can be brief, or the condition can be chronic. Over time it can lead to congestive heart failure or stroke. In fact, people with the condition are
[ 29 ]
seven times more likely to have a stroke than the general population. Though effective medications exist, AF is notoriously difficult to detect, as it presents itself only intermittently. Even with Holter or arrhythmia monitors, which record heartbeats, infrequent occurrences are difficult for technicians who must review hours of data to spot. “Normally a technician has to sift through data to find a certain signature,” Chon says. “Then there’s atrial flutter [a precursor to atrial fibrillation], which throws a curveball at atrial fibrillation detection. It has different characteristics; you have to train people to identify it.”
“You don’t know when an atrial fibrillation episode is going to happen. If you had this device, you could monitor your heart regularly.”
— Ki Chon
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Ki Chon, left, and PhD candidate Christopher Scully.
Chon combined three different statistical techniques to improve precision. While previous monitors have had accuracy rates of around 70 to 80 percent, Chon’s algorithm has been shown to accurately detect AF 95 percent of the time, based on tests with patient data provided by MIT and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Just as important, as incorporated in the new monitor marketed by ScottCare, the algorithm flags AF episodes in real-time, eliminating the need for technicians to pore over data after the fact. It even alerts patients that they should notify their doctor. Chon says there have been a few cases in which the
Glenn Gaudette watches Melissa Kuhn ’11 prepare a bundle of microthreads for use in his heart repair research.
monitors have falsely detected AF due to motion and noise artifacts. He is now working on another algorithm that will compensate for the interference, and hopes to have it incorporated in the next generation of monitors. Further down the road, he imagines a simple device that could easily be used at home — something like a blood pressure cuff — for monitoring people without obvious AF symptoms. “You don’t know when an AF episode is going to happen,” Chon says. “If you had this device, you could monitor your heart regularly.” New Life for Damaged Hearts For those who’ve survived a heart attack, a serious second threat looms. Because the scar tissue that replaces damaged heart muscle does not contract, the heart pumps less blood — eventually leaving it unable to keep up with the body’s demand, and possibly leading to heart failure. Glenn Gaudette, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at WPI, is working on a revolutionary approach that would give heart muscle tissue new life — through stem cells delivered directly to the damaged area.
A number of scientists from around the world have demonstrated the promise of this sort of stem-cell therapy. Gaudette’s research focuses on mesenchymal stem cells, derived from adult bone marrow. He has found that when he engrafts these cells into damaged heart muscle, they form healthy muscle tissue. Using a scaffolding method — in which patches of biological material seeded with stem cells are placed in a damaged portion of the heart — he has been able to restore between 20 and 30 percent of the heart tissue’s normal function. Unsatisfied with those results, he wondered if there might be a way to recover even more of the heart’s function while also making it easier to deliver the stem cells. An informal chat over coffee with colleagues George Pins, associate professor of biomedical engineering, and Marsha Rolle, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, started Gaudette on a new direction about three years ago. “George was developing microthreads made of collagen and fibrin, which are important in the woundhealing response, and Marsha suggested putting stem cells on the end of a needle and pulling the threads through,” Gaudette recalls. “We started testing this idea.” [ 31]
A WPI Faculty Advancement in Research grant allowed the team to show that stem cells could indeed grow on the threads. Subsequently, Gaudette and his colleagues have received over $600,000 from the National Institutes of Health to try to load as many stem cells as possible onto the threads and deliver the seeded threads to the right place in the heart. The latter goal came with challenges that Gaudette and his colleagues had not foreseen.
“An Engineering Problem” There was more to getting the threads into the damaged heart tissue than simply pulling them through with a needle. There was the chance that the stem cells would shear off, which led to the development of a sheath to cover the threads. “A lot of people might think of this as a medical problem,” Gaudette says, “but it really is an engineering problem. There were things we didn’t think of at the outset.” There was also the matter of bundling the threads together so that there was just the right amount for the stem cells to adhere to, and the challenge of coaxing the stem cells to attach to the bundles. In Gaudette’s lab is a device that rotates syringes containing the threads, which allows the cells to stick. The stem cell–seeded microthreads are then kept in an incubator at 37 degrees Celsius until they can be used in tests with rats. Gaudette says the preliminary data is quite promising. “We’re still a long way from the clinic,” he acknowledges. Even so, the research marks an impressive start.
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Better Prediction of Strokes An arterial plaque — a fatty deposit made of cholesterol, fat, calcium, and other materials — may be a ticking time bomb: Under certain conditions, and without warning, it could rupture, sending debris and blood clots formed at the rupture site to the brain, causing a stroke. It takes years for these plaques to grow, and while small they usually go unnoticed. Once a plaque becomes large enough to block 70 percent of an artery, surgery is often recommended to remove it and prevent a possible rupture and stroke. Yet, that surgery may be over-prescribed because surgeons want to err on the safe side, says Dalin Tang, professor of mathematical sciences and biomedical engineering at WPI. In fact, the literature indicates that of 20 surgeries, only one will actually prevent a stroke. All surgery entails risk, and an unnecessary endarterectomy may damage the artery and cause harm by releasing debris into the bloodstream. More precise tools to predict which plaques are likely to rupture will allow doctors to cut down on unneeded surgeries, Tang believes. He’s made finding such tools his life’s work. With the help of a four-year, $1.4 million NIH grant awarded earlier this year (a renewal of a previous $1.1 million NIH award), Tang and colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Washington in Seattle have been working on a model that integrates fluid dynamics, solid mechanics, and histological and medical imaging to improve prediction. Tang believes the likelihood of rupture depends on two general factors: the composition of the plaque itself and mechanical forces acting on it.
“A lot of people might think of this as a medical problem, but it really is an engineering problem.” — Glenn Gaudette
Sewing stem cell–seeded microthreads into a mouse in the surgical suite at the WPI Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center at Gatway Park are, from left, Angelica DeMartino ’10, postdoctoral researcher Zewei Tao, Glenn Gaudette, and PhD candidate Jacques Guyette.
To get a detailed picture of a plaque, in vivo, MRI data were acquired from patients and segmented to get plaque morphology and tissue components; this data is then validated with histology. They surmise that plaques covered by a thick, protective “cap” may be less likely to rupture than plaques with caps that are thin or worn away, and that plaques with larger lipid-rich cores may be more vulnerable than plaques with smaller cores. Yet blood flow and stress on the plaque also play an important role, and Tang and his colleagues believe figuring out exactly what that role is will ultimately help doctors make better decisions. “If nothing acts on the plaque, it won’t rupture,” Tang says.
In one recent study of 12 patients, Tang and colleagues found that plaques that had previously ruptured had higher plaque wall stress and flow shear stress values compared with plaques that had not ruptured. In another study of 14 patients, the researchers found that these stresses seemed to correlate with advanced plaque progression. Though more research is needed for the team to refine its model, Tang, who has been working on computational modeling for cardiovascular diseases for 27 years, is both patient and perseverant, recognizing that the challenge may be difficult, but it’s eminently worthwhile. “It’s hard to predict if a plaque will rupture,” he says. “If it were easy, people would not have died.” n [ 33 ]
Research HIGH L IGHTS Major Research Awards Here is a small sample of the many
physicians predict the likelihood of
notable awards from federal agencies,
plaque rupture. Plaque rupture is associ-
corporations, and entities that have sup-
ated with heart attacks and stroke.
ported research at WPI in recent months.
Real-time Troop Status Monitoring Grant McGimpsey and Christopher
Lambert (Bioengineering Institute), with James Duckworth
Quantifying Body Area Networks Kaveh Pahlavan, Allen Levesque,
puter Engineering) and
Candice Sidner and Charles Rich
Sergey Makarov, and Nin Yang (Electri-
(Computer Science), with Timothy
cal and Computer En-
Bickmore of Northeastern University,
gineering) received a
ing), received a one-year, $876,000
received a collabo-
three-year, $1.2 million
award from the U.S. Army to develop a
rative four-year, $1.8
system to monitor the physiological status
million award from
and Reinvestment Act
of troops in real time using a common
the National Science
(ARRA) award from the National Institute
Foundation (NSF) to
of Standards and Technology (NIST) to
conduct a groundbreaking study of the
Finding Patterns in Streaming Data
intelligent, autonomous agents that are
propagation of radio waves around
capable of developing and maintain-
and through the human body to aid the
Elke Rundensteiner (Computer Sci-
ing long-term social relationships with
development of body area networks.
is expected to be $1.08 million. Predicting Arterial Plaque Rupture Dalin Tang and Joseph Petruccelli
establish the theory and engineering for
humans. WPIâ€™s share of this award
[ 34 ]
(Electrical and Com-
Intelligent Autonomous Agents
Educational Software and Learning
ence) received a three-year, $500,000 award from the NSF to design, implement, and evaluate a novel
Janice Gobert and Ryan Baker (Social
method for processing
Science and Policy Studies) received a
complex streams of
three-year, $986,000 award from the
data. The ability to infer relevant patterns
(Mathematical Sciences) and Kristen
NSF to study how the
from these streams in real time and at
Billiar (Biomedical Engineering) received
behavior of middle
various levels of abstraction can help
a four-year, $1.4 million award from the
school students while
make near instantaneous decisions about
National Institutes of
mission-critical applications, including
Health for a study that
crisis management and security.
will combine computer
science learning. The investigators will
modeling and diag-
measure how student attributes such as
A Platform for Network Studies
nostic technologies to
poor goal orientation, low self-efficacy,
Craig Wills, Mark Claypool, Matthew
chart the development of arterial plaque,
and low perseverance are associated
with the aim of developing tools to help
with learning outcomes.
Ward (Computer Science), and James Doyle (Social Science and Policy Studies)
received a three-year, $392,000 award from the NSF to develop a distributed measurement platform for scientific research on networks and networked applications that will yield valuable data supporting a wide range of experiments. The project will also promote broader participation in science and engineering by underrepresented groups through integration with WPI’s
by WPI Faculty
“Dearest Georg”: Love, Literature, and Power in Dark Times; The Letters of Elias, Veza, and Georges Canetti, 1933–1948 Translated by David Dollenmayer Other Press, 2010
Translated by Dollenmayer, professor of German, the letters of Elias Canetti provide an intimate look at the formative years spanning the major part of his struggle for literary recognition, from 1933, before the publication of his novel Auto-da-Fé, to 1959, when he finished his monumental Crowds and Power.
Interactive Media and Game Development program. The Adverse Effects of Nanoparticles Terri Camesano (Chemical Engineer-
ing) received a three-year $307,000 NSF award to identify the potential adverse effects on human health and the environment from exposure
The Development of University-based Entrepreneurship Ecosystems: Global Practices Edited by Michael Fetters, Patricia Greene, Mark Rice, and John Sibley Butler Edward Elgar Publishing, 2010
University-based entrepreneurship ecosystems provide a supportive context in which entrepreneurship and innovation can thrive. This volume, co-edited by Rice, dean of WPI’s School of Business, provides critical insight into how to frame, design, launch, and sustain entrepreneurship efforts.
to nanoparticles (which are being used increasingly for a variety of applications) by addressing the challenge of building a common understanding of how nanoparticles affect biological cells. Studying the Properties of Alloys The U.S. Army recently awarded WPI $300,000 to establish the Center for Thermo-mechanical Processing of Materials. Led by Richard Sisson, George F.
Entrepreneurial Family Firms Frank Hoy and Pramodita Sharma Prentice Hall, 2010
Hoy, Beswick Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and co-author Sharma cover the intricate dynamics of family business management and show how to handle a variety of situations and how to successfully launch, join, or lead entrepreneurial ventures when family is involved.
Fuller Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Diran Apelian, Howmet Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Metal Processing Institute, and mechanical engineering faculty members Satya Shivkumar, Makhlouf Makhlouf, and Diana Lados, the center will develop databases and software models that can be used to predict the microstructures and mechanical properties of engineering alloys.
Handbook of Educational Data Mining Edited by Cristobal Romero, Sebastian Ventura, Mykola Pechenizkiy, and Ryan Baker CRC Press, 2010
Baker, assistant professor of social science and policy studies, and his co- editors survey the current state of knowledge in educational data mining and explore essential techniques and applications. It is designed to be equally useful to newcomers to the community and to active researchers.
[ 35 ]
WPI Professor Honored for Environmental Education
Research HIGH L IGHTS Faculty Achievements
Jeanine Plummer, Schwaber Professorship of Environ-
mental Engineering, received the 2010 McGraw-Hill/ AEESP (Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors) Award for Outstanding Teaching in Environmental Engineering and Science. Her research was recognized with the 2010 Division Best Paper Award for the most outstanding paper from the Water Resource Sustainability Division of the American Water Works Association published in Journal AWWA. Plummer was recognized for a paper titled “Identifying sources of surface water pollution: A toolbox approach.”
Mechanics. For Padmanabhan, the
Mellon University, where he earned an
Nancy Burnham, associate professor
honor was in recognition of his signifi-
MS (1998) and a PhD (2001). Heffer-
cant engineering achievements and
nan heads a research team at WPI that
contributions over a period of more than
develops innovative intelligent tutoring
30 years, as well as his active partici-
systems for mathematics education.
of physics, has been named a fellow of AVS, which promotes the science and technology of materials, interfaces, and processing. She was honored for technical leadership
pation in technical committee activities in ASME’s Power Division. NIH Study Section Appointment
in nanoscience and nanotechnology,
José Argüello, professor of chemistry
“especially for contributions in scanning
and biochemistry, has been appointed to a four-year term on
probe microscopy and nanomechanics.”
a National Institutes of
Health study section
to participate in the
G. Merriam Professors of Mechanical Engineering, and Mahadevan Padmanabhan,
adjunct professor of mechanical engineering, were recently named fellows of the American wpi.edu/+research
Society of Mechanical Engineers.
[ 36 ]
Pryputniewics was honored for his
review and evaluation of research proposals aimed at understanding the nature of biological phenomena and applying that knowledge to enhance human health. He joins a panel of leading scientists from around the United States who are experts in how metals participate in biological processes.
John Orr, professor of electrical and
computer engineering and former WPI provost, recently received the Distinguished ECE Alumni Award from the University of Illinois Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He earned BS (1969) and PhD (1977) degrees at the university. Orr, who inaugurated WPI’s research program in precision indoor personnel location, was recognized for his contributions to engineering education and the safety of first responders. Susan Vick, professor of drama/
theatre and director of WPI’s theatre programs, was recently inducted into the Blue
Career Honors Neil Heffernan, associate professor
pioneering work in optoelectronic meth-
of computer science
odology and microscale measurements.
and co-director of
He founded and directs WPI’s Center
WPI’s new graduate
for Holographic Studies and Laser
program in the learn-
micromechaTronics. The author of over
ing sciences and
400 technical papers, he serves as
technologies, received the Alumni
president of the Society for Experimental
Achievement Award from Carnegie
Masque Hall of Fame at Catawba College. Established in 2008, the Hall of Fame recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to Catawba’s nationally recognized theatre tradition. Vick earned a degree in drama from Catawba in 1967 and was
the first woman to win the WPI Board of Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Teaching. In 1982, she established New Voices on the WPI campus, the nation’s longest-running university new plays festival. Honors for Literature Professors Joel J. Brattin, professor of literature,
was chosen by the Dickens Fellowship, a worldwide association of people who share
by WPI Faculty
Henry James’ Narrative Technique: Consciousness, Perception, and Cognition Kristin Boudreau Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
Humanities and Arts Department head Boudreau considers the works of Henry James in the context of 19th-century thought on consciousness, perception, and cognition and argues that these philosophical discussions influenced his depictions of consciousness and are integral to his narrative techniques.
an interest in the life and works of Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, to lead its annual wreath-laying
Homogenization Methods for Multiscale Mechanics
ceremony at Dickens’s grave in London’s
Chiang C. Mei and Bogdan Vernescu World Scientific, 2010
Westminster Abbey on the 140th anniversary of the writer’s death. Brattin, an internationally known Dickens scholar, gave a brief address about Dickens’s connections to Worcester. Wesley Mott, professor of literature,
In many physical problems, several scales are present in space or time due to inhomogeneity of the medium or complexity of the mechanical process. This book, co-authored by Mathematical Sciences Department head Vernescu, explores the theory of homogenization for treating non-homogeneous media.
recently completed a 20-year term as editor of the Emerson Society Papers, the newsletter of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, an international literary society that Mott founded in 1989 and which he currently serves as president. Mott delivered a paper on the society’s first 20 years at the American Literature Association annual conference in San Francisco in May 2010.
Interactive Data Visualization: Foundations, Techniques, and Applications Matthew Ward, Georges Grinstein, Daniel Keim A.K. Peters, Ltd., 2010
Ward, professor of computer science, and his co-authors wrote this textbook for students, researchers, analysts, and professionals who want to understand the process of representing data, information, and knowledge in a visual form to support exploration, confirmation, presentation, and understanding.
HP Innovation Award Elke Rundensteiner, professor of
computer science, was selected to participate in the prestigious HP Labs Innovation Research Program for the second year in a row. The program provides colleges, universities, and research institutes around the world with opportunities to conduct breakthrough collaborative research with Hewlett-Packard.
The Novels of María de Zayas (1590–1650): The Supernatural and the Occult in Spanish Women’s Literature of the Seventeenth Century Ingrid E. Matos-Nin Edwin Mellen Press, 2010
In this work, Matos-Nin, administrator of Hispanic studies activities, examines the concept of women and the supernatural in 17th century Spain and explores the sources used by María de Zayas to present some of her perceptions about the devil, evil, men, honor, and love in relationship to the supernatural.
[ 37 ]
Center Director Receives Multiple Honors
Research HIGH L IGHTS Faculty Achievements
Diana Lados, assistant professor of mechanical engi-
neering and director of the university’s Integrative Materials Design Center, received the Robert Lansing Hardy Award from The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (TMS) and has also been selected to receive the 2011 TMS Early Career Faculty Fellow Award, an honor that includes delivering the Young Leaders Lecture at the TMS Annual Meeting. The National Academy of Engineering selected Lados to take part in its 2010 U.S. Frontiers of Engineering Symposium and its 2010 Frontiers of Engineering Education Symposium.
Conference Leadership Roles
User Interfaces in
Ryan S.J.d. Baker, assistant professor
Hong Kong in January 2010. Rich will serve
of social science and policy studies,
as program co-chair
served as chair of the 3rd International Conference on Educational Data Mining in Pittsburgh in June 2010. In addition, Baker, Neil Heffernan, associate professor of computer science, and Adam Goldstein, a gradu-
the Metal Processing Institute, received the
Conference on the Foundations of
2010 Robert Earll
Digital Games in Bordeaux, France,
in June 2011.
from the American
Matt Ward, professor of computer
science, gave the keynote address, “Challenges, Partial Solutions, and Open
received the People’s Choice Award for
Problems in Multivar-
Best Oral Presentation at the 10th Annual
iate Data Visualiza-
Conference on Intelligent Tutoring Sys-
tion,” at EuroVis ’10,
Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers (AIME), one of the nation’s oldest engineering societies. The award recognizes beneficial service to mankind by engineers through significant contributions that advance a nation’s standard of living or replenish
tems, also in Pittsburgh in June 2010.
the 2010 European Symposium on
its natural resources.
Robert Lindeman, associate professor
Visualization. The conference is among
Frank Hoy, Paul R. Beswick Profes-
of computer science, was general con-
the most prestigious events in the field
ference co-chair of the
2010 Institute of Elec-
Vadim Yakovlev, research associ-
trical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Virtual Reality Conference, the premier international meeting on this wpi.edu/+research
Diran Apelian, Howmet Professor of
Mechanical Engineering and director of
of the 6th International
ate student in computer science at WPI,
topic. Lindeman also organized a visit to WPI by conference participants to see and experience virtual reality research by WPI faculty members and students. Charles Rich, professor of computer
science, was general co-chair of the 14th Association for Computing Machinery’s
[ 38 ]
Distinguished Professional Honors
International Conference on Intelligent
sor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, received the 2009 Barbara Hollander Award from the Family Firm Institute. Recipi-
ate professor of mathematical sciences,
ents exemplify institute
received the Highest
Quality Workshop award from the IEEE Microwave Theory and Technique Society (MTT-S). Yakovlev was honored for organizing the workshop titled “Recent Advances in Microwave Power Applications and Techniques” at the IEEE MTT-S International Microwave Symposium in Boston in June 2009.
love of education and learning, lifelong commitment to social causes, dedication to civic responsibility, and belief in the human capacity to change for the better. Hoy was also selected for the 2010 Luminary Speaker Series organized by the institute’s New England chapter.
Visiting Professors Christopher Larsen, associate professor of mathematical sciences, received a 2009 Leverhulme Trust Visiting Professorship, given “to enable outstandingly distinguished academics based in overseas universities to spend time at universities in the United Kingdom.” Recipients are selected on the basis of academic standing and achievements in research and
by WPI Faculty
Outcasts: The Penikese Island Leper Hospital 1905–1921 Eve Rifkah Little Pear Press, 2010
Between 1905 and 1921, a group of outcasts lived together on a small island off the coast of New Bedford, Mass. They came from many places, united only by the diagnosis of leprosy. In Outcasts, Rifkah, poet and adjunct assistant professor of literature, tells their long-forgotten story.
teaching and their potential for making a substantial contribution to their host institution. Joe Zhu, professor of business, earned an
appointment as visiting Distinguished Research Chair Professor in the School of Management at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan. He was also recently awarded the William Evans Fellowship by the University of Otago in New
Patient-Centered E-Health Edited by E. Vance Wilson IGI Global, 2009
Edited by Wilson, visiting associate professor of management information systems, the volume addresses the special characteristics of the e-health domain through a user-centered design. It explores an emerging form of e-health that is patient-focused, patient-active, and patient-empowered.
Zealand, which allowed him to visit the university’s School of Business to deliver research seminars and conduct joint research. In January 2010, Zhu received a lifetime achievement award in data envelopment analysis at the 4th Symposium on Data Envelopment Analysis in
Religion and the Environment
Taiwan, where he delivered a keynote address.
Edited by Roger Gottlieb Routledge, 2010
U.S. Embassy Grant
This four-volume work edited by Gottlieb, professor of religion, is a comprehensive survey of a new form of religiously motivated social action and a new field of academic study, both based on the growing recognition of the connections between religion and humanity’s treatment of the environment.
Marie Keller, adjunct assistant professor of
humanities and arts and interactive media and game development, received a grant from the U.S. Embassy in the Czech Republic to create a puppet performance for Teatrotoˇc, an international arts festival in Prague. Called “Broucˇcíˇcí Kabaretík” (A Bug Cabaret), it used Keller’s
Zakary’s Zombies: A Fairy Tale
hand-carved marionettes and sets and was
James Dempsey Aracne Editrice, 2010
performed by Keller and artists from Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Iceland, Italy, and the United States. Keller also headed a recent symposium at New York University in Prague about the future of traditional art forms in a digital world.
This novel by Dempsey, administrator of literary studies, tells the story of Zakary, who as a developmentally damaged young adult discovers two friendly zombies living in his basement. Fellow novelist Jack O’Connor calls it “a fearless ride of a story about identity, fate, free will, family, and love.”
[ 39 ]
tools of the trade
Exploring the Microscopic World in 3-D
by Funmi Adebayo ’11
[ 40 ]
From blockbuster movies to virtual reality games to broadcast TV, everything seems to be going 3-D these days — including scientific research. Scientists have always been fascinated by objects invisible to the naked eye. Since the 17th century, they have been using light microscopes to see into the mysterious world of tiny objects. But until recently, such journeys have been made only in 2-D. Now imagine that you could put on a pair of 3-D glasses and peer into the depths of microscopic matter. That’s the idea behind the confocal microscope. While not literally a pair of glasses, the confocal microscope has allowed scientists to create 3-D images of minute objects for the past two decades. Invented in the 1950s by Marvin Minsky (better known for his work in artificial intelligence), the technology has been used extensively within the biological sciences, as well as a number of other fields. Confocal microscopes work by scanning a sample vertically with a laser. The light, either directly reflected by a surface or, in the case of many biological applications, emitted by fluorescent dyes, is focused onto a pinhole that allows only light from a single focal plane — in essence, a thin, 2-D horizontal slice of the object — to pass through to a detector. Moveable mirrors enable the sweeping laser beam to make repeated scans at different focal planes. A computer assembles these scans to produce a 3-D image, which scientists can rotate and zoom in on to reveal details from multiple angles.
WPI has two confocal microscopes that have proven useful in a wide range of applications. One, located in the Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center at Gateway Park, is employed for a wide range of imaging work in the life sciences. Under the direction of Victoria Huntress, microscopy/imaging technology manager in WPI’s Department of Biology and Biotechnology, it has examined Physcomitrella patens, a moss being used as a model organism for study of the molecular mechanisms of cell division and expansion, and created 3-D images of fibrin threads that WPI biomedical engineers are developing to deliver adult stem cells to the body.
Victoria Huntress zooms in on a 3-D image of human skin cells using the confocal microscope in WPI’s Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center. The small photos show, from left, pads for a silicon wafer, a carpet sample, and intestines from a mouse.
Installed in the Surface Metrology Laboratory, a scanning laser confocal microscope entrusted to the lab by Olympus Industrial Microscopes of Olympus America Inc. has become an important tool for studying the texture and roughness of surfaces of all kinds. Led by Chris Brown, professor of mechanical engineering, the lab uses the microscope to make quantitative, topographic measurements in 3-D of objects ranging from the pads used to make silicon wafers to zebra mussel shells. In one recent study, conducted with Jainshun Zhang at Syracuse University, the lab put carpet samples under the microscope to learn more about the tendency of carpets
to collect particles from the air. The work will support the design of healthier buildings. “We’re grateful to Olympus for not only expanding our research capabilities, but recognizing the global leadership position of the Surface Metrology Lab,” Brown says. Whether charting the three-dimensional structures of fibroblasts or measuring the differences in surface roughness between different brands of potato chips, WPI’s confocal microscopes have proven their worth in a wide variety of applications, giving researchers a view of an amazing miniature world that no other microscope can offer. n
— Adebayo, a biomedical engineering major at WPI, is pursuing a minor in professional writing.
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