Category Archives: Engineers

Who is doing all this great stuff?

Rising costs for infections linked to bacteria in water supply

articleBacteriaWaterSupply2016A team led by Tufts researchers has found that healthcare costs are rising for infections linked to bacteria in water supply systems. The costs may now exceed $2 billion for 80,000 cases per year, and antibiotic resistance may be contributing to the trend.

“Premise plumbing pathogens can be found in drinking water, showers, hot tubs, medical instruments, kitchens, swimming pools—almost any premise where people use public water. The observed upward trend in associated infections is likely to continue, and aging water distribution systems might soon be an additional reservoir of costly multidrug resistance,” says lead author Elena Naumova.

The Tufts team included Naumova, professor at the Friedman School and Director of the Initiative for the Forecasting and Modeling of Infectious Disease at Tufts University, and Jeffrey Griffiths, professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. Both Naumova and Griffiths have a secondary appointment in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE).

CEE postdoctoral fellow Alexander Liss was also an author on the paper, alongside Irmgard Behlau, research assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology at Tufts University School of Medicine, and Jyotsna Jagai of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Read the press release and the full paper in the Journal of Public Health Policy.

Summer scholar profile: Grace Aro

Each year, the Summer Scholars Program awards funding to a select group of rising juniors and seniors from across Tufts academic disciplines, to carry out ten-week independent research projects. This summer, we profiled three engineering students as they worked on their projects.

Grace Aro working in the lab at SciTech. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

Grace Aro working in the lab at SciTech. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

Name: Grace Aro
Hometown: Denver, CO
Major: Chemical engineering, E18
Faculty mentor: Assistant Professor Ayse Asatekin

Project: There are “a lot of people in the world who don’t have access to clean drinking water,” says Aro, “and that’s a big issue.” Her project investigates an interesting potential solution: a co-polymer membrane that could filter organic materials out of surface water, while resisting getting clogged. The membranes that she made and tested in the lab are zwitterionic, meaning that they were created with zwitterions — ions that have positive charges on one end and negative on the other.  So far, Aro’s research suggests that the zwitterionic membranes seem to have equal the filtering capabilities of commercially-sold membranes, while clogging less. She’s also experimenting with whether the membranes can remove lead from a solution.

Read more: Filtering cleaner drinking water, and Water purification at the molecular level

$1 million grant to support low-income engineering students

Professor Laurie Baise and engineering students visit a construction site.  (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

Professor Laurie Baise and engineering students visit a construction site. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

The new FAST-TRAC program will provide scholarships and support to low-income students who are earning a B.S. and an M.S. in Tufts’ five-year combined degree program. Thanks to a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Tufts can fund FAST-TRAC through at least 2020. Engineering undergraduates starting their junior year this fall will be the first class eligible for FAST-TRAC. The program applies to all majors within the School of Engineering.

The effort is led by Associate Dean for Graduate Education Karen Panetta, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Darryl Williams, and Kristin Finch, Associate Director of the Center for STEM Diversity.

“The landscape for entry-level engineering jobs is changing significantly,” Williams says. “The more competitive applicants are those who have master’s degrees.” FAST-TRAC will bring a master’s degree within reach for more engineering students.

New technique for generating human neural stem cells

Neuromuscular tissue engineering: hiNSCs (red) grown in co-culture with skeletal muscle (green), with cell nuclei visualized by blue DAPI staining. Credit: Dana M. Cairns, Tufts University.

Neuromuscular tissue engineering: hiNSCs (red) grown in co-culture with skeletal muscle (green), with cell nuclei visualized by blue DAPI staining. Credit: Dana M. Cairns, Tufts University.

A new technique, discovered by Tufts researchers, generates rapidly-differentiating human neural stem cells for use in a variety of tissue engineering applications. The researchers are not the first to generate these stem cells, but their process appears to be simpler, faster, and more reliable than existing protocols. They converted human fibroblasts and adipose-derived stem cells into stable, human induced neural stem cell (hiNSC) lines that acquire the features of active neurons within as few as four days, compared to the typical four weeks.

The work could pave the way for experiments that engineer other innervated tissues, such as the skin and cornea, and for the development of human brain models with diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

Dana Cairns, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, was first author on the paper published in Stem Cell Reports. Paper authors also include corresponding author Professor David Kaplan; Karolina Chwalek, former postdoctoral researcher in biomedical engineering; Rosalyn Abbott, postdoctoral scholar in biomedical engineering; and Professor Stephen Moss, Yvonne Moore, and Matthew Kelley from the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences.

Read the full paper in Stem Cell Reports.

Summer scholar profile: Anu Gamage

Each year, the Summer Scholars Program awards funding to a select group of rising juniors and seniors from across Tufts academic disciplines, to carry out ten-week independent research projects. This summer, we profiled three engineering students as they worked on their projects.

Anu Gamage performs research on her inverted pendulum.

Anu Gamage performs research on her inverted pendulum.

Name: Anu Gamage
Hometown: Colombo, Sri Lanka
Major: Electrical engineering, E18
Faculty mentor: Assistant Professor Usman Khan

Project: An inverted pendulum is exactly what it sounds like: a pendulum stood on its head, with its center of mass above its pivot. It requires a constant application of force to keep it balanced. The human body is an inverted pendulum, Gamage points out, with our muscles constricting to act against gravity and keep us upright. There are inverted pendulums in robotics and in aeronautics. They’re monitored by internal sensors that track the pendulum’s position and apply the proper amount of force to maintain its vertical position. Those internal sensors, however, are potentially vulnerable to software bugs or cyberattacks. Gamage seeks to create an external camera system that would capture a running visual feed of the pendulum’s motion, process those images, and use that data to balance it. “It would be robust against attacks or malfunctions,” says Gamage.

Read more: Defying gravity with an inverted pendulum, and Anu’s blogs for Tufts Admissions

Aeron invited to participate in symposium

Assistant Professor Shuchin Aeron

Shuchin Aeron, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, has been invited to participate in the fourth Arab-American Frontiers of Science, Engineering, and Medicine symposium, hosted by the Masdar Institute of Science Technology on its campus in Abu Dhabi. The symposium is held in partnership with Masdar Institute, New York University Abu Dhabi, Khalifa University and Petroleum Institute. It is also made possible due to the support of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA. Only a small fraction of applicants are invited to participate.

The Arab-American Frontiers symposium brings together researchers from different disciplines. Sessions of the meeting are designed to explore the frontiers of research in the fields of nanotechnology, water and solar energy, space technologies, neuroscience and oil and gas exploration. The days are designed around scientific oral presentations, poster sessions, professional development and informal networking time over breaks with colleagues from the United States and the Arab region.

Decreasing algal blooms in freshwater

Professor Steven Chapra, Louis Berger Chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering

A team of American and Canadian researchers, including Professor Steven Chapra, has demonstrated that reducing phosphorous decreases algae blooms in freshwater. In the past ten years, some scientists have argued that controlling phosphorous alone was not enough, and that nitrogen inputs must also be reduced. The research team found that reducing nitrogen won’t actually help the problem of eutrophication (the proliferation of algal blooms and related changes in lakes), which is one of the leading causes of freshwater pollution and costs an estimated $2.2 billion a year in the U.S. alone.

In many ways, Chapra and colleagues say, this is good news—controlling inputs of phosphorous is much less costly than controlling nitrogen. “It is obvious in retrospect that the reduction of nitrogen would have been largely futile and wastefully expensive,” said Chapra.

The team detailed their research in a recent feature article in Environmental Science & Technology.

Communicating health risks with visualizations

Associate Professor Remco Chang creates visualizations to help communicate health risks to patients.

Associate Professor Remco Chang creates visualizations to help communicate health risks to patients.

Associate Professor Remco Chang, students, and collaborators at Maine Medical Center (MMC) created a project to investigate how older men with prostate cancer use visualizations to better understand their own health risk information. Chang, master’s student Anzu Hakone, E16, recent graduate Nate Winters, E16, doctoral recipient Alvitta Ottley, EG16, postdoctoral researcher Lane Harrison, and MCC collaborators Dr. Paul Han and Caitlin Gutheil have a paper entitled “PROACT: Iterative Design of a Patient-Centered Visualization for Effective Prostate Cancer Health Risk Communication” appearing at the 2016 IEEE InfoVis conference. The web-based visualization prototype, PROACT, supports patients to learn about their cancer risk and the possible side effects of different treatment options.

Combining cloud and internet to support VR

Doctoral student Osama Haq and Assistant Professor Fahad Dogar work on improving virtual reality applications.

Doctoral student Osama Haq and Assistant Professor Fahad Dogar work on improving virtual reality applications.

Assistant Professor Fahad Dogar and doctoral student Osama Haq are working on providing a suitable network support for emerging real-time applications (e.g., virtual reality). They are exploring how the highly reliable, but expensive, cloud network infrastructure could be combined with the best-effort, but cheaper, Internet paths. The goal is to provide guaranteed bandwidth and low-latency for such applications. The preliminary idea and feasibility of this work appeared in ACM HotNets 2015. The ongoing research in this project also involves collaborators from Boston University’s Department of Computer Science.

Driving the Autobahn

Professor Kathleen Fisher, Remy Wang, and Diogenes Nunez worked on a Haskell program called AUTOBAHN.

Professor Kathleen Fisher, Remy Wang, and Diogenes Nunez created a Haskell program called AUTOBAHN.

A paper by doctoral student Diogenes Nunez, senior Remy Wang, and Professor and Chair Kathleen Fisher, entitled “AUTOBAHN: Using Genetic Algorithms to Infer Strictness Annotations,” will appear at the 2016 Haskell Symposium. This work, which started as a project in Associate Professor Norman Ramsey’s functional programming class, tackles the long-standing problem of how to improve the performance of Haskell programs by telling the compiler which program fragments should be evaluated eagerly. Currently, inserting the appropriate annotations is a black art, known only to expert Haskell programmers. The Autobahn tool developed by Nunez and Wang automatically suggests appropriate places to put annotations to improve a number of performance metrics.