Category Archives: Engineering the Human-Technology Interface

Tufts team wins international computational biology competition

A team of Tufts computer scientists and mathematicians won top prize in the Disease Module Identification DREAM Challenge, which is an “open community effort to: (1) Systematically assess module identification methods on a panel of state-of-the-art genomic networks, and (2) discover novel network modules/pathways underlying complex diseases.” The competition is driven by the interconnected nature of multiple genes interacting within molecular pathways to drive physiological and disease processes.

Out of 42 teams from across the globe, Team Tusk won first place with its response, “A Double Spectral Approach to DREAM 11 Subchallenge.” Team members included, from the Department of Computer Science, Professor Lenore Cowen, Assistant Professor Ben Hescott, and master’s student Jake Crawford. They worked alongside Assistant Professor Xiaozhe Hu and Ph.D. student Joanne Lin from the Department of Mathematics.

Researchers receive $1 million ONR grant

Sameer Sonkusale, professor of electrical and computer engineering

Engineering faculty Professor Sameer Sonkusale and Associate Professor Qiaobing Xu, working with Assistant Professor Jimmy Crott from the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, have received a $1 million grant from the Office of Naval Research to build biomedical microdevices to investigate the gut microbiome.

Qiaobing Xu, associate professor of biomedical engineering

Current studies of the gut microbiome rely on the metabolic and genomic analysis of fecal matter. That analysis fails to identify which areas of the large or small intestine are colonized by bacterial species, and how those bacterial species interact with one another and with the host. This research project seeks to sample the microbiome at different locations in the gut to obtain a spatial distribution profile. Sonkusale, Xu, and Crott have proposed the use of a biocompatible lab-on-a-pill with integrated sensor, energy source, and electronics, to carry out that sampling.

Nair honored with NIH New Innovator Award

Assistant Professor Nikhil Nair of the Tufts Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Nikhil Nair, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, received an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award for his research on engineering bacteria to treat inborn errors of metabolism (IEMs). These rare genetic disorders, like Phenylketonuria and Maple Syrup Urine Disorder, are disorders in which the body converts nutrients from food into harmful toxins. If not treated at birth, IEMs can impede intellectual or physical development and may even lead to death.

Nair and members of his synthetic biology laboratory are modifying lactobacillus bacteria that could produce enzymes that intercept and detoxify amino acids before they can be improperly metabolized to harm patients with IEMs.

The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, established in 2007, supports early career investigators within 10 years of their terminal degree or clinical residency and is part of the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program.

Read more about Nair’s research and the award.

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

Messner writes on autonomous cars

Bill Messner, John R. Beaver professor of mechanical engineering, recently wrote about advancements in autonomous car technology and about the future of these self-driving vehicles. Messner opined that “the prospect of greatly reducing accidents, injuries and deaths due to reckless driving, drunk driving, distracted driving, impaired driving, speeding and road rage means that increasingly automated cars will be a fact of life in the years ahead.”

Read the full article in The Conversation and the Boston Business Journal.

Tufts engineers invent “smart” thread

Illustration demonstrating how the thread collects data and transmits it to a flexible wireless transmitter atop the skin.

Engineers at Tufts invented a thread that wirelessly collects real-time diagnostic data when sutured into tissue. The thread-based diagnostic platform could be an effective substrate for a new generation of implantable diagnostic devices and smart wearable systems. The research was published in the journal Microsystems & Nanoengineering and has been featured in a number of media outlets, including The Economist, WBUR, IEEE Spectrum, and STAT.

Authors included Tufts alumni Pooria Mostafal and Kyle Alberti, who were PhD students at the time of the research; Assistant Professor Qiaobing Xu of the Department of Biomedical Engineering; and Associate Professor Sameer Sonkusale of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, alongside colleagues from Harvard Medical School’s Biomaterials Innovation Research Center, the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Science and Technology, and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

2016 Summer Scholars announced

The Tufts Summer Scholars program has announced the 2016 Summer Scholars. Each year, the 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. The program is administered by the Office of Undergraduate Education.

Congratulations to all our engineering summer scholars! See below for the full list.

Continue reading

Scheutz Talks Robot Cognition with The Conversation

Professor Matthias Scheutz (CS) wrote about robot cognition and morality in a piece for The Conversation called “Why robots need to be able to say ‘No.’”

“In general, robots should never perform illegal actions, nor should they perform legal actions that are not desirable. Hence, they will need representations of laws, moral norms and even etiquette in order to be able to determine whether the outcomes of an instructed action, or even the action itself, might be in violation of those principles,”  Scheutz writes.


Kemmerling Talks 3D Modeling and Mechanics in The Conversation

Assistant Professor Erica Kemmerling, Mechanical Engineering

Assistant Professor Erica Kemmerling, Mechanical Engineering

Assistant Professor Erica Kemmerling writes for The Conversation about fabricating physical models to study how cardiovascular devices affect blood flow. Now 3D printing technology is advanced enough to build realistic models of human blood vessels, and pulsatile-flow pumps can drive flow through these vessels to mimic the heart’s pumping. Since the vessel models are synthetic, there are no ethical issues associated with damaging them to take flow measurements.