More Than Bricks and Mortar

Researchers and Professors Find a New Home at the School of Engineering

“Institutions are much more than bricks and mortar,” Dean Katepalli Sreenivasan said on September 8, at a gathering in honor of the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering’s new faculty members. “They are also made of people and ideas, and we’re happy that all of you are now a part of our institution.” The new faculty members—of noteworthy number and caliber—were arriving at an auspicious time, Sreenivasan explained, just months after the merger between New York University and the Polytechnic Institute brought engineering back to NYU after a four-decade absence and opened numerous possibilities for collaborative research and learning. Thanks in part to them, Sreenivasan said, “we are going to be an even more vibrant, interesting, and exciting place.”

At the gathering, each department introduced their new additions, listing their credentials and research interests and extolling their virtues. No hyperbole was needed—they were an undeniably impressive lot, hailing from prestigious institutions around the globe and with myriad papers, patents, and honors to their credit. Kristen Day, associate dean of academic administration, echoed Dean Sreenivasan’s enthusiasm and asserted, “This marks a period of exceptional growth for the School of Engineering, and we’re already seeing valuable contributions from this stellar group.”

Read more about some of them here:

Wieqiang Chen: Taking Cancer Cells Out of Circulation and Other Feats of Biomechanical Engineering

It might seem unlikely for a mechanical engineer to receive research funding from the American Heart Association (AHA), but in 2013, Weiqiang Chen, one of the newest members of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, was awarded a pre-doctoral fellowship from the respected organization. Chen, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan and a vital member of that school’s Integrated Biosystems and Biomechanic Lab (IBBL), caught the attention of the AHA because of his work on developing a new microfluidic platform for monitoring the immune system of heart patients after cardiac bypass. Explaining that post-operative infection poses a serious risk for such patients, Chen says, “That project is a good example of how engineers and doctors can collaborate across disciplines. You have no doubt heard the term translational medicine, which refers to the process of ‘translating’ research into practical tools and treatments for patient care. Engineers and doctors are working together to get discoveries from [lab] bench to [patient] bedside as quickly as possible.”

Chen, who has also won a Baxter Young Investigator Award, has been engaged in several other studies as well. Among the most celebrated of these has been the IBBL’s discovery that a glass plate with nanoscale topography can be used to capture and examine the circulating tumor cells that carry cancer through the bloodstream. The system, which is effective regardless of the cells’ surface proteins or size, will allow researchers to isolate live circulating tumor cells from blood samples in order to study them in unprecedented detail—an ability that may one day lead to improved diagnostic tools.

Chen has also attracted attention for his part in developing a cutting-edge method of cultivating stem cells that allows scientists quickly and accurately to predict differentiation (the process by which the cells morph into other types of cells). The discovery—which involves building a stem-cell scaffold whose stiffness can be controlled mechanically rather than chemically—is expected to open up myriad possibilities for regenerative therapies and drug treatments. (The scaffolding is made of polydimethylsiloxane, an elastic polymer that also happens to be a key component in Silly Putty.)

Chen expects to continue his bioengineering research here and is excited about the opportunities for collaboration that the school provides. “There are many faculty members I’m looking forward to working with from across the University,” he says. “I’m eager to get started.”

Emilie Dressaire: More than Mushrooms

When Emilie Dressaire, a new member of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, contributed to demonstrating that rather than passively waiting for a passing breeze to disperse their spores, mushrooms create their own microclimate, media outlets covered the news extensively. Publications like Science Daily and networks like the BBC reported the finding that fungi were surprisingly capable of taking control of their own reproductive process. Using high-speed cameras and mathematical modeling, Dressaire and her collaborators had realized that when oyster and shiitake mushrooms, the two species studied, release water vapor, the temperature of the mushroom decreases, creating circular wind currents that carry the spores far from the parent and increase genetic diversity.

Emilie Dressaire is interested in much more than mushrooms. Her research group focuses on understanding and manipulating systems in which particles, interfaces and fluids interact in fascinating and complex ways. She explains that the transport of particles is ubiquitous: in engineered processes for water desalination and filtration or in biological systems, such as the blood flow. “Sometimes the transport of particles does not go well and particles get trapped and form clogs. That can have dramatic implications for the system,” she says. “Think about the consequences of a blood clot, for example.”

Emilie Dressaire, whose paper on clogging in microfluidic devices recently appeared in an issue of Applied Physics Letters, now runs the newly installed Particles, Interfacesand Fluids Lab at the School of Engineering. She teaches an undergraduate course on the mechanicals of materials, and her students are already commenting on her energy and drive. “I have always been an active student, that’s how I learn, so I guess that’s how I teach,” she laughs. She enjoys a symbiotic relationship with them. “As a professor, I train students in the classroom and in research labs,” she explains. “Students, in turn, give me exciting, new perspectives and ideas. For example, a student was really excited about the possibility of shooting clogs with lasers to break them up. We built on this idea, started using ultrasound to dislodge clogs, and it opened up a whole new avenue for exploration.”

Siddharth Garg: Safe and Secure

There may soon be a long line of students waiting to consult with Siddharth Garg, a new assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “If there is one thing I’d like students to know about me right away, it’s that I maintain an open-door policy,” he says. “If I’m in my office and not involved in anything extremely pressing, they should feel free to drop in to discuss their work—even if they aren’t in one of my classes.”

An exceptionally dedicated teacher, Garg is equally devoted to his research, and he is doing exciting work on the safety, reliability, and efficiency of computing devices. “My research has great, practical application for the average consumer,” he says. “We’ve all had the experience of our laptop batteries getting very hot or not lasting very long, so I’m working on problems of energy-aware computing and low power design. In addition, electronic components are being made all over the world now, and while that’s cost-effective, there is increasing concern about their trustworthiness. So, I have been looking at how these components can be designed and manufactured securely.”

Garg was drawn to the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering in large part because of its stellar reputation for cybersecurity studies and for the chance to work with professors like Ramesh Karri and Nasir Memon. “I’ve admired Poly for a long time,” he explains. “It’s been home to some admirable leaders in their fields. The merger with NYU made joining the faculty even more appealing, because the opportunities for collaborative research are now that much greater.”

While Garg taught for some years in the relatively calm environs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Waterloo, Ontario, he grew up in the lively Indian cities of Mumbai and New Delhi and is looking forward to settling in New York. “I’ve missed the hustle and bustle,” he explains, “so that’s another reason being affiliated with NYU is perfect.”

Constantine Kontokosta: Where Big Data Meets Big Cities

With New York City’s government generating a trillion bytes of raw data every day—information on everything from traffic volume to energy use to pollution levels—there’s no question that this is the place to be if you’re interested in urban informatics, which focuses on gathering, visualizing, and analyzing that data in order to help make cities more efficient, livable, and sustainable. And thanks in large part to newly appointed Assistant Professor Constantine Kontokosta, there’s no better place to study this emerging field than the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. “New ways to collect and analyze urban data are creating the potential to derive both actionable insight to improve urban operations and planning, and to advance a fundamental understanding of a science of cities,” he says. “This effort will require an interdisciplinary focus that bridges engineering, data science, and the social sciences.” Kontokosta has the ideal background for the task, combining systems engineering, urban planning, economics, and finance. He has been at the forefront of defining the field, serving as the Deputy Director of NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), which maintains graduate programs in urban informatics, since its initial launch in 2012.

While he will continue his leadership position at CUSP, where he also heads the Quantified Community Research Lab---a groundbreaking project that aims to make Hudson Yards, on the west side of Manhattan, the nation’s first fully instrumented and quantified neighborhood---Kontokosta is looking forward to engaging a wide variety of School of Engineering students, including undergraduates, in his research. “The Department of Civil and Urban Engineering is the ideal place to study urban systems, sustainability and resilience,” Kontokosta---a recipient of the IBM Faculty Award, a Fulbright Senior Specialist award in Urban Planning, and multiple awards for Teaching Excellence and Outstanding Service at NYU---explains. “I am particularly looking forward to working closely with the faculty in my Department, as well as to continue to collaborate with those from across the School of Engineering and NYU studying the future of cities.”

Michael O’Neil: An Appointment that Adds Up

Michael O’Neil is the newest member of the Department of Mathematics, with a joint appointment at the Courant Institute. His research focuses on the partial differential equations (PDEs) of classical physics, for example, those that arise when working with electromagnetics, acoustics, heat flow and other such areas. Because his interest lies in applied mathematics, working with engineers is a natural fit. “Engineers often need to perform computer simulations of physical processes. If you’re designing an antenna, for example, you’ll want to model the electromagnetic waves it is emitting and how they are affected by modifying various components,” he explains. “If you’re designing a speaker, you’ll face similar acoustical issues, and designing something like a new faucet will involve mathematical problems related to fluid dynamics.” He points out that mathematicians can help ensure that such modeling is accurate and rapidly computable, thereby resulting in cost savings down the line.

O’Neil, who was recently named principal investigator on a project on Innovation for Global Resilience, is also interested in addressing problems in computational statistics. Many of the computational algorithms used in engineering physics have recently proven to be readily applicable to seemingly unrelated problems in mathematical statistics.

While he is far from new to New York City—he conducted his post-doctoral work at Courant after earning a Ph.D. at Yale—he is excited about working with the engineers here in Brooklyn. “There are many opportunities for potential collaboration with the electrical and mechanical engineering departments,” he says, “so I’m looking forward to settling in and meeting the rest of the faculty at Poly.”

Beth Noveck: Working at the Intersection of Public Policy and Technology

Beth Simone Noveck has held many titles, including U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative, Senior Advisor on Open Government for British Prime Minister David Cameron, New York Law School professor, and director of the NYU Governance Lab and its MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance. She has been called one of the top 100 global thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine, one of the 100 most creative people in the business world by the editors of Fast Company, and one of the most important women in technology by the Huffington Post. She is also an acclaimed author whose 2009 volume, Wiki Government, prompted Cameron’s Chancellor of the Exchequer to assert, “[She] literally wrote the book . . . on how policymaking needs to change in the Internet age."

It’s an impressive list to which she can now add Jerry Hultin Global Network Visiting Professor at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. The Governance Lab, which she directs, is now located at the School of Engineering, on the ninth floor of 2 MetroTech Center.

Noveck, who was invited in 2012 to give a TED talk on the importance of government transparency and citizen participation, has explained why engineers and data scientists have an important role to play in transforming public policy. “Solving complex challenges requires many people with diverse skills and talents working together. In modern society, we weave our collective expertise together, enabling us to make complex products such as cars and computers that we cannot make alone,” she says. “Educating our young or curing cancer are the cars and computers of governance. They are complex social problems that require us to bring our diverse talents to bear.”

As data science advances, she points out, all types of raw data can be turned into practical real-world tools that can help people choose a safer hospital, pick a better place to live, and improve the performance of their businesses. “As social computing progresses, including the use of expert networks and social media,” she says, “citizenship can evolve to become a more active collaboration between government and citizens to the end of identifying and implementing innovations that improve people’s lives.” Given that engineering students are deeply invested in devising just such practical solutions to real-world problems, Noveck is glad to have them in her "Solving Public Problems with Technology" course. She intends to find her time in Brooklyn to be an exciting and productive one.

Davood Shahrjerdi: Powering a Flexible Future on a Nanoscale

When solid-state materials are shrunk to nanoscale, interesting new physical phenomenon can occur. Assistant Professor Davood Shahrjerdi, a new member of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is studying those phenomenon with the aim of creating new paradigms in solid-state nanoelectronics for sensing, energy harvesting, and energy-efficient computing, among other areas. Shahrjerdi, who was named an IBM Master Inventor in 2013 and has more than 100 publications and patents to his credit, explains, “My research interest is to study the science and technology of emerging nanomaterials to enable innovative devices that are low-power and high-speed. Furthermore, if those devices can be made flexible, there is enormous potential for new applications, such as wearable and implantable integrated bioelectronics that could be used for diagnosis and drug delivery.” (Until now, sophisticated system-on-chip integrated circuits have generally been fabricated on thick, rigid substrates.) The goal of his research group is to enable essential electronic devices that will be dovetailed ultimately to form an energy-autonomous integrated bioelectronic platform that is self-contained; in other words, no bulky battery will be required because of integrated energy harvesting capability. Also eliminated would be wires, and, fittingly, Shahrjerdi is part of NYU WIRELESS, the world’s first academic research center combining computing, wireless, and medical applications.

He comes to the School of Engineering after spending five years at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center, where he pioneered a new class of high-performance flexible electronics, including flexible nanocircuits and solar cells; if you drop by his office at 2 MetroTech you will see an amazingly bendable sheet of solar cells which you cannot resist touching. Among the courses he’ll be teaching are Fundamentals of Solid-State Electronic Devices and Fundamentals of Analog Circuit Design, and even if you’re not an electrical engineer, Shahrjerdi can make the future of nanoscale solid state materials seem compellingly close.