New Faculty, New Breakthroughs

Our newest faculty members come to us from various corners of the world, but they all have one thing in common: impressive lists of accomplishments. From developing a programmable chip with incredible diagnostic sensitivity and specificity for the medical world to improving civil infrastructure systems to enabling a new generation of nano-electronics, the work being done by our new professors is changing the world. Read more about them below:

Jack Bringardner: Getting Students off to a Good Start
Alesha Castillo: Making Strides in Regenerative Medicine
Rumi Chunara: Fighting Disease with the Help of Data
John T.  McDevitt: The Future of Diagnostics
Semiha Ergan: Big City, Big Challenges
Shaloo Rakheja: Beyond CMOS Technology
Julian Togelius: NYU’s MAGNET (Media and Games Network) Attracts—Even from 4,000 Miles Away

Getting Students off to a Good Start

Industry Assistant Professor Jack Bringardner and his students are all embarking on thrilling new endeavors. Bringardner’s own adventure has  brought him this year from Austin, Texas, to New York City and the NYU School of Engineering, while his students—freshmen attending what is, in all likelihood, their first college-level engineering class—are taking the initial steps towards problem-solving, world-changing careers.

“They’re learning basic engineering principles, how to work in teams, how to communicate with people of all backgrounds,” Bringardner explains of the students in his introductory course.  “It’s very gratifying to be involved with them at this stage.” And if they enter the class already knowing which specialized field of engineering is most compelling to them, Bringardner is happy to talk about their interests and provide guidance. “There are so many pathways open to them as aspiring engineers,” he says, “and it’s exciting to brainstorm with them about what the future might hold.”

Bringardner’s own area of specialization is transportation engineering; he earned his doctoral degree at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied under Dr. Randy Machemehl and completed a dissertation on Geographic Information System (GIS)-based traffic control tools.  His goal, he explained, was to develop algorithms to more accurately predict traffic volume and to make computer simulations of traffic more useful to transportation officials and policy makers.

All in all, he agrees, the move from guiding traffic patterns to guiding freshmen is proving to be a rewarding one.


Making Strides in Regenerative Medicine

Assistant Professor Alesha Castillo is working at the intersection of mechanical engineering and medicine to gain a better understanding of how the body—especially the musculoskeletal system—responds to mechanobiological cues. At the cellular level, she explains, biomechanical forces are transduced into biochemical signals that control various physiological processes—including tissue maintenance, regeneration and repair.

Her studies have several exciting and practical applications—some of which will be particularly welcome to anyone who has ever suffered from a condition like arthritis or an injury like a broken bone. “As we age, our tissues degrade and can become damaged,” she says. “And our cells’ ability to repair the damage becomes compromised. Although we think of exercise as strengthening and healing, it must be performed at optimal doses and times. In the case of injury, we need to know exactly when bone can bear weight again and when a patient should begin trying to walk.”

Mechanical signals also play a role in the development of stem cells, which have the potential to form many different cell types in the body, including those with more specialized functions, such as muscle cells or red blood cells, and Castillo is also researching that phenomenon. (Her lab is actively seeking new members, and she invites anyone interested to contact her at alesha.castillo@nyu.edu for more information.)

Castillo—who has a joint appointment in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and is a member of the NYU Center for Skeletal and Craniofacial Biology—earned her doctoral degree at the University of California, Davis, and was on the faculty of Stanford University before relocating to the East Coast.  Her first winter in New York City was not as daunting as she feared it would be, she says, despite all the native New Yorkers commenting about the long winter. And whatever the weather might bring, she’s very much looking forward to future semesters, when she’ll be teaching a new graduate course in mechanobiology that she’s currently developing.


Fighting Disease with the Help of Data

Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Rumi Chunara works at the intersection of Big Data and Public Health, using information gleaned from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to predict epidemics, track obesity rates on a local level, and much more.

In one study, for example, she discovered that a spate of Twitter posts about cholera had corresponded with an outbreak of the disease in Haiti. In the time it took for the country’s health ministry to examine their data, workers could have been mobilized to distribute needed medical supplies and water purification tablets to lessen the impact of the outbreak.

In another study that generated much media buzz, she aggregated data found on Facebook and discovered that in neighborhoods with a higher percentage of people interested in television viewing or other sedentary pursuits, obesity rates were higher. Facebook, as it turns out, can be a great help to in identifying where public health officials should target interventions.

With ever increasing amounts of data at our fingertips, Chunara—who was named one of the top young innovators of 2014 by MIT Technology Review—continues to explore the ways in which that information can be used to better the health of individuals and entire communities. Her next area of focus will be on chronic diseases. New York City, she says, provides a wealth of new data sources, making the NYU School of Engineering an exciting place to be.


The Future of Diagnostics

Detecting or predicting heart attacks from just a few drops of saliva or whole blood.  Diagnosing ovarian, prostate or oral cancer with a device about the size of a credit card. Those medical marvels are now possible thanks to the work of John T.  McDevitt, the new Chairman of Biomaterials and Biomimetics at NYU and a Professor in the School of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

McDevitt—who arrives at NYU with a string of high-profile laurels to his credit, including Popular Science's "Best of What's New Award" in the Medical Device category--is best-known for his development of the programmable bio-nano-chip system that makes possible a wide range of biomarker-based disease assessments—quickly, cost-efficiently, and with a large degree of diagnostic sensitivity and specificity. Think of this system as a 'universal platform to digitize biology'. Like a smart phone that services multiple apps, this chip-based bioassay system is capable of completing multiple classes of clinical tests that more traditionally are done of multiple instruments.

The system he has developed consists of a small disposable cartridge containing a set of micro-beads loaded with primary antibodies; an opening for a small sample of blood, urine, or saliva; and two blister packs containing the fluids to complete sophisticated lab-based tests but doing so without the remote laboratory infrastructure. When the cartridges are inserted into a toaster-sized WiFi-enabled analysis hub, the samples and reagents flow through microfluidic pathways onto the micro-beads, where a set of bioassays take place, triggering the beads to fluoresce according to the concentration of the biomarker of interest. The same platform is capable of cell-based tests too enabling complex 'pathology on a chip' assays to be completed at the patient’s side.

McDevitt and his colleagues received a flurry of media attention when they announced in 2008 that they had developed a saliva-based test that could reveal, on the spot, that a patient was having a heart attack and should receive treatment quickly; it also identified patients at high risk of having future attacks. Equally impressive has been his work on portable, affordable point-of-care systems for the early detection, monitoring, and tracking of emerging infectious conditions such as HIV—particularly important in the developing world, where billions of people have little access to reliable health care. Last year the McDevitt group along with their start-up ventured, SensoDx, participated in the Nokia Sensing XPrize competition where they featured their new cardiac scorecard.

The programmable bio-nano-chip technology “has the potential to revolutionize the flow of information in the practice of medicine, while significantly reducing cost,” he has told journalists. “I like to think of it as the iPhone of medicine, with the same potential to be a game changer.”


Big City, Big Challenges

Assistant Professor Semiha Ergan joined the Department of Civil and Urban Engineering at the NYU School of Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, where she had also earned her Ph.D. degree. With that move, the test beds for her research greatly expanded. “Big cities have big challenges, and New York City is a living testbed for my research vision,” she explains. “The City provides unprecedented opportunities to study operational challenges associated with construction and operations of facilities and infrastructure systems in urban settings.”

Ergan’s research involves infrastructure information modeling and visualization to understand and improve the behaviors of facilities and civil infrastructure systems and support the efficient construction and sustainable operations of such systems. She takes advantage of advancements in technology in information modeling and visualization to provide information that engineers, owners, facility managers, and operators need, at the right level of detail and visual form.

In addition to the real-life challenges the city will provide for her research, Ergan is also excited about the unprecedented opportunities for industry-academia collaborations. “The City is active with new construction as well as renovations and retrofits in aging facilities,” she says. “There are various construction companies and large owners that operate these facilities, and they are open to collaboration with faculty.”

The usual ways in which we record and reuse operational information about our facilities have severe drawbacks: they have a distressing tendency to go missing or unrecorded—or simply forgotten—after they are collected. The integrated information models and visualizations Ergan will create in her Rogers Hall lab--now being renovated with an impressive 98-inch touch screen and state-of-the-art tracking technology—will be used to evaluate impact on the improvement of facilities management practices, and measure the efficiencies brought to the decision-making processes of facilities operators. “We are also working towards an understanding of how the information stored in information models can be analyzed to identify patterns in system behaviors, which would not be possible with the current practice of storing facility data,” she says. “The result will be cost-efficient, comfortable, and sustainable management of facilities and other infrastructure systems.”


Beyond CMOS Technology

Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Shaloo Rakheja points out that over the last several decades, the productivity of semiconductor technology has increased by a factor of more than a billion, and silicon-based complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology is at the heart of a $270 billion industry. This incredible exponential growth—familiar to many as Moore’s Law, which states that computer processing power will double every two years—may not be sustainable, Rakheja explains, as CMOS scaling is approaching its fundamental limits. She asserts that research in nanoelectronics must undergo a paradigm shift if Moore’s Law is to be maintained and believes the next decade will usher in an era of new science and disruptive technologies.

Thanks to Rakheja and her colleagues, that era will soon be dawning at NYU. 

Her research involves the integration of various novel concepts--from new materials to new architectures--to enable unique functionality beyond just high-performance general-purpose computing. Her work positions her squarely between pure theoreticians and the experimentalists who devise practical applications and products based on those theories. NYU, with its commitment to multidisciplinary research, is a fruitful place to find collaborators willing to work together with her on some of her ideas. “My goal is to conceive of solutions that will have a positive impact on not only consumer electronics but on innovative products that will help our health (such as wearable and implantable bioelectronics) and security (such as hacker-resistant VLSI circuits),” she says.

In addition to her research, Rakheja is now developing a class on nanoelectronic devices that will be offered next semester and will focus on understanding how the devices work and on the practical, applied possibilities.


NYU’s MAGNET (Media and Games Network) Attracts—Even from 4,000 Miles Away

It’s a long way from the IT University of Copenhagen to the NYU School of Engineering, but Associate Professor Julian Togelius is undaunted by the move. “New York is becoming the center of the indie game development community,” he says, “and I’m excited to have the chance to work with NYU faculty members like Katherine Isbister, Andy Nealen and Frank Lantz. I think some great collaborative gaming projects are in store.”

Togelius, a new member of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, is at the forefront of the study of procedural content generation (PCG)—the process of creating game content (such as levels, maps, rules, and environments) by employing algorithms, rather than direct user input. Specifically, he has pioneered the use of evolutionary algorithms for such tasks. (Evolutionary algorithms are inspired by biological functions like reproduction, mutation, and natural selection.) These algorithms can work in tandem with other algorithms that recognize the player's skill and preferences to change the game on the fly. “We try to determine what you, as a gamer, are good at and what you enjoy doing within the game,” he explains. “When the game adapts to you as an individual player, it’s going to be more fun.”

In addition to creating customized games that contain virtually limitless levels to conquer, PCG has the potential to make game development less costly (by eliminating the need for human designers) and more creative (because with intelligent design tools, even small teams or hobbyists could realize their visions without hundreds of hours of drudge work).

He and a group of colleagues in Denmark recently developed an artificial intelligence system that generates new card games from scratch, taking into account the number of players and their skill levels, winning conditions, and actions that can be completed each round. That type of system, he says, could have applications well beyond gaming and may one day have the potential to optimize turn-based processes like traffic lights. (Perhaps a collaboration with the Department of Civil and Urban Engineering might be in the cards.)

With computing becoming pervasive, Togelius sees potential for such collaboration everywhere—in the past, he has collaborated with ubiquitous-computing researchers on recommender systems for surgeons in operating rooms—and is appreciative of the opportunities being at a large, diverse university like NYU presents. “I’ve lived and worked in Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom,” he says. “I’m really excited to add New York City to that list.”