NYU Tandon Gains an Exciting Group of New Faculty Members

The NYU Tandon School of Engineering is constantly evolving and growing, and our new faculty members are an important part of that process. Find out more about them and how they're helping us harness the power of science and technology to improve the world.

New NYU Tandon Faculty

Greg Aloupis

“For students who learn best using visual methods, computational geometry can be a good introduction to algorithms,” Industry Professor of Computer Science Greg Aloupis says. “All the problems we deal with have a visual component to them. We might need to reconfigure a shape or perform some task on it, or we might need to determine certain properties about that shape. Often the problems we are trying to solve seem straightforward to an outsider until they realize that it will be an algorithm that must process the input, not a human’s brain and visual system. An algorithm can’t see a shape, it can only process its coordinates and try to figure out what we take for granted.”

Besides being a good introduction to algorithms, computational geometry is an invaluable basic tool; it is used each time an app such as Google Maps determines the shortest route between two coordinates or finds the closest post office for a user. “We’re figuring out practical problems having to do with graphics, path-finding, computer vision, and protein folding, to name a few applications.” Aloupis explains.

The field is involved in the creation of video games that feature scenes from a three-dimensional environment that must be displayed on a two-dimensional screen, used to plan and control the motion of robots, and employed in the design of integrated circuits, among numerous other exciting and important applications. “A wide variety of technical jobs require a knowledge of computational geometry, so it’s a very good thing to master. In fact, just being able to reason about problems visually is an important skill to develop,” Aloupis asserts.

Aloupis, who earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from McGill University in Canada, is a new member of the faculty, but he has been visiting Tandon and presenting here for more than a decade, thanks to his friendship and professional collaborations with former professor John Iacono, with whom he has co-authored multiple journal articles. “I have been assigned his old office, so that somehow seems fitting,” Aloupis says.

Dora Angelaki

“The brain works better than any machine ever built,” Dora Angelaki explains. “And as an engineer, I’m researching what makes that possible.” A professor in Tandon’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering with a joint appointment at NYU’s College of Arts and Science, Angelaki is focused on understanding how multisensory information flows between subcortical and cortical brain areas, as well as spatial navigation, decision-making and episodic memory circuits, and how internal states modulate this information flow.

“Consider foraging,” she says, mentioning an area of specific interest to her and her research team. “That’s a behavior common to every vertebrate; a forager must identify a food source, determine its quality and abundance; and weigh those factors in deciding where to forage efficiently. We want to find out what parts of the brain are responsible for that complex process. In thinking about the brain as a computational machine, what algorithms are used?”

Developing a deeper understanding of how the brain works could make it possible for researchers to discover treatments for neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, which despite great advances still stymies medical practitioners. “You can’t fix a computer without knowing how it works, and the same holds true for the brain,” she asserts.

Angelaki — who comes to NYU from posts at the Baylor College of Medicine, where she chaired the Department of Neuroscience and served as the Wilhelmina Robertson Professor, and Rice University, where she held a joint appointment in the Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Psychology — stresses the multidisciplinary nature of her work. “Because we use sophisticated data analysis tools, it involves aspects of computer science and machine learning,” she says. “While those trained in medicine contribute a lot, this is definitely a job for an engineer; in a sense, we’re actually reverse-engineering the brain in order to learn more about it.”

As an undergraduate in her native Greece, Angelaki trained as an electrical engineer, and her graduate degrees are in biomedical engineering. She welcomes the chance to work with Tandon’s mechanical and aerospace engineers. “We use flight simulators to collect some of the data in my lab, so there’s a natural connection,” she says. “And robotics also poses a new and exciting possible research direction.” She is excited, as well, about making the move from Texas to New York City. “It’s always good to expand your horizons,” she says, “both geographically and in the lab.”

Nicholas DiZinno

“I’d like students to walk away from my classes with the realization that fluid mechanics is really fun,” Industry Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Nicholas DiZinno says. “I know not everyone will be as passionate about it as I am, but it’s a fascinating field with a lot of practical applications in areas like green energy.”

Fluid mechanics deals with the behavior and motion of liquids and gases, and those studying it can gain insight into meteorological phenomena like hurricanes and floods, environmental issues like air pollution, propulsion systems in airplanes and other vehicles, complex flow in chemical reactors, and human processes like blood flow, among many other subjects. DiZinno’s focus is on computational fluid dynamics (CFD), a branch of the discipline that uses numerical algorithms to analyze and solve problems involving fluid flow.

“Look at how a fish moves through water,” he says. “How is the fish affecting the water and vice versa. We know the fins are flexible, but how can we take advantage of that? If we can gain a precise understanding of how nature works, we can look in a realistic way at practical applications for that knowledge. In this case, for example, how flexible do the arms of a wind turbine have to be for maximum efficiency? How could we design a boat for maximum speed and fuel economy?”

DiZinno is a senior member of a local chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and if students realize just how rewarding fluid mechanics can be, as he predicts, he would encourage them to participate in the group. “There are design competitions they can enter, scholarship money to be won, and opportunities for networking,” he says. “Tandon has a history of making a mark in the field, and I’d like to help carry that forward.” 

Elizabeth Hénaff

Assistant Professor of Technology, Culture, and Society Elizabeth Hénaff has a far-ranging, global perspective: she was born in Austin, Texas; grew up in France; and has studied and lived in Japan and Spain. But the world on which she focuses her research is much smaller — microscopic, in fact.

“It’s common today to read about the human microbiome — particularly the trillions of microorganisms that live in our guts and what we should be ingesting to keep them healthy — but it’s less common to hear about the many other microbiomes that surround us,” Hénaff says. “They are a ubiquitous, living part of the environment. The keyboard of the computer you use, for example, has its own microbiome, some of it composed of organisms picked up from your skin while you use it.”

“The choices we make for the built environment affect its microbiome, which we interact with,” she continues, “I want to integrate that metric in our design of the urban environment to make that interaction a positive one.”

Hénaff, who speaks four languages and conducted much of her doctoral work in Spanish, has degrees in both computer science and biology, and while she quips that her dual interest was the result of being unable to make up her mind, the combination of disciplines has proven to be a powerful one. She has, for example, worked at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where she developed a visualization tool that represents genomes in 3D, so that clinicians can compare multiple samples easily, and she has built bioreactors to host environmentally useful bacteria from Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, in a project with the potential to help remediate the local Superfund site.

Students in Hénaff’s multidisciplinary Biodesign course will spend the semester thinking about how our design choices affect the microbiomes in and around us and designing interfaces that can further that much-needed understanding. “Someone might choose to develop a fabric that has the ability to indicate the health of your skin,” she says, “or a device that monitors the indoor microbiome and lets you know you should open a window.”

At the end, one project will be entered in the annual Biodesign Challenge, a competition in which college students from around the world are asked to envision future applications of biotechnology.

“I am very interested in citizen science, and want my students to seize every chance to participate,” Hénaff says. “Whether you’re focused on design, digital data, biotech or any other course of study, you can contribute. I expect us all to be spending a lot of time in the MakerSpace.”

Debra Laefer

If you read National Geographic magazine, you might be familiar with Professor Debra Laefer, who is also affiliated with NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) and Department of Civil and Urban Engineering. The February 2018 issue prominently featured a story about Laefer’s work acquiring high-density Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), a remote sensing method that allowed her to scan and model a 1.5-km-square urban area (in this case, a section of Dublin) in unprecedented detail — down to the decorative cornices of the buildings and the curbs on the streets.

That project culminated in the densest urban aerial LiDAR dataset ever compiled; at over 330 points per square meter, more than 30 times denser than is typically done. While the resulting model is visually compelling, Laefer’s purpose goes far beyond aesthetics; modeling of this type — which includes curb cuts, power lines, and even the details of the building facades — has the potential to help engineers mitigate damage to buildings when they tunnel (as in subway projects), improve the accessibility of the built environment for the disabled, aid in disaster preparedness, encourage the use of green energy, and support other civic benefits.

Laefer — whose interest in Civil Engineering was sparked when she was studying Art History as an undergraduate and became concerned about the preservation of historic buildings — is mounting a similar aerial scanning project in Brooklyn and will be involving her undergraduate and graduate students. “We’ll be sending a helicopter up to scan an area of Sunset Park,” she explains, “and as part of Tandon’s Vertically Integrated Projects program, the students will set up on the ground to do various experiments. They’ll be immersed in the practice of urban sensing, learning how to harness the power of technology to make cities more livable and finding new ways to solve big problems.”  

Beth Noveck

Beth Simone Noveck has been a dynamic presence at NYU Tandon since 2014, when the GovLab, which she founded and directs, opened its doors here. The GovLab’s goals have always been facilitating innovation at the intersection of law, policy, and technology; promoting transparency in systems of government; encouraging civic engagement, and partnering with students, civic leaders, and entrepreneurs, to build tools to improve healthcare, prisons, immigration, elder care, literacy, and more.

A former White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer and Director of the Open Government Initiative, Noveck has worked with Tandon graduate students across a wide variety of disciplines to study how societal problems can be addressed drawing upon open data, how emerging technologies can be used to drive change, and how public entrepreneurs — individuals working within the traditional confines of public service but imbued with a new spirit of entrepreneurial innovation and collaboration — can shape the future.

While she is a familiar face at the School of Engineering, this year Noveck is taking on a new and exciting role: named as a professor in the Department of Technology, Culture, and Society, she will now be introducing undergraduate students to her wide-ranging mission. “They’ll have a chance to be involved in hands-on projects that will show them the challenges and rewards of being a public entrepreneur,” Noveck says, “and they’ll be able to make real contributions to public institutions while developing next-generation skills.”

Possible projects include using technology to involve the public in legislative drafting and decision-making, instead of conducting that work behind closed government doors (CrowdLaw) and harnessing the power of Blockchain (which uses distributed ledger technologies that act as massive, transparent, and secure public databases) to empower underserved populations — among others. “We’re lucky to be situated here in New York City, because its many public organizations and institutions provide an unparalleled real-world lab,” Noveck says. “But beyond being simply in the city, at NYU we are of the city, and my students, including the undergraduates, are not only learning how the city works and how it is governed but discovering how they themselves can have an impact.” 

André Taylor

Winning a Presidential Early Career Award — the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding young scientists and engineers — is a prestigious and rare occurrence. It’s thus doubly rare for a married couple to each garner one of the coveted prizes. Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering André Taylor and his wife, Jacquelyn Taylor, the inaugural Vernice D. Ferguson Professor in Health Equity at NYU’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing, have accomplished just that feat.

The couple comes to NYU following tenured professorships at Yale, where she served as Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion for the nursing school, and he headed the Transformative Materials and Devices Group in the Chemical and Environmental Engineering Department.

There, André Taylor used nanotechnology to develop new types of fuel cells, batteries, and solar cells, with the aim of making them as efficient/powerful — yet safe and reliable — as possible. (That is the laymen’s explanation; his scholarly papers have titles like “Catalyst and Electrolyte Synergy in Li-O2 Batteries” and “The Role of HF in Oxygen Removal from Carbon Nanotubes: Implications for High Performance Carbon Electronics.”)

He is currently developing two graduate levels courses in Nanotechnology for Energy and Renewable Energy Technologies for Developing Countries. The latter course could possibly be taught within the MakerSpace here at Tandon where the class can design practical energy solutions to be implemented in developing countries. He will also be teaching core classes to Tandon’s younger aspiring engineers. “At Yale, the TMD Laboratory was very popular and successful with participation from interested undergraduates,” Taylor says. “Undergraduate students work on real research projects with my team. Some start as early is their freshman year working with our group through their senior year, with opportunities to present and/or be a co-author on our publications. I’m expecting even more exciting things to come out of the TMD Lab once we get running at NYU Tandon School of Engineering.”

A native of Missouri, Taylor was interested in math and science from an early age. “It started out with a fascination for nature; I spent a lot of time looking at ants and wondering how the world worked,” he recalls. “Then, as a Boy Scout and later as an Eagle Scout going on regular hikes and canoe trips, I became aware of the importance of preserving the planet, and my work with renewable energy grew from that.” Outside of science, his hobbies include soccer, basketball, scuba diving, and snowboarding.

He’s looking forward to carrying on his work at Tandon. “My wife and I are both happy to be at NYU, an institution that allows us to combine our scientific endeavors with our sense of social purpose,” he says.