Our Faculty Research | NYU Tandon School of Engineering

Our Faculty Research

Knee replacement rendering

Stronger, Safer Medical Implants

For years, titanium has been the preferred material for surgical procedures ranging from knee replacement to jaw implants, but it can cause serious complications like infection. In fact, procedures to remove hardware that has been rejected or caused infected are among the most common surgeries worldwide and a major cost for hospitals and patients. Now, Associate Professor Nikhil Gupta, in collaboration with Dr. Paulo Coelho of NYU School of Dentistry and Dr. Andrea Torroni of NYU School of Medicine, is exploring a solution: using treated magnesium alloys instead. Their work, which was recently published in the Journal of Cranio-Maxillofacial Surgery, could lead to safer, stronger medical implants and improved outcomes for countless patients.

Building a Better Solar Cell

Conventional solar cells made of silicon now have only limited competition; perovskite solar cells are a low-cost, increasingly efficient alternative, but manufacturers have been stymied by the difficulties posed in working with the material. Specifically, it’s hard to effectively apply a uniform electron transport layer (ETL) — a vital component of any solar cell — over the crystalline surface of the perovskite.

Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering André Taylor has found a way to address that difficulty by spraying on the ETL — in contrast to the usual method of spin casting, which involves spinning the cell and allowing centripetal force to disperse the ETL fluid over the perovskite substrate. Because spray coating applies the ETL uniformly across a large area, it is suitable for manufacturing large solar panels, and it results in fewer defects and greater energy efficiency.

Concise, highly reproducible, and scalable, Taylor’s discovery is poised to make a great impact of the solar cell industry.

Political Advertising Demystified

When Facebook announced to great fanfare earlier this year that it was releasing data about all of its political ads, it seemed to be a great step towards public transparency, but there was a major problem: the searchable database the company built to display the information was hard to access and analyze — even for savvy researchers like Assistant Professor of Computer Science Damon McCoy and doctoral student Laura Edelson.

With Facebook under fire for its role in helping spread disinformation during the 2016 presidential election, and contentious midterm elections approaching, McCoy realized that the database was not yielding a ready answer to one simple question: who, exactly, was spending the most money to advertise on the ubiquitous platform? To find out, he and his team scraped the raw data, following hard-to- decipher trails to identify ad sponsors. They discovered that during a three- month period in early 2018, Trump and his PAC had spent $274,000 on ads seen by at least 37 million people. (Planned Parenthood came in second.)

The study, which was widely covered by such high-profile outlets as The New York Times and Fortune, not only provided a comprehensive picture of what was being spent ahead of the midterm elections but shed much- needed light on the often opaque machinations behind modern political advertising. Twitter and Google are their next pre-election targets.

Tracking Communicable Disease

Text messages aren’t just a way to chat with family and friends — they are a viable method for rapidly gathering information during a public health crisis. A new study whose lead author is Rumi Chunara, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Tandon who is also affiliated with NYU’s College of Global Public Health, used text message surveys to determine, in real time, how people reacted during an outbreak of Ebola in Liberia. They wondered, for example, whether laboring mothers would go to hospitals to deliver or stay in their own communities; such information could allow officials to quickly target affected regions with public health messaging or deploy appropriate interventions.

Because routine data collection systems, such as surveys of households or health facilities, can take months to collect and analyze and are often disrupted by emergencies in regions with weaker infrastructure, text messaging, as Chunara and her team have shown, has great potential to improve global health outcomes in outbreaks of any communicable disease.

Neutralizing Neurotoxins

A mere fraction of a drop of VX — one of the most deadly nerve agents known to humanity — absorbed through the skin is lethal. V-series nerve poisons were used in the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s; in Japanese cities by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in the 1990s; by the Syrian government on its own citizens in 2013; on Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of North Korea’s leader, in 2017; and in the U.K. on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018.

Jin Montclare, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is participating in a U.S. government program to thwart these agents by improving upon compounds known to neutralize them. Montclare, the recipient of a $349,000 grant from the U.S. government’s CounterACT (Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats) program under the National Institutes of Health, is focusing her research on phosphotriesterase (PTE), a compound that can deactivate the neurotoxic agent organophosphorus, the active ingredient in a number of pesticides and a rogue’s gallery of chemical warfare agents like VX.

Treating Lymphedema

Every year more than 1.4 million women worldwide are diagnosed with breast cancer, and 90 percent of these patients are alive five years after diagnosis. But while major advances in surgical intervention, chemotherapy, and radiology have engendered these high survival rates, they can cause lymphedema, a painful condition affecting the lymphatic system.

Yao Wang, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, is using machine learning and video analysis to address the problem. In collaboration with colleagues from NYU’s schools of nursing and medicine, she has helped develop a novel web-based, mobile health self-care system that combines clinical and diagnostic information for healthcare providers with self-care tools for the patient. While lymphedema may be incurable for now, thanks to Wang and her colleagues, it’s becoming increasingly manageable.

Thwarting Counterfeiters

The worldwide market for 3D-printed parts is a $5 billion business with a global supply chain involving the internet, email, and the cloud — creating a number of opportunities for counterfeiting and intellectual property theft; imagine the damage that could occur if flawed parts printed from stolen design files were used in medical devices, commercial airliners, or other vital products.

Noted Tandon materials researcher Nikhil Gupta and a team of colleagues have developed a way to ensure that a 3D-printed part is the real thing by including QR (Quick Response) codes in computer-assisted-design files as three-dimensional features. The code, hidden throughout a printed part, presents several false faces — dummy QR tags — to would-be counterfeiters, and only a trusted printer or end user would know the correct head-on orientation for the scanner to capture the legitimate QR code image. In high-risk industries like biomedical and aerospace, where the quality of even the smallest part is critical, the innovation could be, literally, life-saving. 

Making Sense of Home Medical Tests

Anyone who wants to trace their DNA or get personalized information about the bacteria in their gut can now simply buy one of the many in-home tests being marketed directly to the public. But what happens when a person with no medical background is faced with pages of hard-to-understand results? Scientific literature brims with examples of incorrect or misinterpreted home test results that prompted expensive and unnecessary follow-up tests and caused undue emotional stress.

Associate Professor Oded Nov, an expert in computer-human interaction, is working with the Open Humans project to test volunteers’ understanding of data presentation, with the goal of developing tools that will enable the testing industry to present results in more comprehensible, layperson-friendly ways. He also plans to create a mobile app that will allow users to share curated medical news with others within their family or community. His project will result in better-informed consumers, with heightened understanding of their medical data and its implications.