Brooklyn Produces More "Brilliants"

NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering Professor Jonathan Viventi is 3rd Faculty Member Named to Popular Science Magazine’s “Brilliant 10” List

Popular Science magazine today announced its annual “Brilliant 10” —a list of scientists under age 38 who are poised to revolutionize their fields. Jonathan Viventi, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering, is among the 2014 cohort of “brilliants”—the third faculty member since 2010 to nab a coveted spot on the list. The October issue of Popular Science, featuring the Brilliant 10, is now available on newsstands and at 

Viventi, 32, was recognized for his design of a minimally invasive brain interface device that allows researchers to observe neural activity at an unprecedented level of spatial resolution and coverage. He is a pioneer in a field of biomedical engineering that utilizes flexible electronics—in this case, sensors built using bendable silicon transistors and thinner than a sheet of cellophane—to design implantable devices that allow active circuitry to sit directly on the surface of the brain with no tissue damage.

Viventi is the first to deploy flexible electronics in a brain device, and his innovation has made it possible for researchers to sample activity in large areas of the brain with minimal wiring—a feat that was previously impossible. The result is the ability to study neurologic events that involve large portions of the brain, such as epileptic seizures, in great detail. His early work with the device has already yielded new insights into epilepsy. Viventi is working to take the devices wireless, with the hope of designing a fully implantable “defibrillator” for the brain that could detect and arrest seizures. 

Popular Science has always looked optimistically towards the future, and there’s no more promising sign of what that future will bring than the inspired work of young scientists and engineers across the country,” says Editor-in-Chief Cliff Ransom. “The Brilliant Ten is a celebration of the best and brightest.”  This is Viventi’s second accolade from a major consumer science publication in the past month. In August, the editors of the MIT Technology Review named him among the “Innovators Under 35,” a list that has included such technology game-changers as Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Viventi joins a fast-growing group of NYU School of Engineering faculty—who number just about 150— who occupied spots on the Brilliant 10 list. Colleagues Maurizio Porfiri, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Justin Cappos, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering, were named to the Brilliant 10 in 2010 and 2013, respectively. Alongside Viventi on this year’s list is Nicole Abaid, who earned her doctorate in mechanical engineering in Professor Porfiri’s lab in 2012 and is now assistant professor of engineering science and mechanics at Virginia Tech. Popular Science cited her research on how animals swarm in order to glean insights that will improve robotic drones such as underwater vehicles that rely on sonar.

“It’s always an honor to see our faculty recognized among an elite group of innovators, especially in a publication with the history and influence of Popular Science,” said Katepalli R. Sreenivasan, president and dean of engineering. “But this represents something much bigger: It demonstrates to the public, and particularly young people, the wide-ranging impacts of engineering. For our Brilliant 10 faculty, engineering is incredibly diverse—it is the creation of devices to help ease the burden of disease, the design of a robot that can detect underwater hazards and lead vulnerable wildlife to safety, and the delivery of the gift of knowledge and information to areas of the world where it may be otherwise censored. We are gratified to see the breadth and depth of our faculty’s work receive this recognition. It is an external affirmation of what we already know: We have some of the best faculty in the world.”

The School of Engineering has long had a reputation for research excellence—it was one of the nation’s first schools of engineering and today ranks ninth in the number of students who graduate with engineering master’s degrees, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. But Porfiri, the first NYU School of Engineering faculty member to land on the Brilliant 10, has his own ideas about why this tight-knit school has become a hub for promising young researchers.

“The energy and speed of Brooklyn itself is so inspiring to me,” Porfiri said.  “I can look around and ask, ‘What does the community need?’ and very often the ideas we conceive in the lab become real-life solutions.” Porfiri, who has done groundbreaking work designing underwater robots that emulate real animal behavior, recently launched a second robotic vehicle to monitor water quality and conditions in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal.

Justin Cappos, assistant professor of computer science, credits the borough’s vibrant tech scene, and believes that the university’s focus on real-world problems also helps drive success. “There’s a common theme here that many of our faculty are addressing practical issues,” he said. “We’re rewarded for solving problems.”

Cappos noted that many faculty members have strong ties to the entrepreneurial community— “we’re very integrated into startups,” he said, whether through the university’s business incubators or at companies of their own founding.

Cappos was honored by Popular Science in 2013 for Seattle, an open-source cloud computing system that allows anyone to experience the Internet from the perspective of any location around the globe. Seattle has served as a critical tool in circumventing censorship and is an effective testbed for students learning about cyber security, Cappos’ main area of research.

The Brilliant 10 list is widely viewed as a bellwether for other prestigious awards in the sciences. Among the 120 scientists who have been named to the list since its founding in 2001, a dozen have subsequently received MacArthur “genius” grants, among other awards.

Both Viventi and Abaid insist that much of their early success is due to their mentors and partners. “We’ve had extraordinary opportunities for collaboration,” said Viventi, who worked closely with colleagues at the NYU Medical School and the NYU Center for Neural Science in the development and testing of his brain interface device. Abaid was a student of Professor Porfiri’s throughout her doctoral studies and was a named author on many papers describing their experiments testing biomimetic robots interacting with live fish. She also credits her fellowship in the department’s K-12 mechatronics program with giving her teaching skills well beyond the typical research assistant.