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Strategic Strengths

Posted by on Friday, September 11, 2009 in Fall 2009, Feature.

Michael Miga, director of  Vanderbilt’s Biomedical Modeling Laboratory
Michael Miga, director of Vanderbilt’s Biomedical Modeling Laboratory

One chemical engineering professor conducts research with the potential not only to fight cancer but to improve the way we draw energy from Earth’s core. Work by a mechanical engineering faculty member could affect energy transfer in cars; that same researcher turns his energies to building robots that could disassemble a roadside bomb. A top electrical engineering and computer science expert oversees research on cybersecurity and patient management systems that may help congestive heart failure patients handle some of their ongoing care at home.

Innovative research and pursuit of varied applications by faculty and researchers at the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering have helped the school redefine its four top areas for growth, exploration and discovery. Those areas, or core competencies, are: health care, energy and the environment, information systems, and defense and national security.

“Our departments have grown and dramatically advanced their missions, particularly in these four areas of core competency,” says Kenneth F. Galloway, dean of the School of Engineering. “Looking at our current strengths, it became clear to me that our faculty talent, as well as certain critical research initiatives, fit neatly into these very relevant categories.”

Once the four core areas were identified, the School of Engineering has been empowered to tackle its research mission more strategically, Galloway says.

Collaboration is Key

The ability to capitalize on interdisciplinary research initiatives radically advances this mission, Galloway says, particularly given the many important alliances inside and outside the university among School of Engineering faculty, colleagues from other Vanderbilt schools, medical center researchers and physicians, and other research centers, such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory. That collaboration across departments, disciplines and the world may be the true key to the school’s contribution to solving real-world problems.

More than 100 researchers come together through ISIS, the Institute for Software Integrated Systems, led by Director Janos Sztipanovits. As the School of Engineering’s largest center, ISIS has millions of dollars of research contracts that touch each of the four competency areas.

Other research in each of the school’s five departments also involves teams with exciting potential. In biomedical engineering, for example, the husband and wife duo of Anita Mahadevan-Jansen and E. Duco Jansen, professors of biomedical engineering, are among a small number of pioneers in biophotonics, finding ways to use light in medical breakthroughs diagnostically, surgically and therapeutically.

“Biophotonics is small in terms of the number of faculty involved, but it’s large in terms of their impact, in terms of their laboratory output, and in terms of the number of post-docs, research faculty and undergraduates involved,” says Todd Giorgio, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Overlapping Impact

Engineering researchers have frequent and fruitful collaboration with colleagues at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and other schools and departments, Giorgio says. For example, in Vanderbilt’s Institute for Nanoscale Science and Engineering, investigators from the School of Engineering, College of Arts and Science and medical center focus on translating basic science into products. Giorgio leads projects at this collaborative interface, building biosensors that would be placed inside cells to report on activity in the cell. Another project aims to develop new imaging contrast agents.

Like his colleague on the biomedical side, Peter Pintauro, chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering, notes that a great deal of collaboration takes place between his department’s researchers and the medical center, the Departments of Chemistry and Physics in the College of Arts and Science, and multiple departments and centers within the School of Engineering.

Faculty, students and researchers in chemical and biomolecular engineering are involved in important ongoing work in cancer, biology and tissue engineering, and even metabolic engineering as related to obesity. At the same time, multiple projects associated with energy and the environment are underway, as are ventures involving defense and national security, says Pintauro, the H. Eugene McBrayer Professor of Chemical Engineering.

Pintauro, as well as Associate Professors of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering G. Kane Jennings, Bridget Rogers and Clare McCabe, all have projects relating to energy. Pintauro and his research team study polymer components of batteries and fuel cells to make existing materials work more efficiently and safely, and searching for new ones to make new technologies, such as electric cars, run better.

Assistant Professor Eric Barth adjusts a free-piston engine.

In the Mechanics

In mechanical engineering, Associate Professor D. Greg Walker is interested in thermoelectric modeling for energy recovery, such as taking the excess heat from a vehicle’s tailpipe and using it to run the lights or battery.

Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Eric Barth also works on energy applications, finding ways to store and reuse the energy wasted during the braking action of a vehicle. In potential defense-related applications of Barth’s work, small, free-piston engines might power robots that could dissemble a roadside bomb.

Mechanical Engineering Department Chair Robert Pitz conducts laser measurements of scramjet combustion and rocket exhaust for the U.S. Air Force, providing data about rocket engine thrust for take-off.

Projects with potential medical applications include the use of steerable needles to maneuver around organs in the body, for example. Swallowable capsule robots would aid in diagnostics, and the use of lasers is under exploration to scan the surface of organs to create medical images during surgery. Those projects are ongoing in Assistant Professor Robert Webster’s medical and electromechanical design laboratory.

Environmental Strengths

Numerous environmental and energy applications can be found in civil and environmental engineering, many under the umbrella of the Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and the Environment and still more associated with the Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation.

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Sankaran Mahadevan’s research has been used in the design and evaluation of structural systems ranging from roads to airplanes and from nuclear waste dumps to hydraulic structures. How to prolong the life and service of infrastructure, into which is poured huge investments of capital and resources, has been a question in the research of Caglar Oskay and Florence Sanchez, both assistant professors of civil and environmental engineering.

Work by Sanchez and David Kosson, chair of civil and environmental engineering, has also provided technical guidance to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Pollution Prevention and Control Division. Kosson has long studied environmental issues surrounding a range of soil, sediment and water contaminants. In recent months he has been called upon as an expert in the TVA coal ash spill in nearby Kingston, Tenn.

A group of civil and environmental engineering faculty that includes Professor George Hornberger, Professor of the Practice James Clarke and Associate Professor Eugene LeBoeuf has been evaluating watershed issues where water quality and energy conservation methods intersect. The behavior of contaminants at the groundwater level also has been a research focus, especially by Hornberger, a University Distinguished Professor and the Craig E. Philip Chair in Engineering.

Across Campus and the Country

In electrical engineering and computer science, Sharon Weiss, assistant professor of electrical engineering, collaborates with Sandra Rosenthal, professor of chemistry in the College of Arts and Science, on nanoscale solutions for energy conversion using cadmium selenide-based solar energy.

J. Michael Fitzpatrick, professor of computer science and computer engineering, has been collaborating with Robert Galloway, professor of biomedical engineering, on image-guided surgeries and therapies for patients with Parkinson’s disease. Fitzpatrick also collaborates with the medical center on research involving cochlear implants.

Ron Schrimpf, the Orrin Henry Ingram Professor of Engineering, and Lloyd Massengill, professor of electrical engineering and professor of computer engineering, work on large-scale defense programs, including a life extension program for the
Trident missile system. Schrimpf is director of the Institute for Space and Defense Electronics, where Massengill is the institute’s director of engineering.

In the information systems area, Bobby Bodenheimer, associate professor of computer science and associate professor of computer engineering, has obtained a National Science Foundation grant to fund a virtual reality laboratory with potential applications in national security, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Creative and Engaged

Kosson says it doesn’t surprise him that so many research pursuits of the engineering faculty correspond with the top areas of core competency. “That’s what happens when you have researchers deeply engaged intellectually,” the department chair says.

Biomedical Engineering Chair Giorgio echoes that statement when he says, “the interdisciplinary nature of what we do makes for great intellectual stimulation.”

Dan Fleetwood, chair of electrical engineering and computer science, concurs. “It’s hard to find anyone whose research doesn’t touch on one or more of these areas of core competency,” Fleetwood says, noting that there will always be engineering problems and solutions to be found in these four areas. “These are going to remain critical issues throughout our lifetimes.”

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