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Join With Us In Celebrating Our 2020 Graduating Class! 

Since its founding in 1893 by two legends, George Westinghouse and Reginald Fessenden, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Pitt has excelled in education, research, and service.  Today, the department features innovative undergraduate and graduate programs and world-class research centers and labs, combining theory with practice at the nexus of computer and electrical engineering, for our students to learn, develop, and lead lives of impact.

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60 Researchers from the Swanson School of Engineering Ranked Among Top 2% of Scientists Worldwide

Accolades, Bioengineering, Chemical & Petroleum, MEMS, Electrical & Computer, Civil & Environmental, Industrial, Honors & Awards

According to a new report by Stanford University, 60 researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering are ranked in the top 2 percent of scientists in the world. The report covered scientists globally from a wide range of fields, and the ranking is based on citations from Scopus, assessing scientists for career-long citation impact up until the end of 2019 and for citation impact during the single calendar year 2019. More information on the ranking method can be found here.The full list can be found here.“I am incredibly proud of the breadth and depth of our primary and secondary faculty within this survey, both overall and as a segment of the University of Pittsburgh,” noted James R. Martin II, U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering. “Receiving this external validation is a testament to their research and dedication to their respective fields.”The researchers from the Swanson School of Engineering are:BioengineeringX. Tracy CuiWilliam FederspielPrashant KumtaPatrick LoughlinDavid VorpStephen F. BadylakMichael BoningerR. A. CooperJoseph FurmanJorg GerlachThomas GilbertMark GladwinJohn KellumKacey G. MarraJ. Peter RubinWalter SchneiderIan SigalAlexander StarYoram VodovotzWilliam WagnerJames H.C. WangAlan WellsPeter WipfDouglass Lansing TaylorChemical and Petroleum EngineeringAnna C. BalazsEric J. BeckmanRobert EnickGerald D. HolderJ. Karl JohnsonJoseph McCarthySachin VelankarGötz VeserIrving Wender (deceased)Civil and Environmental EngineeringAmir AlaviAndrew P. BungerKent A. HarriesPiervincenzo RizzoLuis VallejoRadisav VidicFred MosesElectrical and Computer EngineeringHeng HuangAlexis KwasinskiKartik MohanramErvin SejdićMingui SunRami MelhemRob RutenbarIndustrial EngineeringLarry ShumanMechanical Engineering and Materials ScienceWilliam (Buddy) ClarkPaul OhodnickiG. Paolo GaldiPeyman GiviBrian GleesonScott X. MaoGerald H. MeierWissam A. SaidiGuofeng WangXudong ZhangCarey BalabanFreddie H. Fu

Snails carrying the world’s smallest computer help solve mass extinction survivor mystery

Research, Banner, Electrical & Computer

More than 50 species of tree snail in the South Pacific Society Islands were wiped out following the introduction of an alien predatory snail in the 1970s, but the white-shelled Partula hyalina survived.Now, thanks to a collaboration between University of Michigan biologists and engineers with the world’s smallest computer, scientists understand why: P. hyalina can tolerate more sunlight than its predator, so it was able to persist in sunlit forest edge habitats.“We were able to get data that nobody had been able to obtain,” said David Blaauw, the Kensall D. Wise Collegiate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “And that’s because we had a tiny computing system that was small enough to stick on a snail.”Most ecology and conservation studies involving data from sensors are done on vertebrate animals, which can carry larger and heavier devices than invertebrates. The current study not only offers insights into the conservation measures needed to ensure the survival of a species of snails, it points the way for future studies of very small animals through similar partnerships.“A lot of the coolest scientific work is done at the interface, where you have a classic problem and need to bring new approaches to find a solution,” said Diarmaid Ó Foighil, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and Curator of the U-M Museum of Zoology.The Michigan Micro Mote (M3), considered the world’s smallest complete computer, was announced in 2014 by a team Blaauw co-led. This was its first field application.“The sensing computers are helping us understand how to protect endemic species on islands,” said Cindy Bick, who received a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from U-M in 2018. “If we are able to map and protect these habitats through appropriate conservation measures, we can figure out ways to ensure the survival of the species.”P. hyalina is important culturally for Polynesians because of its unique color, making it attractive for use in shell leis and jewelry. Tree snails also play a vital role in island forest ecosystems, as the dominant group of native grazers.How Society Island snails were wiped outThe giant African land snail was introduced to the Society Islands, including Tahiti, to cultivate as a food source, but it became a major pest. To control its population, agricultural scientists introduced the rosy wolf snail in 1974. But unfortunately, most of the 61 known species of native Society Islands tree snails were easy prey for the rosy wolf snail. P. hyalina is one of only five survivors in the wild. Called the “Darwin finches of the snail world” for their island-bound diversity, the loss of so many Partula species is a blow to biologists studying evolution.“The endemic tree snails had never encountered a predator like the alien rosy wolf snail before it’s deliberate introduction. It can climb trees and very quickly drove most of the valley populations to local extinction,” said Ó FoighilIn 2015, Ó Foighil and Bick hypothesized that P. hyalina‘s distinctive white shell might give it an important advantage in forest edge habitats, by reflecting rather than absorbing light radiation levels that would be deadly to its darker-shelled predator. To test their idea, they needed to be able to track the light exposure levels P. hyalina and rosy wolf snails experienced in a typical day. Bick and Ó Foighil wanted to attach light sensors to the snails, but a system made using commercially available chips would have been too large for their purposes.Matching the technology to the application “In 2015, I was looking around to see who had the technology capable of tracking snails, and discovered that the people who can do this are also at Michigan. It was serendipitous,” said Bick. The system Bick found online was known as the Michigan Micro Mote (M3), which was created to go where other sensing devices could not. Measuring just 2x5x2mm, including packaging, it could be used to track animals the size of the rosy wolf snail (with an adult shell 3-7cm) in their natural habitat.But could it be altered to sense light? It was time to move the M3 from the laboratory to the real world, and adapt it for the special needs of their collaborators.“It was important to understand what the biologists were thinking and what they needed,” said Inhee Lee, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Pittsburgh who received a Ph.D. from U-M electrical and computer engineering in 2014. Lee adapted the M3 for the study.The first step was to figure out how to measure the light intensity of the snails’ habitats. At the time, the team had just added an energy harvester to the M3 system to recharge the battery using tiny solar cells developed by Jamie Phillips.  Lee realized he could measure the light level continuously by measuring the speed at which the battery was charging. The harvester was capable of measuring this charging rate.The M3s developed for this study ran on only 40 nanowatts in standby mode, and 228 nanowatts when actively sensing. To give an idea of how miniscule this is, there are 1B nanowatts in a single watt. With the extremely small battery included in the M3, which can provide about only a few millions of a watt for a single hour, every nanoamp counts. The ability of the M3 to run on such low power was key to its success.Field work in Tahiti shows P. hyalina can take 10x more lightAfter local testing enabled by local Michigan snails, 50 M3s made it to Tahiti in 2017. Bick and Lee joined forces with Trevor Coote, a well-known conservation field biologist and specialist on the French Polynesian snails.The team glued the sensors directly to the rosy wolf snails, but P. hyalina is a protected species and required an indirect approach. They are nocturnal, typically sleeping during the day while attached underneath leaves. Using magnets, the team placed M3s both on the tops and undersides of leaves harboring the resting P. hyalina. At the end of each day, Lee wirelessly downloaded the data from each of the M3s.The data revealed a dramatic difference in how much sun reached the habitats of the surviving P. hyalina as opposed to the rosy wolf snail. During the noon hour, the P. hyalina habitat received on average 10 times more sunlight than the rosy wolf snails. Specifically, the average light intensity reached 7,674 to 9,072 lux for the P. hyalina habitat, but only 540 to 762 lux for the rosy wolf snail.The researchers suspect that the rosy wolf doesn’t venture far enough into the forest edge to catch P. hyalina, even under cover of darkness, because they wouldn’t be able to escape to shade before the sun became too hot.Model for future collaborations between biologists and engineersThe success of this project broke new ground from the perspective of the engineers as well as the biologists.“It’s underappreciated how large a step it is to go from the lab into the field and get meaningful data,” said Blaauw. “It’s essential to achieve success in order to propel the technology forward, but takes a great deal of trust among the collaborators.”“The M3 really opens up the window of what we can do with invertebrate behavioral ecology and we’re just at the foothills of those possibilities,” Ó Foighil added.This project has already facilitated a subsequent collaboration between engineering and ecology and evolutionary biology tracking monarch butterflies. And more projects are in the works.The research is published by Communications Biology in “Millimeter-sized smart sensors reveal that a solar refuge protects tree snail Partula hyalina from extirpation,” by Cindy Bick, Inhee Lee, Trevor Coote, Amanda Haponski, David Blaauw and Diarmaid Ó Foighil.The project was supported by U-M’s MCubed program, created to stimulate and support innovative research among interdisciplinary teams. Additional funding was provided by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and by National Science Foundation and Arm Ltd. funding to the Blaauw lab.

Pitt Nuclear Engineering Awarded $1.6 Million in Research Funding from U.S. DOE

Grants, Electrical & Computer, MEMS, Nuclear, Banner

Interdisciplinary researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering are recipients of $1.6 million in advanced nuclear energy R&D funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The investment announced this week is part of more than $61 million in funding awards for 99 advanced nuclear energy technology projects in 30 states and a U.S. territory, $58 million of which is awarded to U.S. universities. According to DOE, the projects focus on nuclear energy research, cross-discipline technology development, and nuclear reactor infrastructure to bolster the resiliency and use of America’s largest domestic source of carbon-free energy.The Swanson School’s funding is through the DOE Nuclear Energy University Program, which seeks to maintain U.S. leadership in nuclear research by providing top science and engineering faculty and their students with opportunities to develop innovative technologies and solutions for civil nuclear capabilities. “Pittsburgh is the global nexus of peacetime nuclear energy history and research, and we are proud to contribute to its continued success,” noted Brian Gleeson, the Swanson School’s Harry S. Tack Professor and Department Chair of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science. “Our faculty and students have a strong foundation in modeling and simulation, materials, sensing technologies, and non-destructive evaluation of critical reactor components, and so we are thankful to DOE and NEUP for supporting our research.”The Pitt awards in the Fuel Cycle Research and Development category include:Fragmentation and Thermal Energy Transport of Chromia-doped Fuels Under Transient ConditionsPI: Heng Ban, the Richard K. Mellon Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives, and Director of the Stephen R. Tritch Nuclear Engineering Program, Swanson School of EngineeringCollaborators: Jie Lian, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Liping Cao and Yun Long, Westinghouse Electric CompanyThis project will focus on multiple aspects of experimental testing and engineering-scale modeling in understanding thermal energy transport from high burnup, fractured/fragmented accident tolerant fuels, establishing a strong scientific basis to fill a critical knowledge data gap for modeling and simulation of transient fuel performance and safety, such as loss of coolant accident, for future integral testing and fuel licensing.Fusion of Distributed Fiber Optics, Acoustic NDE, and Physics-Based AI for Spent Fuel MonitoringPI: Paul Ohodnicki, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, Swanson School of EngineeringCollaborators: Kevin Chen, the Paul E. Lego Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Swanson School of Engineering; Ryan Meyer, Kayte Denslow, and Glenn Grant, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL); and Gary Cannell, Fluor CorporationThe proposal will leverage new concepts in the fusion between fiber optic distributed acoustic sensing and advanced acoustic nondestructive evaluation techniques with artificial intelligence enhanced classification frameworks to quantitatively characterize the state of dry cask storage containers for spent fuel monitoring, externally and non-invasively, without introducing additional risks of failure.Additionally, Daniel G. Cole, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, Swanson School of Engineering, is a collaborator with Shanbin Shi, assistant professor of mechanical aerospace and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, on a $800,000 award to investigate the thermal and electric power dispatch and required control algorithms for dynamic heat dispatch of up to 50 percent of the thermal energy from a Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) plant to a hydrogen plant.“Nuclear power is critical to America’s clean energy future and we are committed to making it a more accessible, affordable and resilient energy solution for communities across the country,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “At DOE we’re not only investing in the country’s current nuclear fleet, but we’re also investing in the scientists and engineers who are developing and deploying the next generation of advanced nuclear technologies that will slash the amount of carbon pollution, create good-paying energy jobs, and realize our carbon-free goals.”The DOE’s announcement stated, “Nuclear power provides a fifth of America’s overall electricity and more than half of our zero-emissions energy, making it a key part of our clean energy future. To realize nuclear’s full potential, more research and development is needed to ensure the creation and operation of cost-effective nuclear power and to establish new methods for securely transporting, storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel waste. It will also help to meet the Biden-Harris Administration’s ambitious goals of 100% clean electricity by 2035, and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.”###

Modeling a Circular Economy for Electronic Waste

Research, Electrical & Computer, Chemical & Petroleum, Banner

Think about how many different pieces of technology the average household has purchased in the last decade. Phones, TVs, computers, tablets, and game consoles don’t last forever, and repairing them is difficult and often as expensive as simply buying a replacement.Electronics are integral to modern society, but electronic waste (e-waste) presents a complex and growing challenge in the path toward a circular economy—a more sustainable economic system that focuses on recycling materials and minimizing waste. Adding to the global waste challenge is the prevalence of dishonest recycling practices by companies who claim to be recycling electronics but actually dispose of them by other means, such as in landfills or shipping the waste to other countries.New research from the Hypothetical Materials Lab at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering develops a framework to understand the choices a recycler has to make and the role that digital fraud prevention could have in preventing dishonest recycling practices. “Electronics have huge environmental impacts across their life cycle, from mining rare raw materials to the energy-intensive manufacturing, all the way to the complicated e-waste stream,” said Christopher Wilmer, the William Kepler Whiteford Faculty Fellow and associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, who leads the Hypothetical Materials Lab. “A circular economy model is well-suited to mitigating each of these impacts, but less than 40 percent of e-waste is currently estimated to be reused or recycled. If our technology is going to be sustainable, it’s important that we understand the barriers to e-waste recycling.”Some U.S. firms that have touted safe, ethical and green recycling practices never actually recycle much of what they receive; instead, their e-waste was illegally stockpiled, abandoned or exported. Between 2014 and 2016, the Basel Action Network used GPS trackers in electronics delivered to U.S. recyclers, showing that 30 percent of the products ended up overseas.The researchers developed a model framework that analyzes dishonest end-of-life electronics management and what leads recyclers to pursue fraudulent activities. They find that the primary way to ensure an e-waste recycler will engage in honest practices with minimum supervision is to make it the more profitable option, either by decreasing the costs of recycling or increasing the penalties for fraudulent practices. “The main barrier to honest recycling is its cost,” said lead author Daniel Salmon, a graduate student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “One of our main findings is that if we find a way to make it more profitable for companies to recycle, we will have less dishonest recycling. Targeted subsidies, higher penalties for fraud and manufacturers ensuring their electronics are more easily recyclable are all things that could potentially solve this problem.”The researchers also suggest the use of the blockchain as neutral, third-party supervision to avoid fraudulent recycling practices.“Our model mentions the influence of monitoring and supervision, but self-reporting by companies enables dishonesty. On the other hand, something like the blockchain does not,” said Wilmer, who founded Ledger, the first peer-reviewed scholarly journal dedicated to blockchain and cryptocurrency. “Relying on an immutable record may be one solution to prevent fraud and align behaviors across recyclers toward a circular economy.”The work is part of a larger NSF-funded convergence research project on the circular economy, which is led by Melissa Bilec, deputy director of the Mascaro Center, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Roberta A. Luxbacher Faculty Fellow at Pitt. The paper, “A Framework for Modeling Fraud in E-Waste Management,” (DOI: 10.1016/j.resconrec.2021.105613) was published in Resources, Conservation and Recycling and coauthored by Daniel Salmon and Christopher E. Wilmer at Pitt, and Callie W. Babbitt and Gregory A. Babbitt at Rochester Institute of Technology.

A Computational Look at How Genes Change the Human Brain

Electrical & Computer, Banner, Research, Grants

Liang Zhan, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, received a $500,000 CAREER award from the National Science Foundation to develop computational tools that improve our understanding of the human brain.In this project, he will leverage brain modular structure to study brain imaging genetics and develop new computational tools to illuminate how genetic factors impact brain structure and function. Researchers can use this technology to examine how specific genes, or their variants, affect neural systems and contribute to brain disorders. This work could ultimately advance the fields of biomedical informatics, neuroscience, and data science.Zhan’s team will specifically study Alzheimer’s disease – a condition that currently affects 5.8 million Americans and is projected to nearly triple to 14 million people by 2060.“There is no clear evidence to show how Alzheimer’s disease develops,” said Zhan. “Researchers are developing a variety of methods to uncover the mechanisms behind Alzheimer’s onset and progression, but there is a lack of effective computational tools to study this disease.”Though this work focuses on Alzheimer’s disease, the proposed tools can be applied to other brain research as well.“Current brain imaging genetics studies assume a one-to-one linear relationship between genes and imaging features, but linearity is too simplistic and does not allow researchers to identify high-level patterns,” explained Zhan. “Additionally, MRI research often focuses on small regions of the brain, which reduces the complexity of the imaging down to one-dimension and discards important information on brain dynamics. Instead, my group will focus on characterizing higher-level brain network features.”Connecting the Dots with the Human ConnectomeIn collaboration with the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), he will couple this CAREER award with two R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health to further investigate brain function in neurological disorders.Maintaining essential brain function, such as learning and memory, requires synapses to pass electrical and chemical signals between neurons. Synaptic dysfunction is a hallmark of many neurological disorders – including Alzheimer’s disease – and leads to hyperexcitation in neuronal circuits. However, neural network changes related to normal aging make it difficult for researchers to distinguish disease-specific alterations from normal changes.Zhan and collaborators will develop innovative computational tools to characterize hyperexcitation patterns in aging and Alzheimer's Disease and validate their framework with longitudinal mouse models and human data from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative and the Human Connectome Project.“The brain needs to have a balance between neural excitation and inhibition,” said Zhan. “The synaptic dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease leads to hyperexcitation in neuronal circuits, and this abnormal balance may contribute to disease onset and progression. The hyperexcitation indicator (HI), defined using multimodal MRI data, will signal an imbalance between neural excitation and inhibition.”Adding to the complexity of this research, other psychiatric conditions may be significant contributors to accelerated cognitive decline and progression to dementia. Zhan will collaborate on another R01 at UIC to examine late-life depression and uncover its impact on neurodegeneration. They will apply a similar approach to this study and clarify the relationship between depression and neurodegenerative processes in late life.A preliminary study demonstrated the effectiveness of the group’s hyperexcitation.“We matched cognitively normal individuals with a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease with a group of individuals without a genetic predisposition, based on age and sex,” said Zhan. “The results supported the idea that genetically predisposed women, who are four-times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than men, exhibited hyperexcitation at age 50, and our method was more sensitive at of detecting this difference.”The goal of this work is to accelerate the discovery of more robust, non-invasive imaging biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders.

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