Pitt | Swanson Engineering

The Department of Bioengineering combines hands-on experience with the solid fundamentals that students need to advance themselves in research, medicine, and industry. The Department has a long-standing and unique relationship with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and other academic departments at the University of Pittsburgh as well as neighboring Carnegie Mellon University. Our faculty are shared with these organizations, offering our graduate and undergraduate students access to state-of-the-art facilities and a wide array of research opportunities. We currently have 187 graduate students who are advised by some 100 different faculty advisers, pursuing graduate research across 17 Departments and five Schools. Our undergraduate class-size of approximately 50 students per year ensures close student-faculty interactions in the classroom and the laboratory.

The main engineering building is located next to the Medical Center in Oakland, an elegant university neighborhood with museums, parks, and great restaurants. Beautiful new facilities have also been built, a short shuttle ride from the main campus, along the Monongahela River, replacing the steel mills that once were there. Our department is growing rapidly, both in numbers of students and faculty, and in the funding and diversity of our research. The Pittsburgh bioengineering community is a vibrant and stimulating alliance of diverse components for which our department forms an essential and central connection.

Jun
19
2019

NSF Awards $500,000 to Pitt Researchers to Create Neuromorphic Vision System Mimicking Human Sight

Bioengineering, Electrical & Computer

PITTSBURGH (June 19, 2019) —  Self-driving cars rely on their ability to accurately “see” the road ahead and make adjustments based on what they see. They need to, for instance, react to a pedestrian who steps out from between parked cars, or know to not turn down a road that is unexpectedly closed for construction. As such technology becomes more ubiquitous, there’s a growing need for a better, more efficient way for machines to process visual information. New research from the University of Pittsburgh will develop a neuromorphic vision system that takes a new approach to capturing visual information that is based on the human brain, benefitting everything from self-driving vehicles to neural prosthetics. Ryad Benosman, PhD, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who holds appointments in electrical engineering and bioengineering, and Feng Xiong, PhD, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Swanson School of Engineering, received $500,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct this research. Conventional image sensors record information frame-by-frame, which stores a great deal of redundant data along with that which is useful. This excess data storage occurs because most pixels do not change from frame to frame, like stationary buildings in the background. Inspired by the human brain, the team will develop a neuromorphic vision system driven by the timings of changes in the dynamics of the input signal, instead of the conventional image-based system. “With existing neuromorphic camera systems, the communication between the camera and the computing system is limited by how much data it is trying to push through, which negates the benefits of the large bandwidth and low power consumption that this camera provides,” says Dr. Xiong. “We will use a spiking neural network with realistic dynamic synapses that will enhance computational abilities, develop brain-inspired machine learning to understand the input, and connect it to a neuromorphic event-based silicon retina for real-time operating vision.” This system will work more efficiently than existing technology, with orders of magnitude better energy efficiency and bandwidth. “We believe this work will lead to transformative advances in bio-inspired neuromorphic processing architectures, sensing, with major applications in self-driving vehicles, neural prosthetics, robotics and general artificial intelligence,” says Dr. Benosman. The grant will begin July 1, 2019, and is expected to last until June 30, 2022. ### About the Swanson School of EngineeringThe University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering is one of the oldest engineering programs in the U.S. and is consistently ranked among the top 25 public engineering programs by U.S. News & World Report. The Swanson School has excelled in basic and applied research during the past decade with focus areas in sustainability, energy systems, advanced manufacturing, bioengineering, micro- and nano-systems, computational modeling and advanced materials development. About the University of Pittsburgh School of MedicineAs one of the nation’s leading academic centers for biomedical research, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine integrates advanced technology with basic science across a broad range of disciplines in a continuous quest to harness the power of new knowledge and improve the human condition. Driven mainly by the School of Medicine and its affiliates, Pitt has ranked among the top 10 recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health since 1998. In rankings recently released by the National Science Foundation, Pitt ranked fifth among all American universities in total federal science and engineering research and development support. Likewise, the School of Medicine is equally committed to advancing the quality and strength of its medical and graduate education programs, for which it is recognized as an innovative leader, and to training highly skilled, compassionate clinicians and creative scientists well-equipped to engage in world-class research. The School of Medicine is the academic partner of UPMC, which has collaborated with the University to raise the standard of medical excellence in Pittsburgh and to position health care as a driving force behind the region’s economy. For more information about the School of Medicine, see www.medschool.pitt.edu.
Maggie Pavlick
Jun
12
2019

MEMS Professor Anne Robertson Delivers Keynote Lecture at International Conference

Bioengineering, MEMS

Anne Robertson, William Kepler Whiteford Endowed Professorship of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Professor of Bioengineering, was among a prestigious group of scholars invited to give a keynote lecture at the 6th International Conference on Computational and Mathematical Biomedical Engineering. The conference was hosted by Tohoku University in Sendai City, Japan earlier this June. The title of Dr. Robertson’s lecture was “Identifying Physical Causes of Failure in Brain Aneurysms.”  A subarachnoid hemorrhage, a type of stroke with high mortality and disability rates, is often caused by the rupture of a cerebral aneurysm. However, if the aneurysm is not ruptured, treatment for this condition can be more dangerous than the risk of rupture itself.  Therefore, there is a need to develop reliable methods for assessing rupture risk. Dr. Robertson’s presentation discussed her group’s recent findings which demonstrate the need to identify the actual physical causes for wall vulnerability as a vital component of accessing rupture risk.  This research is done by using data driven computational simulations obtained from human aneurysm tissue. New tools for mapping heterogeneous experimental data for the wall to the 3D reconstructed vascular model make it possible to evaluate the associations between critical aspects of aneurysm wall structure and both hemodynamic and intramural stress. Other Pitt members of this multi-institutional research team include Dr. Spandan Maiti, who holds a primary appointment in Bioengineering and a secondary appointment in MEMS and Dr. Simon Watkins, Distinguished Professor of the Department of Cell Biology and Director of the Center for Biologic Imaging.   Doctoral students Fangzhou Cheng, Michael Durka, Ronald Fortunato, Piyusha Gade and Chao Sang as well as postdoctoral researchers Yasutaka Tobe and Eliisa Ollikainen also made substantial contributions to this work. One of the main focuses of Dr. Robertson’s research is the relationship between soft tissue structure and mechanical function in health and disease for soft tissues such as cerebral arteries, cerebral aneurysms, tissue engineered blood vessels and the bladder wall.  Her research is heavily supported by the National Institutes of Health where she is a standing member of the Neuroscience and Ophthalmic Imaging Technologies (NOIT) Study Section.

Jun
10
2019

Pitt and CMU Researchers Discover How the Brain Changes When Mastering a New Skill

Bioengineering

PITTSBURGH (June 10, 2019) … Mastering a new skill - whether a sport, an instrument, or a craft - takes time and training. While it is understood that a healthy brain is capable of learning these new skills, how the brain changes in order to develop new behaviors is a relative mystery. More precise knowledge of this underlying neural circuitry may eventually improve the quality of life for individuals who have suffered brain injury by enabling them to more easily relearn everyday tasks. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University recently published an article in PNAS (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1820296116) that reveals what happens in the brain as learners progress from novice to expert. They discovered that new neural activity patterns emerge with long-term learning and established a causal link between these patterns and new behavioral abilities. The research was performed as part of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, a cross-institutional research and education program that leverages the strengths of Pitt in basic and clinical neuroscience and bioengineering with those of CMU in cognitive and computational neuroscience. The project was jointly mentored by Aaron Batista, associate professor of bioengineering at Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering; Byron Yu, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering at CMU; and Steven Chase, associate professor of biomedical engineering and the Neuroscience Institute at CMU. The work was led by Pitt bioengineering postdoctoral associate Emily Oby. “We used a brain-computer interface (BCI), which creates a direct connection between our subject’s neural activity and the movement of a computer cursor,” said Oby. “We recorded the activity of around 90 neural units in the arm region of the primary motor cortex of Rhesus monkeys as they performed a task that required them to move the cursor to align with targets on the monitor.” To determine whether the monkeys would form new neural patterns as they learned, the research group encouraged the animals to attempt a new BCI skill and then compared those recordings to the pre-existing neural patterns. “We first presented the monkey with what we call an ‘intuitive mapping’ from their neural activity to the cursor that worked with how their neurons naturally fire and which didn’t require any learning,” said Oby. “We then induced learning by introducing a skill in the form of a novel mapping that required the subject to learn what neural patterns they need to produce in order to move the cursor.” Like learning most skills, the group’s BCI task took several sessions of practice and a bit of coaching along the way. “We discovered that after a week, our subject was able to learn how to control the cursor,” said Batista. “This is striking because by construction, we knew from the outset that they did not have the neural activity patterns required to perform this skill. Sure enough, when we looked at the neural activity again after learning we saw that new patterns of neural activity had appeared, and these new patterns are what enabled the monkey to perform the task.” These findings suggest that the process for humans to master a new skill might also involve the generation of new neural activity patterns. “Though we are looking at this one specific task in animal subjects, we believe that this is perhaps how the brain learns many new things,” said Yu. “Consider learning the finger dexterity required to play a complex piece on the piano. Prior to practice, your brain might not yet be capable of generating the appropriate activity patterns to produce the desired finger movements.” “We think that extended practice builds new synaptic connectivity that leads directly to the development of new patterns of activity that enable new abilities,” said Chase. “We think this work applies to anybody who wants to learn - whether it be a paralyzed individual learning to use a brain-computer interface or a stroke survivor who wants to regain normal motor function. If we can look directly at the brain during motor learning, we believe we can design neurofeedback strategies that facilitate the process that leads to the formation of new neural activity patterns.” ### This work was funded by NIH R01 HD071686, National Science Foundation (NSF) BCS1533672, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, NSFCAREER Award IOS1553252, NIH CRCNS R01 NS105318, NIH R01 HD090125, Craig H. Neilsen Foundation 280028, Pennsylvania Department of Health Research Formula Grant SAP 4100077048 under the Commonwealth Universal Research Enhancement program, Simons Foundation 543065, and NIH T32 NS07391. Image 1: Pitt and CMU researchers discovered that new neural activity patterns emerge with long-term learning and established a causal link between these patterns and new behavioral abilities. This illustration shows new roots – depicted as neurons – blossoming into a flower that represents a new behavior or skill. Credit: Frank Harris for the University of Pittsburgh. Image 2: Emily Oby, a bioengineering postdoctoral associate at the University of Pittsburgh, led a study that explored what happens when the brain learns a new task. Here, she holds an electrode that measured brain activity, represented on her computer screen. The success of this study could lead to new hope for people who have suffered debilitating brain injuries that caused them to forget how to do certain tasks, like playing music or sports. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)

Jun
6
2019

Climbing the Ladder of Safety Success: Erika Pliner receives 2019 Pre-doctoral Young Scientist award from the American Society of Biomechanics

Bioengineering, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (June 6, 2019) … Erika Pliner, a bioengineering PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, received the 2019 Pre-doctoral Young Scientist award from the American Society of Biomechanics (ASB) in recognition of her scientific achievements. Her work with Kurt Beschorner, associate professor of bioengineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, focuses on determining individual, environmental, and biomechanical factors that contribute to ladder fall risk. “Ladder falls are a frequent and severe source of injuries,” explained Pliner. “Environmental changes - such as ladder setup and design - have been suggested to prevent ladder falls, yet there remains a lack of knowledge on individual factors that influence ladder fall risk; in particular, individual factors that contribute to safe and effective ladder use are unknown.” According to Pliner, the majority of ladder fall research aims to mitigate factors that initiate a falling event, but individual and environmental factors and the biomechanical responses in response to a climbing perturbation are not well understood. Pliner takes a novel, multifaceted approach to determine risk factors. She has tested younger and older adults, designed occupational and domestic-based ladder experiments, and investigated factors that precede and follow a ladder falling event. This advances her long-term goal of reducing injuries by targeting a diverse range of ladder falling events. Outcomes from her work have already revealed impactful knowledge to reduce ladder fall injuries. Her work determined that ladders installed too close to a wall or surface dramatically increase slip and fall risk. She explained, “This finding puts many workers at risk, particularly truck and train operators whose ladders are often installed too close to the surface of the vehicle.” Her work also revealed the importance of upper body strength in recovering from a ladder climbing perturbation. She said, “Strength training and health screenings are safety interventions that can aid in preventing ladder falls.” In addition to her safety research, Pliner also dedicates her time to improving diversity in STEM. “There is a poor representation of women and minorities in engineering disciplines, which has a negative impact on applicability of research to different populations,” said Pliner. “For example, ladder design has been primarily based on male climbers, affecting the efficacy and inherent fall risk of ladder use for female climbers..” Pliner believes that relating engineering concepts to student interests may be a useful tool to improve engagement of underrepresented persons in STEM. She aims to promote diversity in these fields by investigating the relationship between student interests and engagement in biomechanical activities. As the recipient of the Pre-doctoral Young Scientist award, Pliner will present her work at the ASB annual meeting, July 31-August 4, 2019. She is also expected to submit a full-length manuscript for publication in the Journal of Biomechanics. “I am delighted that Erika is receiving this recognition for her research accomplishments,” said Beschorner. “Her work with ladder fall risk has the potential to prevent a substantial amount of injuries, and her passion for increasing diversity in STEM will hopefully help make the field of engineering more inclusive.” ###

Jun
5
2019

DPT-PhD graduate student Anna Bailes receives award at the Rehabilitation Institute Research Day

Bioengineering, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (June 5, 2019) … University of Pittsburgh graduate student Anna Bailes received the Best Rehabilitation Research award in the pre-doctoral category at the 2019 UPMC Rehabilitation Institute Research Day on May 22, 2019. Bailes presented her work titled “Depression and anxiety are associated with increased healthcare utilization in low back pain.” This research was performed in the lab of her co-advisor Gwendolyn Sowa, professor and chair of physical medicine and rehabilitation. Co-authors on the paper include Rohit Navlani, Stephen Koscumb, Amanda Malecky, Oscar Marroquin, Ajay Wasan, Howard Gutstein, Christina Zigler, Anthony Delitto, Nam Vo, and Gwendolyn Sowa. Bailes is a student in the Doctor of Physical Therapy/PhD in Bioengineering (DPT-PhD) dual-degree program, a unique offering that integrates clinical and research experiences in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and the Swanson School of Engineering. She is currently a member of the Human Movement and Balance Laboratory where she works with Rakié Cham, associate professor of bioengineering, on the quantification of functional and mobility deficits in individuals with vision loss. “My current research aims to quantify functional capabilities in individuals with macular dystrophy, with a long-term goal of creating standardized assessments to track disease progression and therapy progress,” said Bailes. “We use high-tech balance and gait assessments along with mobility and fine-motor tasks to identify areas of impairment and potential rehabilitation goals.” Bailes also has a strong interest in the psychosocial and behavioral contributors to pain and movement impairments. Her future career goals include improving physical therapy treatment for individuals with chronic musculoskeletal pain using basic psychological principles alongside traditional rehabilitation interventions. “Many individuals who fear pain and have catastrophizing thoughts about it will alter movement patterns or all together avoid activities that elicit pain,” she explained. “This behavior can lead to exacerbated pain, disuse, and disability.” One of her recent research proposals will use engineering-based methods, such as dynamic balance testing and gait analysis, to determine the extent of functional and cognitive changes associated with pain anxiety in those with chronic low back pain. Bailes said, “Understanding this relationship between cognition, balance, and gait will allow us to identify treatment targets for novel rehabilitation strategies integrating cognitive, balance, and psychosocial therapies.” ###

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