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Research Fair a Big Success

September 24, 2015

The COE Undergraduate Research Lab fair gathered hundreds of students eager to learn about the research opportunities available to them.


Source: News @ Northeastern

A com­puter system that enables people in wheel­chairs to turn left or right with their minds. Pens to help people with Parkinson’s dis­ease steady their hand­writing. Robots that test the strength of steel girders.

These are just three of the seem­ingly end­less research oppor­tu­ni­ties for North­eastern under­grad­u­ates that were on dis­play Monday evening at the Col­lege of Engi­neering’s Under­grad­uate Lab Fair.

Some 550 stu­dents, packed wall-​​to-​​wall in the Curry Stu­dent Center Indoor Quad, eagerly engaged with fac­ulty, research sci­en­tists, and fellow stu­dents rep­re­senting nearly 30 labs to learn about projects cov­ering fields from nanomed­i­cine to envi­ron­mental health, mag­netic sensing to machine learning.

My peers at other col­leges don’t have close to the oppor­tu­ni­ties avail­able to them that we have here,”
—said Harry Brodsky, E’19.

Broad­ening hori­zons
Last year Brodsky worked in the lab of Sandra She­fel­bine, an assis­tant pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Mechan­ical and Indus­trial Engi­neering, mod­eling crack prop­a­ga­tion in animal bones. On Monday night he was looking in an entirely dif­ferent direc­tion: He was talking to asso­ciate research sci­en­tist Ljil­jana Rajic about stu­dent open­ings on projects in the university’s Puerto Rico Test­site for Exploring Con­t­a­m­i­na­tion Threats Center, also known as the PROTECT Center and based in the Depart­ment of Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering. There, researchers use elec­tro­chem­ical processes to elim­i­nate con­t­a­m­i­nants in ground­water found in Puerto Rico that can lead to preterm births.

Kaidi Du, E’16, stood not on the viewer but the pre­senter side of a dis­play table, pointing to the poster she’d designed to describe her senior honors project in elec­trical engi­neering. “Have you heard of Stephen Hawking, the the­o­ret­ical physi­cist with ALS?” she asked. The familiar frame of ref­er­ence imme­di­ately drew lis­teners into the sophis­ti­cated research Du has been con­ducting in the lab of assis­tant pro­fessor Marvin Onabajo, in the Depart­ment of Com­puter and Elec­trical Engineering.

Du has devel­oped an improved filter for the type of EEG, or elec­troen­cephalo­gram, system that enables people with ALS and other dis­eases to speak using brain waves. “The EEG system gave Hawking a new voice,” said Du. Such sys­tems, housed in a device on the user’s head, record the brain’s elec­trical pat­terns. “But the signal is very weak,” said Du, “and the power line for the EEG has a lot of inter­fer­ence.” Her tech­nology takes existing sys­tems to a new level by fil­tering out that interference.

COE Undergraduate Lab Fair

Photo by Matthew Modoono/​Northeastern University

Growing as a stu­dent, growing as a sci­en­tist
Across the room, Juli­etta Moradei, E’16, described the work she’s been doing in the lab of Jerome F. Hajjar, CDM Smith Pro­fessor and Chair of the Depart­ment of Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering. Since joining the lab the first week of her freshman year, she has advanced from working on lit­er­a­ture reviews about struc­tural engi­neering to testing “all kinds of mate­rials” in Northeastern’s STReSS Lab­o­ra­tory, or Lab­o­ra­tory for Struc­tural Testing of Resilient and Sus­tain­able Sys­tems, which is based at the university’s George K. Kostas Research Insti­tute for Home­land Secu­rity in Burlington, Massachusetts.

They include com­pres­sion tests and ten­sion tests on huge beams, “big pieces of steel you would never see in a real-​​life sit­u­a­tion,” said Moradei, who was also one of the stu­dent speakers at the President’s Con­vo­ca­tion ear­lier this month. “You squash them, pull them, to test their strength.” As a senior, she’s cir­cled back to her first hands-​​on project: fig­uring out ways to pre­vent build­ings from losing heat. But now she’s actu­ally pro­to­typing the mate­rials them­selves. “Think of a building,” she said. “It’s mainly steel and con­crete. We want to start bringing in plas­tics, because plas­tics will pre­vent that energy transmission.”

Devel­oping prod­ucts
Moshe Ohayon E’17, like many people, knows someone with Parkinson’s dis­ease. That’s what brought him to the lab of asso­ciate pro­fessor Rifat Sipahi, in the Depart­ment of Mechan­ical and Indus­trial Engi­neering, last year. But few people are devel­oping prod­ucts to help those with the tremor that char­ac­ter­izes the disease.

Ohayon is part of a research group designing an inno­v­a­tive pen that will steady the hand­writing of people with “essen­tial tremor,” a char­ac­ter­istic of Parkinson’s. At the fair, grad­uate stu­dent Siri Belton, a mechan­ical engi­neer, held up a pro­to­type of the pen that she had crafted using 3-​​D printing; it’s made of corn-​​based plastic—“a green product,” said Ohayon proudly.

His research expe­ri­ence has pro­gressed from the ground up: At first he ana­lyzed the hand­writing of people with essen­tial tremor by exam­ining the den­sity of the ink in the words they wrote. Input into Belton’s devel­op­ment of the pen fol­lowed: The pen’s cylinder-​​like stem makes it easy to grasp, and its attached motor helps writers get back on track should their tra­jec­tory veer off course.

Around the corner, Trevor Hol­brook, E’19, stood in front of a com­puter screen showing a video of a man in a wheel­chair smoothly nego­ti­ating his way around objects. In the lab of Deniz Ergomus, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Elec­trical and Com­puter Engi­neering, Hol­brook has been sharp­ening his Linux coding to help develop brain com­puter inter­faces that permit people who can’t move on their own to com­mu­ni­cate with the external envi­ron­ment using brain signals.

Hol­brook, who’s been with the lab for just three months, has been working on a com­puter net­work that enables that nego­ti­a­tion. “We spe­cialize in taking brain sig­nals and directing them to interact with the com­puter,” he said, pointing to four LEDs, or light-​​emitting diodes, planted on the cor­ners of a small screen; LEDs are used to light up screens, including flat-​​panel com­puter mon­i­tors and TVs.

Each LED blinks at a dif­ferent fre­quency, and each fre­quency rep­re­sents a dif­ferent com­mand, such as “go for­ward,” “turn right,” or even “go to the bedroom.”

We take brain-​​signal mea­sure­ments from the back of a person’s head—where the visual cortex lies—to deter­mine which fre­quency of LED the person is looking at,” said Hol­brook. “The com­puter reads those sig­nals, knows which LED the person is looking at, and auto­mat­i­cally nav­i­gates the wheel­chair according to the com­mand that cor­re­sponds with the frequency.”

Becoming leaders
Research expe­ri­ence isn’t the only ben­efit of joining an engi­neering lab as an under­grad­uate, said Trevor Oxholm, E’18, who works in the lab of Nian X. Sun, a pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Elec­trical and Com­puter Engi­neering. Oxholm helps with mea­sure­ments and data analysis in the field of spin­tronics, which is “a new way of doing elec­tronics based on quantum mechan­ical prop­er­ties,” he said. Among its advances, “it promises more reli­able memory storage in computers.”

By having to under­stand every part of a project, no matter how small, Oxholm said, he’s been exposed to both the rewards and the sub­tleties of doing sci­ence. “Doing this research has given me expe­ri­ence in lead­er­ship,” he said. “I’ve gained a lot of prac­tice in learning how to imple­ment what other people have worked on.”