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Pitt faculty receive awards to explore next-generation technologies

Communities powered by clean, local-source energy. Faster, more reliable technologies and computers with a better grasp of human language. Medical care tailored to your DNA, or neural stem cells readily available for treating neurological diseases and injuries.

Five University of Pittsburgh faculty members will advance the futures of energy, health, and technology as part of Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) awards they received this year from the National Science Foundation. The awards fund junior faculty members’ emerging careers and include an education component that encourages outreach to women and underrepresented minorities.

Four recipients teach in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering: Tracy Cui, an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering; Di Gao, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering; Lisa Weiland, an assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science; and Jun Yang, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Rebecca Hwa, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences, also received an award.

Pitt is among 22 schools to receive five or more of the nearly 400 CAREER awards granted so far this year—the award cycle ends Sept. 30. Matching Pitt with five awards are Cornell University, Harvard, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of Missouri at Columbia, and the University of Utah. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tops the list with 16.

A description of each Pitt recipient’s research is below.

Tracy Cui will develop a platform for better understanding how to harvest neural stem cells for therapeutic use for neurological diseases and injuries. Her research involves creating a surface of electroactive polymers on which neural stem cells can be directed to become functional neurons. This technology would allow scientists to answer the predominant questions regarding neural stem cell growth and neural tissue regeneration, namely, if stem cells can become functional cells on an engineered surface and, if so, under what circumstances.

Di Gao could help usher in the much-heralded future of personalized medical care based on an individual’s DNA in his effort to revamp the technique for screening and separating DNA molecules. Gao’s approach would stretch DNA strands tethered to a solid surface via an electric field, allowing them to be pulled from the surface and analyzed based on their viscoelasticity. This method would overcome the limitations of the predominant method of electrophoreses—submerging the strands in a matrix and applying an electric field. By stretching the DNA, chromosome-sized DNA molecules can be separated and studied, large fragments can be screened for mutations, and longer sequence fragments can be extracted. The technique might also be applied to RNA. The education component of Gao’s project includes outreach to minority high school students through a related course and workshop at Baldwin and Westinghouse high schools in Pittsburgh, both of which have large African American student populations, and collaboration with Tsinghua University in China on an international field study module for Pitt undergraduates that focuses on international views of the ethical and social issues of genetic research.

Rebecca Hwa aims to improve the ability of computers to process and translate human language. She will address the difficulty many systems have in processing texts from such specialized domains as business emails or scientific literature as well as texts that are automatically translated from foreign languages. Specifically, Hwa will create machine-learning algorithms that find correspondences between “standard English” and texts from specialized domains. The project focuses on three types of correspondences: direct translations, such as bilingual documents; loose translations, e.g., paraphrased articles; and indirectly related texts without an explicit translation. Building from these correspondences, a standard system will be adapted to translate texts in specialized domains. Better language processing for a wide range of texts could allow for such computer applications as intelligent tutoring programs and data mining for medical documents.

Lisa Weiland will undertake a twofold effort to help sustainable energy gain a foothold in Western Pennsylvania by implementing self-powered materials into an ongoing project to power the town of Vandergrift in Westmoreland County with hydrokinetic power. The Vandergrift project, based in the Swanson School’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, will harness the Kiskiminetas River and help power the town’s main business district with free, clean-source electricity using micro-hydro generators. Because the river—and thus the generator—is small, Weiland will investigate a potential power harvesting method based on electromechanical materials that would generate power as the river’s current moves over them. One material Weiland will focus on are known as ionomers. Ionomers have been tested for such uses as self-powered sensors in bridges and for monitoring blood flow in patients at risk for arterial blockage; as the sensors move from vibrations or fluid flow they would simultaneously send out an electric data signal and recharge themselves. But ionomers have not yet been applied to such high-power devices as generators because of a concern that electrical output and fragility increase in tandem. As part of her CAREER project, Weiland will work on constructing more robust ionomers that can produce more power without becoming too delicate. The education component of her project includes working with civic and business leaders in Vandergrift—and eventually other cities—to develop tailored plans for becoming more efficient producers and consumers of energy and goods.

As technologies become more compact and powerful, the microprocessors within them become more prone to overheating, leading to poor performance, reduced reliability, and shorter lifetimes. Jun Yang will investigate ways of controlling temperature by proactively scheduling workloads among different processing cores—which perform specific tasks within a processor—of today’s multicore processors. Current processors adopt a reactive temperature control by decreasing power flow within the entire processor—even if only one core overheats. Yang’s technique instead prevents overheating by swapping a high-stress task in an overheating core with a low-stress task from a cooler core. This approach would diminish the occurrence of hotspots and maintain a temperature at which the processor can function with maximum performance and reliability. Yang focuses her research on computer architecture particularly power and thermal aware design, energy efficiency, and chip multiprocessor designs.

Source: University of Pittsburgh

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