Brown University School of Engineering

Engineering Projects Get Seed Funding

May 14, 2014

Thirteen Brown research projects, including five involving researchers from the School of Engineering, attracted $970,000 in Seed Awards through the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR). This record level of support results from funds committed to projects that have grown out of the Signature Academic Initiative process.

The winners of the Seed Awards, along with the Salomon Awards, were recognized on May 5 at The University Awards Ceremony – A Celebration of Teaching and Research.

Seed Award recipients represent the breadth and depth of research at Brown and encompass the work of more than 40 faculty members at the University. Topics range from identification of childhood obesity risk factors to the development of robotic technologies to help care for and engage the aging population. 

“In addition to the record volume and overall very high quality of the proposals, I was impressed with the number that were multidisciplinary, cross-cutting the major sectors of the university," says David Savitz, Vice President for Research. “Brown is well-suited to create such bridges to address complex challenges, and doing so often requires preliminary work to be successful."

Research Seed Funding was established in 2003 to help faculty become more competitive in obtaining large-scale, interdisciplinary, multi-investigator grants. This year, the OVPR received 32 proposals. Last year, eight of 26 proposals received a combined total of $558,000.

As a direct result of receiving a Seed Award in 2011, Associate Professor of Medical Science, Diane Hoffman-Kim and her Seed team have received $454,000 in R21 funding from the NIH and a $7,360,581 R01 from the NIH, for a total of $7,814,625. Her research is on the topic of Novel Micropatterned Culture Model for Developing New Therapeutic Strategies for Sudden Cardiac Death.

Investigators may propose projects with budgets up to $100,000. The overall merit of the research project is considered and evaluated by a committee of faculty reviewers who make their award recommendations to the Vice President for Research. In just over a decade, OVPR has awarded just under $5.4 million to 69 Research Seed Funds.

Here are this year’s winners from the School of Engineering:

Robot Telepresence in Improved Nursing Home Organization*

Robotics is poised to be a groundbreaking technology with the potential to drastically improve outcomes, increase access, and decrease costs for healthcare. The development of smart services to care for and engage our aging population is a critical need, especially the most vulnerable and expensive-to-care-for nursing home residents. While the benefits of robotic telepresence for individual older adults have been explored, it remains unclear how effective this technology will be when scaled to the level of a nursing home. Open empirical questions revolve around the level of acceptance of these systems by the residents, staff, and administrators of these facilities, as well as their feasibility within existing facility procedures. This pilot project will study the efficacy of networked robotic services in improving the processes and organization of nursing homes and the care of older adults. The Seed team will explore the effect of using commodity robot telepresence systems for more efficient and cost­effective care through telemedicine. Resulting projects will address open questions along the social, empirical, computational, engineering, design, and cost-benefit dimensions of robot telepresence in nursing homes.

PI: Odest Chadwicke Jenkins, Associate Professor, Computer Science & Engineering

Co-PIs: Michael Littman, Professor, Computer Science

Richard Besdine, Professor, Medicine & Health Services, Policy and Practice

Terrie Fox Wetle, Dean, School of Public Health

Funded: $80,000

Non-Invasive Measurement of Mechanical Properties of Biological Materials

Biomimetic research studies the underlying structure and function of biological materials in order to create better biologically inspired structural materials. Hierarchical structure lies at the core of the enhanced mechanical performance of biological materials such as the strength of seashells, the elasticity of spider silk, and the crack-resistance of biological sea sponge. This project seeks to understand the structure-function connection in some of nature's archetypal structural materials ultimately achieving complete understanding of the design principles underlying natural materials to make better, stronger, tougher materials. This team will collect preliminary data by investigating the mechanical properties of the basalia spicules in the marine sponge Euplectella Aspergillumusing laser light scattering spectroscopy and correlating it with theoretical and computational modeling. This unique approach will provide noninvasive, spatially resolved measurements of the in situ mechanical properties of individual components in these hierarchical structures. This information will be used to create models to explain the enhanced properties of the composite. Having established the methods with sponge spicules, this team will be positioned to expand the scope of the project into other materials.

Co-PIs: Kristie Koski, Assistant Professor, Chemistry

Haneesh Kesari, Assistant Professor, Engineering

Funded: $80,000

Blindfind: Empowering the Blind to Independently Navigate Public Indoor Environments*

The BlindFind system leverages the accelerating pace of discovery in computer vision and mobile computing power for the benefit of visually impaired citizens. The project will develop a working prototype of a wearable computer-vision system and complementary geo-location mapping data repository to assist the visually impaired as they navigate public indoor environments. The BlindFind system will consist of small cameras mounted on eyeglasses, a haptic belt, an Inertial Measurement Unit worn on the belt, and a bone-conduction headphone set – all connected to a small laptop carried in a backpack. A visually impaired user equipped with BlindFind will first pilot the system in a new building with sighted assistance. The user will document key points of interest and annotate a map of the space, while the system stores and overlays landmark information within a central repository of location-specific data. Future users of the system will benefit from the annotation and other stored data; they will be presented with verbal and haptic information to guide them when they interact with the system through an audio menu. The system will respond by issuing verbal guidance and navigation assistance as necessary.

PIs: Benjamin Kimia, Professor, Engineering

Pedro Felzenszwalb, Associate Professor, Engineering & Computer Science

Funded: $80,000

Enabling Autonomous Flight of Drones in Complex, Unpredictable Environments*

Tropical forests are diverse, and much of this diversity is supported by the canopy. To better understand this diversity requires better characterization of the canopy, yet no present technology allows repeatable, direct, interactive observation within and around complex canopies. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), hold great promise, but there are formidable challenges to navigating UAVs in these complex environments. What is needed is sophisticated onboard processing that characterizes the environment in 3D and makes decisions in real time about its operation in order to achieve a given objective. Existing technology is far too costly and heavy for small aircraft, and the energy requirements do not allow the UAV to operate for more than a very short period of time. This project will develop new computing solutions for real-time navigation of UAVs in these complex environments. The challenge is to use a combination of software algorithm development, customized hardware design to accelerate these algorithms, and novel design space exploration techniques that produce solutions that carefully balance navigation accuracy, system energy consumption, and realtime response rate together. The results could be generalized beyond the tropical forest, wherever real time compute-intensive processing is needed in highly constrained environments.

PI: R. Iris Bahar, Professor, Engineering

Co-PIs: Sherief Reda, Associate Professor, Engineering

James Kellner, Assistant Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Odest Chadwicke Jenkins, Associate Professor, Computer Science & Engineering

Funded: $80,000

Multispectral Photoplethysmography for 3D Imaging and Quantitative Assessment of Blood Flow and Oxygen Content in Bone*

The long-term goal of this project is to develop optical techniques with which to characterize important physiologic parameters non-invasively by exploiting the interaction of light with human tissues. The specific aim is to develop a photon-based device with functional capabilities for real-time, non-invasive, quantitative measurement and, ultimately, 3D imaging of blood flow and oxygen content in bone. The proposed device will consist of a flexible, planar matrix of densely integrated light emitting diodes (LEDs) and photodetectors (PDs) used to map, non-invasively, the blood flow and oxygen content in bone. The proposed project will lead to a clinically relevant technology and associated device, namely a system for 3D Multispectral Photoplethysmography Imaging (3D-MPPGI), enabling the noninvasive, quantitative description of physiologic and pathophysiologic characteristics and facilitating the early diagnosis of diseases such as osteoarthritis (OA) among other diseases of bone. This program will place Brown at the forefront of this innovative technology by creating a device that would become the state-of-the-art for measurements of circulatory physiology in tissues and would have wide-ranging clinical relevance.

PI: Domenico Pacifici, Assistant Professor, School of Engineering

Co-PI: Roy Aaron, Professor, Orthopaedics & Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology, & Biotechnology

Funded: $80,000

*Supported through funds dedicated to following up on outstanding projects proposed during the Signature Academic Initiative process.