Four WPI Faculty Tackle Groundbreaking Research With Prestigious CAREER Awards
Four Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) researchers, inspired by everything from kombucha to cave rescues, received prestigious CAREER Awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) during the most recent academic year.
Jeannine Coburn, Loris Fichera, Tian Guo, and Markus Nemitz received grants that will support their research for five years, provide research opportunities for WPI undergraduates, and inform courses for both graduate and undergraduate students. Their awards marked the second consecutive year that four WPI researchers received the early-career grants.
“All four of these faculty members are undertaking groundbreaking research that could lead to real-world benefits in the fields of health care, augmented reality, and robotics,” says Bogdan Vernescu, WPI vice provost for research. “Their research also will enrich education at WPI by informing their teaching in classrooms and inspiring creative student research projects in labs.”
CAREER Awards are NSF grants that support early-career researchers who have the potential to become leaders in research and education at their institutions. NSF, a federal agency, selects about 500 researchers a year for CAREER grants and awards about $250 million a year to new and existing recipients. (See a list of WPI researchers who have received CAREER Awards here.)
The NSF program encourages researchers to pursue projects that will build the base for a lifetime of scholarly work. The grants also require applicants to integrate their research into new or existing courses for students, outreach to the public, or other educational activities.
WPI’s resources for faculty members and the university’s emphasis on project-based learning, especially through the senior year project that all undergraduates must complete to graduate, make the university a favorable setting for CAREER Award projects, Vernescu says. The STEM Education Center can work with faculty members to develop science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and the Morgan Teaching and Learning Center can advise faculty members on successful strategies for grant applications.
“The Morgan Center can help WPI researchers think about how they are already infusing their scholarship into teaching and learning, understand what will stand out to NSF reviewers, and devise plans for educational activities,” says Kimberly LeChasseur, senior research and evaluation associate at the Morgan Center. “The goal is to show the NSF that WPI researchers are a good investment.”
Researchers who received CAREER Awards during the 2022-2023 academic year:
Jeannine Coburn, an assistant professor in WPI’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, was awarded $606,146 to develop a transparent wound dressing that was inspired by a natural biopolymer she observed when fermenting kombucha at home. She will attach antimicrobial peptides to a cellulose produced by Komagataeibacter hansenii, a bacteria found in food, to produce a material that can cover and treat a wound while remaining transparent so that health care workers can visually inspect tissue without disturbing it. Coburn also will develop educational activities for elementary school students and WPI undergraduates, and she will provide summer lab positions to first-generation college students.
Loris Fichera was awarded $599,663 to enable surgical robots to treat disease through the focused delivery of energy, such as light, without cutting or touching human tissues. An assistant professor in the Department of Robotics Engineering, Fichera will develop a technique that will use low-intensity energy pulses to map a site in the body and determine how much focused energy a surgeon should apply. He also will build better control and automation into surgical robots, including a hand-held laser device he is developing to vaporize tumors in the vocal folds of a patient’s throat. Fichera plans to create research opportunities in his lab for up to 60 WPI undergraduates and expand a graduate-level course on surgical robots.
Department of Computer Science Associate Professor Tian Guo was awarded $657,776 to develop software techniques that will improve the performance and privacy of mobile augmented reality (AR) systems, with a focus on edge computing servers that process data close to their physical source. Her project will develop ways to better capture high-quality data from smartphones and other AR devices at a scene while also ensuring the privacy of sensitive data. Guo will develop techniques to coordinate and schedule AR tasks on edge servers for speedier experiences, and she will build a testbed to evaluate AR applications. Guo will create research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students.
Markus Nemitz, an assistant professor in the Department of Robotics Engineering, was awarded $599,815 to develop an innovative architecture for low-cost custom robots capable of swimming, crawling, climbing, and diving through hostile and confined spaces as part of search-and-rescue operations. Nemitz will develop small and flexible 3D-printed robots with integrated fluidic circuits that can be rapidly fabricated for specific disasters, and he will test the robots in a miniaturized model that will be built at WPI to replicate parts of the Tham Luang cave in Thailand where flooding trapped 12 members of a youth soccer team and their coach in 2018. He also will develop a robotics summer camp for girls.
“Combining high quality research with excellent teaching is a quality that distinguishes WPI faculty members,” says Vernescu. “Their CAREER Awards and other accomplishments help set WPI apart as a premier technological university that prepares its graduates for success.”
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