To support early-stage research collaboration between faculty at the two universities, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UMass Lowell) have partnered to award more than $111,000 in seed funding to six different teams, focusing on work ranging from human-robot collaboration to cancer detection and rehabilitation for stroke patients.
Faculty and researchers at the two universities have been working together for the past eight months, holding a series of faculty “match-making” sessions to explore areas across multiple disciplines in which they can work together, sharing expertise and data or scientific resources, to advance complementary research projects. In a major step that takes the project from discussion to action, the universities each contributed funds to a new UMass Lowell–WPI Collaborative Seed Funding Initiative to support new collaborations, novel discoveries, and increased external funding. The collaboration also is expected to lead to future industry partnerships and the possible development of patentable intellectual property.
“No one university can address the pressing problems the world needs solved. We are fortunate in New England to be close to a wealth of institutions with world-class researchers with whom we can collaborate,” said Bogdan M. Vernescu, vice provost for research at WPI. “This initiative will begin to tap the expertise across campuses so together we can move certain areas of research forward for the betterment of the world.”
“By combining the complementary expertise of UMass Lowell and WPI in these cutting-edge areas, we are strengthening our respective research capabilities, creating new training opportunities for our students and increasing the likelihood of making novel scientific discoveries that will lead to transformative technologies,” said Anne Maglia, UMass Lowell associate vice chancellor for research and compliance.
Six Projects Receive Funding
Under the program’s umbrella, Erin Solovey, assistant professor of computer science at WPI, and Holly Yanco, UMass Lowell computer science professor and director of the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center, are receiving $20,000 for their project, “Towards Biometric Input for Multi-Agent Adaptive Human-Robot Collaboration.” The project, which will use data analysis and machine learning, is focused on developing robot behaviors that change to best suit the individual humans they are working with, while also developing team awareness tools that enable humans to adjust their own behavior as needed to better work
with various robots.
Dongming Xie, associate professor of chemical engineering at UMass Lowell, and Eric Young, assistant professor of chemical engineering at WPI, are receiving $20,000 to develop a continuous biomanufacturing platform for producing high-value lipids or lipid-related products that can be used in fields such as nutrition and health, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. The team, working on the project “Continuous Biomanufacturing: Increased Biosynthesis from Engineered Cells,” will leverage UMass Lowell’s strength in biomanufacturing and WPI’s strength in synthetic biology to create a manufacturing platform that applies advanced genetic engineering tools, like CRISPR-Cas9, to engineer nonconventional yeast organisms to overproduce lipids, wax esters, and terpenoids.
Zhu Mao, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UMass Lowell, and Yuxiang Liu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at WPI, also received $20,000 for their combined research project “Computer Vision-Based Cell Structural Dynamics Identification and Cancer Detection via Optical Trap.” They are working to better understand the biomechanics, or how living organisms move, of cancer so they can open a new path to early-stage cancer diagnosis. Using optical trapping, a scientific tool that uses highly focused laser beams to hold and move microscopic objects, the researchers will classify the different behaviors of cancerous and normal cells to better understand how cancer cells metastasize.
And $19,800 of seed money has been awarded to Noah Van Dam, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UMass Lowell, and Michael Timko, associate professor of chemical engineering at WPI, for their project, “Boosting Biofuel Production from Agricultural Waste by Combining Simulation and Experiment.” With a long-term focus of making it easier and more cost-effective to switch from greenhouse gas–producing fossil fuels to green energy alternatives, the scientists are laying the groundwork to design a biomass reactor that can continuously take in biomaterial and put out a stream of green energy.
The research team of Mark Claypool, professor of computer science at WPI, Emmanuel Agu, professor of computer science at WPI, and Lynne Gauthier, associate professor of physical therapy and kinesiology at UMass Lowell, are working to find ways to help stroke survivors recover. The team is receiving $11,486 for their project, “Stroke Rehabilitation through Gaming: Proactively Predicting Non-Adherence to Facilitate Just-In-Time Interventions.” Gauthier has developed an in-home video game akin to in-clinic therapy and will lead the clinical aspects of the research. WPI researchers’ role will be to use artificial intelligence to detect when players are about to stop using the therapeutic game and then intervene to get them back on track.
Another grant of $20,000 is going to Pratap Rao, associate professor of mechanical engineering at WPI, and Christopher Hansen, associate professor of mechanical engineering at UMass Lowell, for their work to overcome bottlenecks that are limiting advances in flexible hybrid electronics, which combines the flexibility of printed plastic film substrates with the performance of semiconductor devices. Flexible hybrid electronic products range from wearables to sensors and even devices that can be implanted in the body. The WPI/UMass Lowell project, named “Addressing Critical Components and Manufacturing Needs for Next-Generation Flexible Electronics,” is focused on demonstrating a scalable manufacturing method for a flexible solar cell to enable energy harvesting for flexible electronics, and developing a composite material that will increase the performance of sensors used in a flexible wearable device.
About Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a purpose-driven community of educators and researchers, has been the global leader in project-based learning for 50 years. An impact maker for higher education and the world, WPI prepares confident, competent problem solvers with a project-based curriculum that immerses students in authentic, real-world experiences.