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Multi-University team receives $1.3 million from NSF's new Growing Convergence Research program

Swanson School of Engineering Research
Fall 2019 e-Newsletter


“It is a profound challenge, at the end of an era of cheap oil and materials, to rethink and redesign how we produce and consume; to reshape how we live and work, or even to imagine the jobs that will be needed for transition.”

– Dame Ellen P. MacArthur – British sailor and solo long-distance yachtswoman and charity founder (1976 - )

Dear friends,

As 2019 comes to a close and the roar of the Pitt campus subsides as students head home for the holiday break, it is once again my pleasure, on behalf of US Steel Dean James R. Martin II, to share with you the research highlights from the Swanson School of Engineering.

Engineering by its nature is transformative – for thousands of years it has advanced human existence and enabled us to harness resources, especially in the last century, to reach the ocean depths and the edges of the solar system. However, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, those advances have come at a price that we are now slowly but inexorably realizing. Dame MacArthur was inspired by life on the sea to rethink how we can transform our way of life; specifically, to be deliberately more holistic with our limited resources and their utilization. Thus, the feature story for this issue focuses on work being done to support a Circular Economy, which Dame MacArthur and her foundation defines as building “a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.” Engineers are key for meeting this challenge, if we are to break from the “take, make, waste” linear economy and truly develop a way of life that benefits our planet and every living organism. The Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation’s Drs. Melissa Bilec and Eric Beckman, who won the Circular Design Challenge prize from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2018, were awarded $1.3 million by the National Science Foundation to lead a multidisciplinary team of researchers from across the country to adapt our engineering expertise to address global waste. Meeting these challenges will indeed be transformative, as Drs. Bilec and Beckman and their team explore how resources are exploited, manufacturing is reimagined, and young people are taught to work in jobs that today do not exist.

Energy, too, is a critical part of our economy, and our faculty and students in the Stephen R. Tritch Nuclear Engineering Program, housed within the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, have attracted significant funding from the DOE and its Nuclear Energy University Program. Dr. Heng Ban, Interim Director of our Center for Energy, is leveraging multidisciplinary expertise to advance nuclear technology, especially with regional partners such as Westinghouse, Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, and Bechtel Marine, as well as the industry’s diverse supply chain. 

Dr. Tracy Cui, whose research is focused on improving brain-computer interface materials, received a large NSF award to bring her neural implant technology closer to commercialization. This will significantly advance the eventuality for disabled humans to operate robotics with their thoughts. Life on earth, as well as the economies we enjoy, are powered by water. However, its complex interaction with our ecosystem is critical to understand as the climate changes and impacts where and how humans live. Dr. Xu Liang from Civil and Environmental Engineering is harnessing the high-performance to develop a “CyberWater” framework, thanks to the NSF, that will provide researchers with a new way to access and use data for investigating water resources and climate-related environmental issues.

Finally, work to develop a breathalyzer for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound in marijuana, by Dr. Ervin Sejdić and Dr. Alexander Star in Pitt’s Department of Chemistry, was featured in several news outlets around the world. Their approach utilizes carbon nanotubes to detect subtle changes in electrical current when exposed to THC.

I hope you enjoy these and the many other stories in this newsletter. My best wishes to you and yours for this holiday season. I look forward to sharing more stories of how the Swanson School is making an impact in 2020.

Hail to Pitt!

David A. Vorp, PhD
Associate Dean for Research, Swanson School of Engineering

FEATURE STORY: University of Pittsburgh leads multidisciplinary $1.3 million NSF award to address global waste through circular economy design

A five-university team, led by the Swanson School of Engineering and the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, will utilize convergence research to address the complex challenge of global waste. Their proposal received a two-year, $1.3 million award from the National Science Foundation’s new Growing Convergence Research program.

Read more >


Nuclear energy research at the Swanson School awarded more than $2 million in Department of Energy grants

Nuclear Regulatory Commission awards $200,000 for Pitt Nuclear Engineering Scholarship Program

14th Annual Electric Power Industry Conference explores the challenges and opportunities of the electricity production industry

A new, lower-cost way to separate valuable ethylene from ethane gas

Pittsburgh-based Optimus Tech, founded by MEMS alumnus Colin Huwyler, wins $1 Million 76West Clean Energy Competition

Op-Ed: Expect more blackouts unless we invest in our energy grid

Building a better chemical building block


Pitt to partner with Pittsburgh International Airport on advanced manufacturing at Innovation Campus

-Read more from Blue Sky: "Training ‘New Collar Workers’ for Smarter Manufacturing"

-Read additional coverage from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Using microgravity to improve magnesium alloy functionality on earth

DOE award funds better quality control for 3D printing turbine components

$1M DOE award funds Electroninks project using metal ink for OLEDs


Pitt-led research group receives $1.3 million NSF award to develop “CyberWater” modeling framework

NSF awards research toward growing biofilms on electrodes to degrade Bisphenol A

Three from Swanson School of Engineering selected for the Incline’s Who’s Next: Environment and Energy Class

NSF grant funds Pitt, Drexel research that could revolutionize water sanitation

Pitt and Northwestern awarded $2 million by NSF to study nature-based strategies to prevent urban flooding


NIH awards $2.37 million to deliver improved neural recording technology

BioE Assistant Professor Gelsy Torres-Oviedo captures Swanson School's fifth NSF CAREER award for 2019

Pitt and Northeastern researchers receive $1.2M NSF award to develop stroke detection, assessment, and rehabilitation tech using augmented reality and EEG

Using electrochemistry to treat infections of metal-based implants

Pitt and CMU researchers developing device to hear how neurons communicate

DoD funds research to develop a new regulator of kidney cancer progression

New Bioengineering in Psychiatry Training Program receives $1.1M from NIH T32

Applying structural monitoring technology to the human spine

Bioengineering and ophthalmology group clinch $100K at the 2019 Pitt Innovation Challenge

Mechmorpho Lab brings computation and experimentation closer together

Center for Medical Innovation awards three novel biomedical projects with $70,000 in Round-1 2019 Pilot Funding

International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory and Pitt’s McGowan Institute form biomedical research alliance

Amazon Web Services teams with Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance to improve care

Introducing new and promoted faculty for 2019

With expertise from biomaterials and autonomous sensing to cyber-physical systems, neural networks and renewable energy, 14 new faculty joined the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering this fall.

Read more >

Using carbon nanotubes to detect THC in human breath

Ervin Sejdic, PhD (left) and Alexander Star, PhD, hold up the prototype of their THC-detecting device.

An interdisciplinary team from the Department of Chemistry and the Swanson School of Engineering has developed a breathalyzer device that can measure the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound in marijuana, in the user’s breath.


Manipulating the meta-atom

A combined $1.7 million from the National Science Foundation will fund a research group led by IE Professor M. Ravi Shankar to utilize “meta-atoms” to fine-tune metamaterials with light and in turn, control how they interact with the light itself.

Read more >

Creating the first universal computer model for metal nanoparticle adsorption

New research from ChemE Associate Professor Giannis Mpourmpakis introduces the first universal adsorption model that accounts for detailed nanoparticle structural characteristics, metal composition and different adsorbates, making it possible to not only predict adsorption behavior on any metal nanoparticles but screen their stability, as well.

Read more >

New research finds carbon nanotubes show a love/hate relationship with water

Associate Professor Paul Leu and graduate student Ziyu Zhou published new research on the first observation of parahydrophobicity in carbon nanotube forests. Other surfaces in nature - such as peach fuzz or rose petals - exhibit this behavior, which may be used to for liquid transportation, fabrics coating design, membrane selectivity and even wall-climbing robotics.


BE STEM Center gets federal grant to boost diversity in STEM higher education

The National Science Foundation awarded a $10 million INCLUDES Alliance grant to make Pitt the home base for the STEM Pathways for Underrepresented Students to HigherEd Network, a national collaborative of precollege programs, STEM educators, college admissions professionals and others committed to increasing racial and ethnic diversity in STEM.

Read more >

Swanson School receives $1 million NSF award to fund master’s degrees for 30 low-income students

The program, coordinated through the Swanson School’s Office of Diversity, will also provide students with academic and co-curricular support to encourage success.

Read more >

Faculty Research Accomplishments

Giannis Mpourmpakis wins prestigious Distinguished Young Greek Scientist award from Bodossaki Foundation

National Academy of Inventors elects William J. Federspiel as Fellow

BMES Diversity Lecture Award recipient Steven Abramowitch asks his peers to consider the level of comfort in their career

ChemE's James McKone featured in “Emerging Investigator” Special Issue of the Journal of Materials Chemistry A

Civil Engineering Professor Kent Harries named ASCE Fellow

ECE Assistant Professor Sam Dickerson receives IEEE Education Society Mac E. Van Valkenburg Award

Research from Leanne Gilbertson featured on December cover of Environmental Science: Nano

Bedewy Research Group captures WCMNM Best Paper Award

Teaching Heroes:  MEMS' Jacobs inspires students to care more

Bioengineering's Warren Ruder attends 2019 Israeli-American Kavli Frontiers of Science Symposium

IE's Youngjae Chun receives American Heart Association’s 2020 Innovative Project Award

Associate Dean David Vorp receives Research Leader Fellowship from APLU

Civil Engineering Professor Piervincenzo Rizzo selected for 2020 A. J. Durelli Award

Student Research Accomplishments

CEE and Mascaro Center student Kareem Rabbat and team reach Top 10 at Global Grand Challenges Summit in London

Three engineering student teams selected to participate in the Innovation Institute’s new startup incubator

Six Swanson School students recognized by IEEE Power and Energy Society

MSCI Undergraduate Summer Research Program lets students contribute to innovative sustainability research before graduation

Erica Stevens, President of the Microscopy Society of America Student Council, discusses how microscopy can be used to reach non-technical audiences

ASL-to-Text Translator wins bronze in InnovateFPGA 2019 Global Contest’s Regional Finals

Pitt INFORMS chapter wins 2019 Student Chapter Annual Award

Sene Polamalu named 2019 Wesley C. Pickard Fellow

IE students help a local caterer develop a recipe for success

MCSI Summer Research Symposium showcases undergrad sustainability research

NTE Lab’s Asiyeh Golabchi receives poster award at Pitt’s Data and Dine Symposium

Strong Pitt showing at Gordon Research Conference on High Temperature Corrosion

Fall 2019 Design Expo showcases creativity in engineering

Bioengineering undergraduate McKenzie Sicke announced as finalist for the George J. Mitchell Scholarship Program

Learn more about research at the Swanson School

View the 2019 Summary of Faculty Research.

View the 2019 edition of Ingenium, the undergraduate research journal.


Swanson School of Engineering Associate Dean for Research
University of Pittsburgh
3700 O'Hara Street
Benedum Hall
Pittsburgh, PA 15261

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