The New Guard
Thayer’s eight new tenure-track assistant professors will influence the next few generations of students. Here’s a look at why these profs became engineers, the grand challenges they’re trying to solve, and how they see their role as teachers.
By Elizabeth Kelsey
Photographs by John Sherman
I was inspired to become an engineer because engineers do things that matter. The driving force behind engineering is applying knowledge. If you know the rules by which a system operates, you open the possibility of productively manipulating the system. You can take information and use it to have an impact on human life and health.
I’m working on applying protein engineering methods and tools to studying the immune system in order to make novel protein drugs and vaccines. Historically, we haven’t gone about treating disease in the same way the body does naturally. We’ve been using small-molecule drugs, but the body primarily uses peptides, proteins, and cells to combat disease. Even after extensive research, some of the worst diseases — HIV, malaria, tuberculosis — have either no vaccines available or vaccines that are not effective enough. Now that we have the tools to manipulate proteins and cells in the same way we have manipulated small molecules in the past, there’s a great opportunity to use this progress to fuel molecular engineering-based advances in therapeutics.
We need better models of the immune system. Immunology has been largely phenomenological rather than intuitive and predictable because we don’t understand enough about the components and workings of the biological networks of the immune system. The simple assays that work for testing the responses of single cells can’t be easily applied to the immune system, which is a complex network of hundreds of different cell types — often interacting with each other as well as pathogens. Unfortunately, even animal models don’t provide the kind of information we really need because they have divergent immune systems. Biologists are making much more rapid advances in this area, including working toward “humanizing” the immune system of mice and more efficiently collecting information from individuals with natural exposure to disease. These advances will enable biologists to figure out what knobs we can turn in order to influence the immune response. Once we know what responses are protective, engineers can design therapies to trigger those responses.
I enjoy teaching engineering because it’s an applied science. You teach rules that make the behavior of the world around you predictable, and allow students to use those rules to solve real problems.
I have always been a rather logical and quantitative person, and yet never really a “techie.” Rather than inventing or building things, I was more interested in exploring the natural world and our relationship with it. For example, I wondered why some kids would prefer going to the mall rather than going on a hike, why some families traveled to Disney World for vacation and others to national parks, why the plot of land at the end of the street was now more valuable as a parking lot than as the forest and farmland it used to be. In college I learned that I could combine my analytic problem-solving skills with my interest in the natural environment by studying environmental engineering.
Reconciling society’s development goals with the limitations of the Earth is a challenge that will never be fully resolved. I’m working to understand this challenge by studying the interacting roles of human values, knowledge, governance, and technology in our management of the environment, particularly with regard to climate change. I think that solutions to the complex environmental problems we face as a society will not come in the form of a centrally planned silver bullet, but rather will emerge from a messy collection of policies, incentives, and technologies implemented at multiple scales. We need models and decision-support tools that can help us understand, anticipate, and exploit such emergent behavior.
I enjoy teaching how to apply an engineering way of thinking to problems that may not obviously be engineering problems. This may mean applying systems analysis to healthcare delivery, risk assessment to product design and marketing, or agent-based modeling to climate policy. Students seem to appreciate this approach, especially at Thayer, where they have a multidisciplinary and “big picture” perspective.
Professor Solomon Diamond ’97 Th’98
In my heart of hearts, I’ve been an engineer since I was born. There was no point when I decided that I wanted to be an engineer; it just was a process of discovering that engineering is who I am. When I was a really young boy, I considered myself an inventor and used to spend a lot of time tinkering, building, and inventing different toys and gadgets. There were strings running all over my room, where you could pull the string, turn the light on or off, or pull another string to open the door. I had my dresser hooked up with cables as well, and I made my own little dumbwaiter to go up and down the stairs.
I realized that engineering was a tool that could really do a lot of good in the world, and I decided to pursue biomedical engineering. It started with an interest in rehabilitation engineering and assistive devices and evolved into an interest in the brain and neuroscience.
The grand challenge that I’m working on is to develop better non-invasive technologies for imaging human brain function. I see neuroimaging advancing to the point where a number of key research areas start to deliver on their long-term promises, including neuro-diagnostics for Alzheimer’s disease and using neuroimaging to effectively monitor recovery after stroke. Physical therapy is still more of an art than a science, and I think until we’re able to see what’s happening in the brain during the therapeutics, it’s hard to know if what we’re doing is truly optimal. I’d like to see neuroimaging cross that threshold where it becomes a driver of better diagnostics, better treatment, and better medicine.
There is this tangible excitement in the air that I feel when teaching. It invigorates me. I think it’s a reciprocal experience between the students and me — a real synergistic energy. That’s what I thrive on here at Thayer. There’s a certain amount of rigor and content that must be communicated clearly and understood so that students are advancing knowledge rather than reinventing the wheel during their careers. But the part that’s most fun for me is walking into the unknown with the students — we tackle design problems for which I don’t know the answer, and we discover solutions together.
My formal training is in chemistry and biochemistry. What inspired me to dive into engineering was seeing how powerful biomolecules are in their native environment and envisioning what might be accomplished if you could tap into that level of performance in solving practical real-world problems. We take proteins out of their natural context and use them to solve problems that may or may not relate to the tasks for which they originally evolved. The amazing functionality of biomolecules provides the capacity to revolutionize a huge variety of practical applications.
One of the things I love about biomolecular engineering is that it has the potential to impact virtually any field. My research group is currently focused on potential medical applications of proteins and how they can be used as therapeutic agents. For example, we’re interested in the emergence and spread of drug resistance among bacterial pathogens. Drug resistance is a subject with which almost everyone is familiar. If you asked someone on the street, they’ve likely heard of antibiotic resistance and even the controversy about whether or not antibiotics should be put in hand soap (I think that’s a bad idea). My lab is working to develop new antibacterial proteins with the ability to combat drug-resistant infections.
It would be wonderful if the field of protein engineering could generate solutions to the big medical issues that are facing the world. I hope that over the next 10 years protein engineering might develop cures for a broad spectrum of cancers, cures for diseases such as multiple sclerosis, and even reagents that allow us to effectively treat drug-resistant bacterial infections while reducing the tendency for those bacteria to rapidly evolve resistance. But even with the amazing rate of innovation, progress is still slow. So what I expect to happen over the next 10 years is that protein therapeutics are going to make further inroads in areas such as cancer diagnostics and cancer therapy where they’re already having an impact. Ultimately, engineered proteins will help reshape the treatment of many other diseases as well.
Academics and teachers have the capacity to exponentially amplify their ability to impact society by virtue of the fact that when you become a teacher, you’re no longer a one-person team. For the vast majority of people, the greater impact of an individual’s career in science, technology, and engineering may be less about what you yourself accomplish and more about what is accomplished by the people who study under you. I very much hope that my own research will someday make its way into the clinic and be used to treat patients. If my group doesn’t generate a cure for cancer or a treatment for drug-resistant pathogens, however, my expectation is that someone I interact with at Thayer might continue on and do so as part of his or her own career.
I want to apply science to our everyday life, explore the world, and understand the rules of nature. Engineers experiment with these rules to benefit humankind. It’s just like playing chess, but you don’t know the rules at the beginning. Scientists try to find out the rules, but it’s engineers who apply the rules and become good players for the benefit of everyone.
There are two aspects and goals in my research: One is to produce renewable energy, and the other is to try to reduce the energy consumption of information technology. We hope that with our research we can produce solar cells that are less expensive and more efficient so that they can be deployed widely in the world to offset the consumption of fossil fuels.
Few people realize how much energy is consumed in the information industry since the invention of computers and the Internet. The Internet is one of the fastest growing technologies in the information age. The data flow on the Internet is growing by 40 percent per year, which basically doubles every two years. I’m trying to apply photonic technology to information technology to reduce the overall energy consumption. This would make information technology more sustainable, what some people refer to as green IT.
Teaching is not just about giving information to students; it’s actually a great motivation to do some rethinking. A smart student can ask you very interesting questions, so you better be prepared for those and really start to look into all aspects of your own learning. Sometimes we can get some new ideas from such thinking. My personal style is to help students think about themselves as explorers and innovators. We engineers want more people to understand the importance of engineering and science to society. The more people we educate, the more we influence the world.
Professor Reza Olfati-Saber
My dad influenced me to become an engineer since I was a little boy. He was head of my hometown’s telecommunications department in Iran. He used to take me to the central part of the phone company back in late 70s, when everything was still electromechanical and you could see 10,000 selectors moving in one large room. Later he bought me all the elements of a basic circuit so I could connect the battery to a motor and to a light bulb and turn that on. And on paper he showed me the flow of currents that goes through the circuit. At the time, these were all games to me, but I think he was trying to get me interested in electrical engineering. He succeeded.
During my postdoc at Caltech I tried to understand how birds flock. The lessons I learned from observing and modeling them allowed me to understand the fundamental problems involving design and how to analyze thousands or millions of interacting elements.
One of my main objectives is to come up with the first intelligent transportation system. Cars don’t necessarily need drivers. They could move autonomously. You could use your car in an autonomous mode in which you basically give it a GPS destination and the car gets you there without colliding with other cars or pedestrians or getting lost or going through unusually long routes. It could avoid traffic, take shortcuts, and do all sorts of things you might not actually know about because you don’t know the congestion in other parts of the city. You could use the car in fully manual mode or semi-autonomous mode, where you just pick the speed or your favorite lane on the highway and leave the rest of the driving decisions to the car.
If most of us began to use these automated cars, we could create a much safer transportation system that is not prone to the human mistakes. In five to 10 years this could be an automatic feature on luxury cars. In 15 to 20 years it could be on all cars.
It’s challenging to teach any kind of engineering class when all the students don’t have the same interest. Some of them like the science part more, some of them like the building more. The majority of the students at Dartmouth are very hands-on. They could essentially build just about anything they want.
I’ve always been creative. As a child I liked to paint and draw a lot, and then as I went through school it turned out that I had an affinity for solving analytical problems. Engineering turned out to be a very nice blend between creativity and solving analytical problems.
I’m very interested in health and in artificial intelligence. I’m looking at the way our neural systems work and applying that to engineering and to a more potent artificial intelligence. The idea is to have extremely intelligent computers that are very power-efficient and yet very small. One of my current projects has to do with a cochlear implant that is controlled by the brain’s electric signals. The idea is to have electrodes that are sitting on a patient’s skull record EEG signals, and decipher these signals to determine what the patient wants to hear.
My vision is to create sophisticated yet cheap electronic intelligence that can fit in the palm of your hand. Such technology could enable a more decentralized model of healthcare delivery, which would allay the rising cost of healthcare in the United States. Even more critically, decentralized healthcare delivery might present the only practicable option in remote parts of the developing world. Imagine computational ability that is so cheaply available that a nurse in a village in Ghana can input a blood film to an “intelligent” camera phone, which then makes a preliminary diagnosis of malaria or some type of hematological condition.
Engineering is a discipline that deals with a lot of balance and a lot of trade-offs. Given a particular problem, there is no one absolutely correct solution. Each solution to any given problem has its own positives and negatives, and when you consider any solution, you need to carefully go through the list of all the different advantages and disadvantages of that solution. Teaching engineering forces you to go through this process methodically because you’re trying to convince a class of students that one solution versus another is better. When you go through this process, you can come up with better solutions — or your students can come up with better solutions.
Professor Douglas Van Citters ’99 Th’03 ’06
I always liked to take things apart — it was part of my nature. In preschool I took apart the telephone and nobody knew about it until I showed up with all the pieces. In elementary school I was doing mechanic work with my father. In high school I started doing my own mechanic work. I loved seeing how things worked and started developing some of my own — I hesitate to call them inventions — but they were solutions. When it was suggested that I explore engineering as a major in college, I jumped on it. But it wasn’t really until ENGS 21 with Professor John Collier that I figured out what engineering really was.
I’m trying to decrease the cost of healthcare and increase its efficacy in the field of artificial joints in orthopedics. I’m starting with artificial knees. There are currently roughly one million artificial knees and hips being implanted annually in the United States, and 10 percent of those are for failed joints. I’m trying to examine the failures and determine why they failed and what we can do to improve the materials and design. It’s all very materials-driven at this point. If we can understand the chemistry and the mechanical or wear mechanisms of these devices, we can then understand the failure mechanisms and perhaps improve overall outcomes for patients.
My dream is a commoditized artificial knee. I’m not so naive to think that there will be a one-size-fits-all, one-size-works-for-all, but it would be wonderful if we could have a small selection of devices that worked for the vast majority of patients. In the next 10 years, as we try to address the demands of the growing population, I don’t think we are going to have enough surgeons to accommodate the need for artificial joints. Further, I don’t know if society can bear the financial burden; it’s a very expensive surgery. If a device is developed with appropriate but inexpensive materials, and you can decrease implantation time, cost savings will follow. You could improve access to the procedure, ensure a positive outcome for the patient, and hopefully, you would decrease the financial burden on the individual and society.
The thing that’s most fun about teaching is doing the problem solving day in and day out. I teach students how to solve problems efficiently. I rarely give them answers — that’s not my job. I really love to walk them through the problem-solving process and show them how to use science and math to better society. The enjoyment is watching somebody actually understand what’s really important and what’s fun about engineering.
— Elizabeth Kelsey is a contributing editor at Dartmouth Engineer.