Office of Naval Research young investigators honored with Presidential Award

November 09, 2011

ARLINGTON, Va.-- Using fish cells to generate artificial muscles, a Harvard University professor is aiming to create functional tissues that could one day help robots move like living creatures.

Dr. Ali Khademhosseini's work for the Office of Naval Research (ONR) has earned him a spot among 94 scientists and engineers recently recognized by President Obama with the highest government award for young professionals on the cusp of promising independent research.

Coordinated by the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) is conferred annually upon researchers who are nominated by 16 federal agencies and departments.

Khademhosseini was one of nine PECASE selectees contributing breakthrough advances to ONR-funded programs. They each received a citation, a plaque and an opportunity to meet with the president in a ceremony at the White House on Oct. 14. The award comes with a potential five-year grant worth $200,000 annually to continue their research efforts.

"The most amazing part was meeting the president and getting to shake hands with him, and spending a few minutes talking with him. It was a totally unbelievable and unforgettable experience," Khademhosseini said.

ONR nominated four other researchers for the program: Dr. Jeffrey Book, an oceanographer at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL); Dr. Aydogan Ozcan, associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA); Dr. Tomas Palacios, associate professor in the department of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); and Dr. Joseph Teran, associate professor of mathematics at UCLA.

The four university-based PECASE honorees are also past ONR Young Investigator Program (YIP) winners. The YIP is an ONR program that invests in academic scientists and engineers who show exceptional promise for creative study.

Other YIP winners selected as PECASE awardees include Dr. Hatice Altug, Boston University, 2010 YIP; Dr. Tonghun Lee, Michigan State University, 2011 YIP; and Dr. Anne J. McNeil, University of Michigan, 2009 YIP.

A number of PECASE awardees were funded by ONR for past and ongoing projects, including Dr. Evgenya I. Simakov of Los Alamos National Laboratory, who is conducting research for the agency's free-electron laser program.

More on the PECASE Winners

Dr. Jeffrey Book: Forecasting Coastal Ocean Behavior

For the Navy and Marine Corps, predicting ocean behavior near coastal areas is a challenging but crucial element for operations. NRL's Jeffrey Book is researching methods to forecast the coastal ocean environment just as meteorologists model and predict the Earth's atmospheric weather conditions.

The growth of robotic underwater vehicles in recent years will help in the effort. "This explosion of technology is a game changer," Book said. "Now we need to understand how to really use the new information we're receiving, and apply mathematical techniques and analysis to more accurately predict the ocean 48 hours, 72 hours, even a week ahead of time." Book's hometown is Milford, Ohio.

Dr. Ali Khademhosseini: Artificial Muscles for Biosensing

Dr. Ali Khademhosseini's research at Harvard University and Brigham and Women's Hospital to generate artificial muscles using cells from fish and other cold-blooded organisms not only could be applied to robotics but also could have application in biosensing. Artificial muscles that beat or actuate in response to toxic chemical exposure could help sensors determine unknown compounds or substances.

"For any toxic chemical, if they affect biological cells, you know they're going to be toxic to humans as well," said Khademhosseini, who hails from Toronto, Canada.

Dr. Aydogan Ozcan: Studying Cells with Smartphones

At UCLA, Dr. Aydogan Ozcan is leading research on telemedicine technologies, creating new kinds of microscopes so compact and lightweight that they can be attached to cell phones to screen water or blood for bacteria.

"We work without the use of conventional microscope lenses--we're building lens-free computational microscopes," Ozcan said. "We reconstruct images from the shadows of the specimens." Light passes through bacterial cells, creating shadows that are textured. The shadows are processed to construct images of thousands of cells that can then be identified. Ozcan is from Los Angeles.

Dr. Tomas Palacios: Gallium Nitride for Next-Generation Radars, Electronics

At MIT, Dr. Tomas Palacios is working on a new semiconductor called gallium nitride, recognized as the next-generation technology for electronics. The devices are being inserted into radar systems and power amplifiers.

"ONR has had a preeminent role in pushing gallium nitride from scientific curiosity to a commercial reality," Palacios said. "Through the PECASE award, we are developing new transistor structures to push the frequency performance of gallium nitride even further."

As a doctoral student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Palacios helped to increase the maximum operating frequency of transistors to 40 gigahertz, from the single-digit gigahertz operation common at the time. One gigahertz falls in the frequency range of cellular phones. The 40 gigahertz limit increased to more than 100 gigahertz after Palacios continued the research at MIT. His goal is to push the performance to 1 terahertz, or 1,000 gigahertz. Originally from Jaen, Spain, Palacios considers Cambridge, Mass. as his hometown.

Dr. Joseph Teran: Improving the Realism of Surgical Simulators

In the UCLA math department, Dr. Joseph Teran is researching a new algorithm that will increase the realism of medical and surgical simulators. "It will help improve the training of surgeons, and it will also help improve research and development of surgeries," he said.

To model the human body and its moving structures in a simulation, a class of partial differential equations must be solved in real time. Designing the algorithm to solve those equations via multi-core processor computing is one of the challenges. If Teran's team is successful, the resulting medical simulations one day could look indistinguishable from a video recording.
About the Office of Naval Research

The Department of the Navy's Office of Naval Research (ONR) provides the science and technology necessary to maintain the Navy and Marine Corps' technological advantage. Through its affiliates, ONR is a leader in science and technology with engagement in 50 states, 70 countries, 1,035 institutions of higher learning and 914 industry partners. ONR employs approximately 1,400 people, comprising uniformed, civilian and contract personnel, with additional employees at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C.

Office of Naval Research

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