Engineering Professor Janet Blume Named Associate Dean of the Faculty

Brown University Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin has announced that Associate Professor of Engineering Janet Blume has been appointed as associate dean of the faculty for the academic year 2011-12.
“I wanted to congratulate Janet Blume for this wonderful appointment, which is a well deserved recognition of her many contributions to Brown throughout her career,” said Larry Larson, Dean of the School of Engineering. “It is great to know that her remarkable effectiveness and enthusiasm will be assisting the Dean of Faculty in the coming year.”
Blume, whose research is in mathematical aspects of the mechanics of solids, has been on the faculty at Brown since 1986. She teaches courses at all levels in engineering, including the introductory first-year course, and has served as director of undergraduate programs in the School of Engineering. 
 Blume's contributions have been recognized with the Philip J. Bray medal for Excellence in Teaching in the Physical Sciences (1997), the Tau Beta Pi School of Engineering Dedicated
Faculty Member Award (2009), and the Karen T. Romer Prize for Excellence in Advising (2011). 
Blume graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in engineering from Princeton (1982), and holds a Ph.D. in applied mechanics from Caltech (1986). She will begin her work in the Office of the Dean of the Faculty effective August 1.

Brown Alumna Builds Miniscule Medical Implants to Treat Diseases

Brown engineering alumna and UCSF bioengineer Tejal Desai builds medical implants – with parts as tiny as human cells – that may be used to treat diabetes, kidney failure and other diseases.

As a Santa Barbara high school student, Tejal Desai got a kick out of making things work. Her father was a chemical engineer, and she thought she knew what engineering was all about.

So, she was startled when a bioengineer visited her class and told the students about research to develop artificial organs and implants.

“I was very excited. I had always thought that engineering was about building bridges and mechanical devices. I didn’t know you could use it to help people.”

The class visit was part of a national program to encourage girls to pursue engineering careers. The revelation about artificial organs started Desai on two paths. She not only became a bioengineer, but also an outspoken advocate for young women entering science and engineering fields.

“Because I was so influenced by that program myself, I’ve always had an interest in mentoring girls of various backgrounds who are interested in science and engineering careers," she said. "I hope that if you can encourage them and make them enthusiastic, it will help them continue. It’s something I believe in.”

As a bioengineering undergraduate at Brown University, Desai (Class of '94) also studied sociology and political science, and after college, she played an active – even activist – role in urging her alma mater to assure that female students and faculty had full opportunity to pursue the sciences and engineering. She ended up writing a 100-page document outlining admission policy changes that would encourage more student and faculty diversity in these fields.

Her other path has led her to develop new ways to make implantable medical devices so small that their individual parts are the size of human cells. Such minuscule implants can overcome the limitations of conventional therapy to treat diabetes, kidney failure and other debilitating diseases.

The new tiny-focused technology ironically goes by a very long name: biomedical micro-electro-mechanical systems (bio MEMS). "Micro" refers to sizes that are thousandths of a millimeter, the size of a human cell. The technology now increasingly focuses on still smaller, "nano" scales – millionths of a millimeter.

Desai directs the Laboratory of Therapeutic and Micro and Nanotechnology at UCSF. Her lab has gained national attention for devising and demonstrating the feasibility of an implantable artificial pancreas to treat type 1 diabetes. People with type 1 diabetes cannot maintain healthy blood sugar levels because their immune systems attack and destroy their precious insulin-producing “beta cells” in the pancreas.

Even with frequent self-monitoring and injections of insulin, the blood sugar levels of those with type 1 diabetes spike and plummet, degrading the body’s crucial ability to regulate many metabolic functions. Though self-treatment is fairly effective in the short-run, type 1 diabetes, if left untreated, can ultimately lead to cardiac complications, poor circulation that threatens limbs, and generally, a shorter life span.

Desai conceived of a kind of micro/nano-scale cage, to protect beta cells in the body. The cage, or biocapsule, contains “nanopores” large enough to allow the vital beta cells to secrete insulin, but small enough to prevent the immune system’s molecular soldiers from entering and destroying the beta cells. The device could be implanted near the abdominal wall, or anywhere in the body where the cells are exposed to the body’s sugar levels.

Unlike self-administered insulin shots, an implantable device maintains and protects the body’s natural insulin control and allows normal regulation of the body’s metabolism. It is a cure.

The micro-parts are made of materials accepted by they body’s immune system, and are fabricated using the techniques developed by California’s microelectronics industry. Desai’s lab has already demonstrated in animals that the artificial pancreas device works as intended.

She expects that this technology could be of use for many other chronic, cell-based diseases, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, hormone deficiencies – anywhere the body is unable to produce something it needs naturally, she said.

Desai earned her doctorate in the UC Berkeley and UCSF Graduate Program in Bioengineering – a collaboration between the two UC campuses that draws on Berkeley’s nationally recognized engineering expertise and UCSF’s equally recognized clinical research and treatment programs.

“We’ve always felt that we could be better together than either of us apart, and now it’s one of the highest ranked programs in bioengineering in the country,” she said.

Desai is an active member in two other productive collaborations – UCSF’s bioengineering and therapeutic sciences department, and the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, or QB3, which links UC Berkeley, UCSF and UC Santa Cruz scientists with counterparts in the biomedical and biotech industries. The network meets one of Desai’s major goals: Speeding the advance of university discoveries into clinical trials and the real world of patient care.

“The goal of all of this is to help people,” she says.

(See more about Desai’s research and UCSF’s “What’s Next in Science” series.)

Teaming with industry

Desai’s insulin delivery research is only one of several potential therapies her team is working on. Some projects receive partial funding from companies eager to translate life-saving innovations into treatments and products. One promising effort aims to deliver drugs directly to the intestines to treat disorders such as colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.

Desai’s team is creating a kind of microscopic “band aid” so small that hundreds of them can be placed in a normal-sized pill. Each strip is as wide as a human hair. Once ingested, these strips will travel to the small intestine, stick to the intestinal wall and deliver medicine. They contain nano-scale drug reservoirs, as well as projections that create a textured surface that can stick to the body’s cells.

Because of the extraordinarily small scale, the projections mechanically interact with intestinal wall cells, and deliver drugs into openings between the cells. There they remain for at least several hours, providing much-needed medication before they are sloughed off.

Desai’s lab is supported in this research by a company called Zcube srl through a sponsored research agreement aimed to help speed such novel treatments into medical practice. Such collaborations are central to QB3, one of four such institutes throughout the UC system, founded 10 years ago to foster research alliances among different UC campuses and with industry.

Some of Desai’s former students have launched a startup company called Nano Precision Medical that is developing devices such as an implantable drug-delivery pump to treat hepatitis C and other chronic diseases. (See video.) The company is starting its life in the QB3 “garage” on the Berkeley campus. It is one of two QB3 startup incubators – the other is at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus – to support the very early stages of promising new biomedical and biotech innovations.

by  Wallace Ravven

Photo by Elisabeth Fall

Four Brown Women Engineering Undergrads Coordinate Free Camp for High School Girls

Amanda Kautz ’12, Natalie Serrino ’12, Farzanah Ausaluth ’14, and Lizzie Costa ’14, are spending their summer helping inspire future female engineers. The four women, all undergraduate engineering concentrators at Brown are all coordinators for Spira, a free, four week summer camp for rising tenth grade girls interested in engineering. It is run through Brown University and taught by these four women. Associate professor and director of undergraduate programs Janet Blume has been the advisor to the group.

Kautz is a civil engineering concentrator from Los Angeles, while Serrino is a computer engineering concentrator from Chicago. The rising sophomore Ausaluth also plans to concentrate in civil engineering and is from London, while Costa grew up in East Providence, R.I., and will study biomedical engineering.

Spira Engineering Camp aims to inspire the next generation of female engineers by providing a community in which young women with similar interests can be exposed to math, science, and technology in a hands-on, team-based environment. They are able to learn the real world applications of engineering and how they can make a difference in a typically male-dominated field. The goal is for Spira participants to gain confidence in their abilities and to be motivated to pursue math and science in their future studies and careers.

The 18 tenth grade girls, who attend eight different public and private high schools in the greater Providence area, have been able to
learn about math and science while completing fun, hands-on, team-based engineering design projects. The camp runs from July 5-29 at Brown.

One of the recent projects the teams worked on was a balsa wood bridge project. In this case, teams of two or three girls applied their recently acquired knowledge of buckling, arches, triangles, trusses, and bridge design to create a bridge made of balsa wood. The bridge is then weighed and tested for strength by attaching a bucket to the bridge and filling the bucket of sand until the point of failure. The winning bridge is the one with the greatest strength to weight ratio.

Kautz and Serrino had the initial vision for Spira. They were inspired to create the program based on the success and logistics of the Artemis Project, a
free, five-week summer day camp for rising ninth grade girls in the Providence area who are interested in learning about computer science and technology run by Brown’s computer science department. Artemis has been running at Brown since 1996.

Kautz and Serrino applied for and received funding for Spira from
the National Science Foundation (NSF) through Brown’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC). The camp is free for the students and lunch is provided. For those students who need transportation, RIPTA bus passes are provided.

Ausaluth and Costa were recruited as coordinators in the fall and since that time all four have shared equal responsibility in planning and running the camp.

Brown Engineering Graduate Student Wins NASA Jenkins Fellowship

Eduardo Almeida ScM’10, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering at Brown University, has been selected to receive a 2011 NASA Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellowship Project (JPFP) award. The JPFP is sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and administered by the UNCF Special Programs Corporation (UNCFSP).

As a NASA JPFP fellow, Almeida will receive up to three years of stipend and tuition offset support as he pursues his graduate education. Ph.D. level fellows receive annual stipends of $24,000.

He has been assigned to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and his tenure will begin on September 1, 2011, under the supervision of his NASA mentor, Curtis Padgett. Almeida will also be required to spend 10 weeks each summer working with Padgett at JPL during the fellowship.

Almeida is currently pursuing a Ph.D. degree in the School of Engineering at Brown University under the supervision of Professor David Cooper. During the course of his graduate studies, he received a dual master of science degree in engineering and applied mathematics in 2010. His interests are computer vision, machine learning and pattern recognition. His research at Brown involves 3D surface reconstruction, probabilistic 3D scene understanding and automatic change detection from arbitrary viewpoints and under arbitrary illumination.

In addition, Almeida worked in collaboration with NASA through summer internships at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in 2009 and 2010. The center develops and manages spacecrafts for interplanetary exploration, such as the Mars Rovers. At NASA/JPL, the group Almeida worked on conducts research and development of algorithms for automatic data interpretation from a variety of imaging sensors. Almeida worked on two projects: i) developing an automated 3D terrain generation process from aerial images (summer 2009); ii) performing refinement of zoom lens camera calibration with unknown and time varying internal camera parameters (summer 2010). The summer internships efforts resulted in a software award and a certificate of recognition from NASA Inventions and Contributions Board.

In addition to his NASA Jenkins Fellowship (JPFP 2011), Almeida was a NASA Rhode Island Space Grant Fellow (RISG 2009-10), and is a member of the IEEE.  The RISG fellowship was a key element supporting the pursuit of his goals of combining engineering and applied mathematics skills in solving real-world problems through JPL. As a RISG fellow and JPL intern, Almeida had the opportunity to network with NASA scientists and to develop tools that helped the engineers on proposed missions. Furthermore, he has shared his experiences with local RI elementary and middle schools through community outreach motivating young scientists to also pursue their dreams.

Before coming to Brown, Almeida graduated magna cum laude from Federal University of Ceara (Brazil) in 2004 with bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering and was a master’s student at Federal University of Santa Catarina (Brazil) where he took several graduate level courses with focus on signal processing. At that time, Almeida’s studies were sponsored by the Brazilian National Research Council, CNPq.

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