AS A PANDEMIC RAGES, PROF. RHONDA FRANKLIN PIVOTS TO LEAD MASK MAKING ENDEAVOR
At the start of the spring 2020 term, Prof. Rhonda Franklin embarked on a semester leave to focus on her research projects, and learn and share her expertise at conferences. But by March, there were signs that things would probably not play out as she planned. As the Covid-19 pandemic spread, and the shortage of personal protective equipment started dominating the news, Rhonda began to look for ways in which she could make a difference to the evolving situation. She reached out to Prof. John Bischof (Carl and Janet Kuhrmeyer Chair in Mechanical Engineering), director of the University of Minnesota Institute for Engineering in Medicine inquiring about how she could help. That inquiry culminated in Rhonda leading a team of University scientists who designed and developed MNmask Style 3, a mask meant for wider use beyond healthcare workers.
Vidya’s research focuses on electronic design automation (EDA) which helps in the systematic, efficient, and rapid design of complex electronic circuits. These circuits have billions of microscopic components that are tightly packed into small packages. The increased complexity of compact electronic systems such as implantable medical devices and cell phones have led to increased chip power densities. This can affect performance and cause heating issues which impact battery life, and lead to device failure. Vidya’s research primarily addresses this challenge. Her work involves developing novel algorithms that leverage machine learning (ML) techniques to automatically design power delivery networks and analyze temperature, performing both tasks across the entire chip.
EDA tools typically design chips using heuristic methods which have been rather effective. With the help of machine learning (ML), chip designers can now leverage decades worth of designs by turning the data into valuable insight. ML-based EDA tools minimize errors in new designs, and reduce costs and turnaround times.
REDUCING COST OF EDA SOFTWARE
Chip design costs have risen exponentially over the years because of two key reasons: the prohibitive costs of EDA software, and the cost of chip fabrication. Vidya’s research has the potential to make a valuable contribution towards reducing costs. She is working on building open-source software by contributing to the OpenROAD project (Foundations and Realization of Open Accessible Design), an effort that involves over 30 researchers across four universities that aims to create a public-domain EDA toolchain. She is also working towards establishing a new machine learning (ML) paradigm that develops novel software to analyze the impact of the high power densities on power delivery network design, and temperature for advanced chips.
Vidya earned her bachelor’s degree in India. While an undergraduate student, her senior design project in digital logic design proved to be a turning point: the experience cemented her interest in the field. As a graduate student at the University, she has been working under the guidance of Prof. Sachin Sapatnekar, contributing towards research in the field. For her, the field combines her enthusiasm for algorithms and hardware design, which enable the development of complex systems with diverse applications. The interdisciplinary nature of EDA, and its capacity to build advanced systems with extensive applications motivate her interest in the field.
Prof. Rhonda Franklin is an inaugural recipient of the IEM Abbott Professorships in Innovative Education awarded by the Institute for Engineering in Medicine. She shares the award with Prof. Chris Pennell of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology.
The newly instituted Abbott Professorships will be awarded to the faculty co-directors of the IEM Inspire Program which aims to motivate students to pursue STEM careers in medicine and healthcare.
Sharing her thoughts on the award, Prof. Franklin says, “The program’s aim is to connect students from diverse backgrounds to careers in engineering for medicine. Dr. Chris Pennell and I are working together to develop a program that supports exposing and preparing students for careers in engineering with applications to biomedicine as well as medicine.”
Prof. Mehmet Akçakaya is the recipient of 2 grants from the National Institutes of Health: a Research Project Grant (R01) from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) Trailblazer Award. Both awards will support Mehmet’s research in improving accuracy, reducing risk, and increasing patient comfort during cardiac imaging.
R01 Grant to Develop Rapid Cardiac MRI
The R01 grant (the NIH’s original grant mechanism) is awarded by the NHLBI (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute), and supports health-related research and development based on the mission of the NIH. Prof. Mehmet Akçakaya has received a grant amount close to $2.5 million spread over 5 years.
Titled, “Rapid Comprehensive Cardiac MRI Exam for Diagnosis of Coronary Artery Disease,” Mehmet’s research in this R01 award addresses the lengthy exam times involved in cardiac MRI (CMR) by developing and validating techniques for rapid CMR for comprehensive assessment of coronary artery disease.
Under the R01 project, Mehmet and his team will develop and validate novel acquisition and reconstruction strategies using ideas from MRI physics, such as simultaneous excitation of multiple volumes, as well as from machine learning, including new methods for scan-specific deep learning reconstruction previously developed in his lab.
The clinical gold standards for the diagnosis and treatment of coronary artery disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, are catheter-based procedures, such as x-ray coronary angiography (XCA) for anatomic assessment, or fractional flow reserve (FFR) for physiologic assessment. These procedures have inherent risks due to their invasive nature. Additionally, large studies have indicated that nearly two-thirds of patients referred for their initial elective invasive XCA did not have any significant stenoses i.e., narrowing of arteries. All of this indicates the importance of developing and using non-invasive diagnostic tools.
Currently, CMR is the only non-invasive imaging procedure that is capable of providing a comprehensive assessment of coronary artery disease (CAD) in a single examination, without requiring ionizing radiation. It provides an assessment of myocardial perfusion, cardiac function and viability, as well as angiographic evaluation of stenoses. CMR can be used repeatedly as clinically indicated. However, despite its potential to serve as a non-invasive gatekeeper to costly invasive procedures, lengthy examination times have prevented CMR from being widely deployed. And while several other accelerated imaging techniques have been proposed, these still require trade-offs between coverage, resolution, and signal-to-noise ratio.
Under the current project, Mehmet and his team will develop and validate novel acquisition and reconstruction strategies that will enable a highly accelerated high-resolution whole heart CMR exam for comprehensive CAD assessment in under 10 minutes. These methods use ideas from MRI physics such as simultaneous excitation of multiple volumes, as well as from machine learning, including new methods for scan-specific deep learning reconstruction developed in Mehmet’s lab.
On successful completion, the project has the potential to transform CMR into a leading rapid non-invasive tool for safe and accurate diagnosis of CAD, improving the healthcare of several million patients with chest pain and other CAD symptoms annually.
Trailblazer Award to Develop Alternate Techniques to Assess Myocardial Fibrosis
The NIBIB Trailblazer Award supports new and early stage investigators pursuing research at the “interface of the life sciences with engineering and the physical sciences.” The grant amounts to more than $550, 000 spread over 3 years.
Titled, “Novel Quantitative MRI Techniques for the Assessment of Cardiac Fibrosis without Gadolinium Contrast,” Mehmet’s Trailblazer Award addresses challenges associated with the use of gadolinium-based contrast agents (GBCA) in contemporary cardiac MRI (CMR) by developing novel techniques that assess scar formation in the heart without resorting to GBCA.
The Trailblazer Award project has the potential to transform the way CMR is performed for the assessment of myocardial fibrosis, and will eliminate the need for gadolinium-based contrast agents in a cardiac MRI.
The clinical gold standard for assessing cardiac fibrosis (scarring of cardiac muscle) is late gadolinium enhancement (LGE) CMR. LGE images are acquired approximately 20 minutes after the patient is administered a GBCA intravenously. Although this is a widely used assessment method, there are several concerns about GBCA including its effects on patients with renal impairment, allergic reactions to the contrast agent in some patients, as well as higher costs and patient discomfort due to the presence of an intravenous line. These are compelling concerns that have driven Mehmet to pursue the development of assessment strategies that do not require the administration of GBCA.
Quantitative CMR techniques have attracted some interest as alternatives for identifying myocardial fibrosis without resorting to gadolinium. These methods characterize the underlying tissue by acquiring multiple images with different contrast and generating voxel-wise maps of the tissue properties. Native T1 mapping, magnetization transfer (MT) imaging, and rotating frame relaxation mapping are methods that have shown promise while also displaying some limitations.
In this project, Mehmet will lead his research team to develop novel quantitative CMR techniques that unleash the full potential of MT imaging and rotating frame relaxation in assessing myocardial fibrosis. While the potential of both ideas have been demonstrated on other anatomies, neither have been explored for imaging human heart tissue.
The project, if successful, has the potential to transform the way CMR is performed for the assessment of myocardial fibrosis, and will eliminate the need for gadolinium-based contrast agents in a cardiac MRI.
Prof. Mehmet Akçakaya’ s research is interdisciplinary in nature, and lies at the intersection of signal processing, computational imaging, machine learning and MRI physics. His contributions to these fields include theoretical guarantees for sparse signal processing, new reconstruction methods that learn anatomy-specific structures in MRI, high-precision techniques for quantitative MRI, and subject-specific deep learning MRI reconstruction. His applications focus on heart and brain MRI, and he collaborates with scientists across multiple departments, including the Departments of Radiology, and Medicine. Previously, he has been a recipient of the NIH K99/R00 award (2012/15), an NSF CAREER award (2017), and a McKnight Land-Grant professorship (2018).
Here, in his own words, John shares his thoughts on his recent book and his professional life, as shaped by his journey from Cork, Ireland, to the University of Minnesota, and back to Cork, with all the stops in between.
ON HIS BOOK ELECTRIC POWERTRAIN
Electric Powertrain is the result of my experience in the power electronics industry, and my work as an academic in the field. Several years ago, I could see that with battery technology having greatly advanced since the General Motors EV1, electric vehicles (EVs) had reached a tipping point. Looking at a distance from Cork, I decided that the best contribution that I could make was as a teaching academic. So I spent three years writing the book, setting it up to be used as a university-level teaching textbook or industry reference, complete with the relevant theory, applications, examples, and problems.
I was very familiar with my graduate advisor Regents Professor Ned Mohan’s many textbooks in the power field and I appreciate that he is always focused on student learning and support. Following his example, I designed the book to be student and instructor friendly. The textbook has been a success, adopted by dozens of universities across the United States, Latin America, Europe and Asia. It is also Wiley & Sons’ highest selling university textbook on electric vehicles.
I really enjoyed developing the book as it allowed me to write about what I knew from my previous professional experience, but more importantly, to study, to understand, and to document the many other areas which I knew to be important. While I relished the process of writing the book, and watching its successful adoption by institutions, I am also equally driven by the opportunity it has afforded me to mentor and advise colleagues worldwide on the devising and adopting of electric vehicle curricula. I have also found the public engagement aspect of the effort energizing, exciting, and challenging. It gives me the opportunity to engage with and educate the public on electric vehicles across TV, radio, print, and the web, a fun and new world for me.
ON HIS FORAY INTO ELECTRIC VEHICLES
I had been working in the power electronics industry in Los Angeles (having moved there in 1988 after graduating with my master’s degree) when I saw a job advertisement for a power electronics engineer to work on the new electric vehicle program of General Motors. Hughes Aircraft, a leader in aerospace at the time, had been purchased by General Motors in 1985. The electric vehicle work was carried out by a subsidiary of Hughes Aircraft in Culver City, close to the airport in Los Angeles. I joined General Motors Hughes Aircraft in 1990. The Culver City facility where we worked was historic as it was the facility where the legendary Spruce Goose had been built during World War II. General Motors went on to introduce the first modern production electric vehicle, the GM EV1, in 1996. Thus, the new world of electric vehicles, with which we are all familiar today, originated in Los Angeles around 1990. You can also trace the technical ancestry of Tesla Inc. back to this time. It is amazing to see how this green energy movement has exploded over the past 30 years.
The Li-ion battery, (for which Goodenough, Whittingham, and Yoshino won the Nobel prize in 2019), has been revolutionary in transforming our world, enabling cell phones, laptops and electric vehicles. Electric vehicles can play a significant role in reducing carbon emissions, and eliminating toxic transportation emissions in our cities, both of which could mitigate climate change. We will see greater penetration of electric vehicles across society in the next decade. One of my favorite memories from my book writing endeavor was tracking the Mars rover Opportunity as it travelled across Mars for 14 years, completing a marathon in 2015. If EVs can make it on Mars, they can make it here on Earth!
ON HIS JOURNEY TO THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA
I earned my BE degree in 1986 from University College Cork (UCC), on the south coast of Ireland. I had a great interest in power electronics and electrical machines. When I was finishing college I consulted with my academic advisor who suggested that I contact Prof. Ned Mohan at the University of Minnesota and inquire about pursuing a graduate degree in the Twin Cities. I applied, and was thrilled to be admitted to the University with a scholarship from the Schott Foundation. I spent two great years in the Twin Cities, earning my master’s degree in 1988, after which I moved to Los Angeles for employment in the power electronics industry.
ON HIS STUDENT EXPERIENCE AT THE UNIVERSITY
Academically, the experience was challenging, but so educational. I fondly remember the classes taught by Professors Albertson, Mohan, Ogata, Plice, Riaz, Robbins, Kinney, and others. Socially, I loved my two years at the University. I smile when I think back to those days. It was a different world for a young Irish lad. I had a thick Irish accent which I had to adapt as I realized that people could not understand me. I even attended my first ever St. Patrick’s Day parade in St. Paul in 1987!
I loved playing soccer in the fall with the KHK fraternity engineering team on the University fields in St. Paul, and during the summer with the Minneapolis Kickers on fields all around the Twin Cities. My friends and I enjoyed the hostelries around the campus in Dinkytown, by Seven Corners across the bridge, and the fun visits to Norma Jean’s night club. We swam in the lakes and enjoyed visiting Uptown and downtown Minneapolis, and attended some great concerts at First Avenue. Watching the Gophers play college football, and the Twins at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome were all truly memorable. And who can forget the great Kirby Puckett, the Twins Hall of Famer!
ON HIS ACADEMIC EXPERIENCE LAYING THE FOUNDATION FOR HIS PROFESSIONAL PATH
The University of Minnesota is in the wonderful position of having Prof. Mohan as a Regents Professor. He is a world-renowned academic in power electronics and electrical machines. These technical areas are the pillars of the green energy movement from solar to wind to electric vehicles. I can happily say that I was truly privileged in my early 20s to have been a student of Prof. Mohan. Over thirty years later, he is still heavily influencing my work. One of my great part-time colleagues on the GM EV1 program was my old mentor Dr. Chris Henze. Chris (previously a doctoral advisee of Prof. Mohan, co-supervised my master’s thesis) consulted with us for several years in California on the GM EV1 development. Chris was a calm, sage, and experienced expert in power electronics, whose talents were called on again and again as we developed the new electric vehicle technologies. Dr. Tony O’Gorman, a fellow Cork student at the University, has also worked for many years on electric vehicles across the US.
ON HIS LIFE AS AN ACADEMIC
For family reasons, in the mid 90s, I pursued a part-time thesis-only PhD back in Ireland at Cork. I wintered by the beach in Los Angeles while working at GM and summered in Cork researching electric vehicle technologies. After a decade at GM, I left in 2000 and my Michigan-born wife, Mary (I had met Mary working at GM), and I moved to Cork for me to work as an academic.
It seemed like a fun move at the time, to try something different besides living by the beach. All these years later, we are still in Cork, but we visit Michigan and Los Angeles on a regular basis. Mary has since left her mechanical engineering career behind her and works as a yoga teacher to balance our life challenges and the parenting of our three teenage daughters, Madi, Tasha and Saoirse.
In my teaching and research, I am very active across electric vehicles, power electronics, electrical machines, and applied electromagnetism. I particularly enjoy working on collaborative problem-solving projects with world-leading US companies such as United Technologies (now Raytheon), General Motors, Analog Devices, Advanced Energy, Bourns, Moog, and more. I have a strong relationship with Germany-based SMA Solar Technology AG, who are world leaders in photovoltaic solar electric and renewables. My newest project is a research program on electric aircraft which will bring a whole new set of challenges. My students gain greatly from the industry collaborations with opportunities for mentoring, technical expertise, laboratory facilities, internships, and careers. For me, it’s fun, energizing and productive to tackle new problems with young minds and industry experts.
ADVICE FOR CURRENT AND FUTURE STUDENTS
Take a power electronics class. It opens up fascinating areas that are changing the world, from EVs to renewables to data centers to medical devices, while integrating diverse technologies such as semiconductors, magnetics, control, mechatronics, machines, and energy storage. There are a number of technologies currently being adopted and making the power electronics field even more interesting and impactful: batteries and field cells for electromobility; wide-band-gap semiconductors improving efficiency and reducing converter size; increased digitization, as control moves from the analog to the digital world. But remember that while it’s fun to spin a motor and power a vehicle, it can also be dangerous: explosions and fires come with the territory! One of our big challenges is making our technologies safe.
First, I am really looking forward to the new book on electric drives by the University’s own Prof. Mohan and Dr. Siddharth Raju in the fall. Second, I wish well to all my friends and acquaintances at the University of Minnesota. It is a wonderful world-class institution. I was hoping to visit this year but I look forward to the visit when travel opens up again.
In the meantime, wishing you all “Sláinte” from my hometown of Kinsale, County Cork!
Message from Department Head, Prof. Randall Victora
Dear graduating seniors,
The faculty and staff of ECE would like to extend our congratulations to each of you today, the date of your online commencement ceremony. Despite not being able to celebrate in person, it is important to recognize this major milestone that you accomplished, especially after the last two months of adversity. We compliment you on your hard work and perseverance over your entire undergraduate experience, and in the many years leading to your arrival at the University of Minnesota.
As you commence the next stage of your life, I encourage you to continue the path you have started. Almost 20 years ago, Nelson Mandela stated that education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world, and I believe it is still true. I urge you to continue your education, either formally or informally, always trying to better understand the world around you. By bringing focus, energy, and your education to the task, you can drive the change you want to see.
Returning to today’s graduation, we are all proud of your achievement. We are arranging a gift that will be mailed to you in the next week or so to complement the online commencement. In addition, the faculty has prepared a short video of congratulations. Even though this is not the commencement most of you expected, it does not diminish the magnitude of your achievement. Again, the entire faculty and staff congratulate you and wish you well in your future career as newly minted electrical and computer engineers.
Randall Victora Professor and Head Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Systemwide Virtual Commencement
On May 16, the University of Minnesota will honor the Class of 2020 with a virtual commencement.
The recipients of the 2020-2021 Graduate School Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship are Alireza Sadeghi (advisor: Prof. Georgios Giannakis), Karthik Srinivasan (advisor: Prof. Beth Stadler), Masoud Zabihi (advisor: Prof. Sachin Sapatnekar), and Kaveh Khilji (advisor: Prof. Tony Low).
Alireza Sadeghi is a recipient of the fellowship for his doctoral research titled, “Scalable Learning Robust to Uncertainties with Applications in Cyber-Physical Systems.” He is working under the guidance of Prof. Georgios Giannakis.
Alireza’s research interests span across several areas: artificial intelligence, machine learning, signal processing, and optimization with applications in networks including smart power networks, wired and wireless networks.
In his doctoral research, Alireza addresses some of the challenges facing machine learning. Currently, machine learning algorithms are vulnerable to adversarially manipulated input data, and to uncertain environments. This discourages their use in safety-critical applications. Besides, such algorithms often rely on the premise that training and testing data are drawn from the same distribution, which may not hold in practice. Alireza’s work targets these challenges, and builds learning models that are robust to uncertainties arising from, for instance, distributional mismatches. By wedding innovative machine learning tools, with recent advances in stochastic function interval estimation, robust optimization, control, networking, and communications, he develops scalable and robust algorithms with applications in cyber-physical systems.
Alireza Sadeghi earned his bachelor’s degree from Iran University of Science and Technology, Tehran, in 2012, and his master’s degree from University of Tehran in 2015 (both in electrical engineering). He is currently pursuing his doctoral degree with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
In 2015, he was a visiting scholar with the Department of Information Engineering (DEI) at the University of Padua, Padua, Italy. Previously, he was a recipient of the ADC Fellowship awarded by the Digital Technology Center at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, and the Student Travel Awards from the IEEE Communications Society and the National Science Foundation.
Karthik Srinivasan is a recipient of the Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship awarded by the University’s Graduate School for his research titled, “Magneto-Optical Isolators – The “Missing-Link” in Integrated Photonics.” He is conducting his research under the guidance of Prof. Bethanie Stadler.
Karthik’s work is primed for the future of the computational world, as it moves away from pure electronics towards using photons, spins, and magnons for solving emerging computational problems. His primary research interest is in process development and characterization of novel magneto-optic materials with unique gyrotropic and magnonic properties that can be used for the design of photonic integrated circuits and high frequency microwave filters.
While a fully integrated photonic circuit can perform computations significantly faster than a current day electronic chip, the challenge remains that such a photonic circuit is impeded by the lack of chip-scale optical isolators. These isolators allow for the unidirectional propagation of light which is critical to the protection of on-chip lasers from destabilizing reflections. Karthik is working on the development of exotic magneto-optical materials for Si-integrated isolators that can manipulate light regardless of an external magnetic field. He is currently focused on ways to increase the gyrotropy of cerium doped terbium iron garnet (Ce:TbIG), and to investigate material properties that support magnetless isolation.
One of the key outcomes of Karthik’s research so far is that waveguide isolators fabricated with this new garnet match the mode and dimensions for on-chip lasers. In terms of specific outcomes, these isolators allow for magnetless isolation and increase up to 40 times in device density, which translates to at least 85000 devices per square inch on a photonic integrated circuit.
What’s next for Karthik? He intends to continue working on downsizing waveguide isolators. And the next step to that is the development of garnets with positive Faraday rotation to complement existing negative Faraday rotating garnets. Successful development of such garnets would mean a 50% reduction in device dimensions.
Currently, the absence of an on-chip laser-isolator pair has been a bottleneck even as the photonics community is making significant strides in the development of components such as modulators, circulators, and logic-gates. However, the development of a “ready-to-integrate” optical isolator that is foundry friendly and favorable for industry adoption could change that. Karthik’s research brings us closer to the goal, while simultaneously contributing knowledge to the field.
Karthik Srinivasan earned his bachelor’s degree in electronics and communication engineering from Anna University, in the southern Indian city of Chennai. He moved to Minneapolis in 2016 and earned his masters degree in electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in Spring 2019. His research lies at the intersection of photonics, magnetism and materials, and addresses the challenges of data storage and computation needs for high-speed high-volume processes.
Besides the highly competitive doctoral dissertation fellowship, Karthik is also the recipient of a travel Award by the IEEE Magnetics Society (2019), and a fully sponsored IEEE magnetics summer school in Quito, Ecuador (2018; he was one of 70 students selected from around the world). He is the Vice-Chairperson for the IEEE Magnetics Society chapter for Twin Cities, MN; he has held the position for three consecutive years now.
Masoud Zabihi’s fellowship winning doctoral research is titled “In-Memory Processing Using Spintronics Computational RAM (CRAM).” He is working on his dissertation under the guidance of Prof. Sachin Sapatnekar. Masoud’s research interests include spintronics circuits and architectures, emerging memory technologies, in-memory computing, computing with post-CMOS devices, 3-D integration, VLSI power distribution network design, and VLSI design automation.
In his doctoral research, Masoud is focused on improving the performance of today’s data processing platforms by developing a spintronics-based true in-memory computing method. The size of the data that must be processed by big data applications is growing exponentially: today’s computational engines are inadequate for the analysis of such large and complex data sets.
With current-day hardware engines struggling to provide solutions to this data onslaught, there is a rapidly growing demand for reducing the gap between the computational requirements of big data applications and today’s computational capabilities. One of the most notable challenges is the large amount of time and energy that is wasted by today’s data processing platforms moving data to and from the memory, where data is stored, and the processor, where computations are performed. Masoud’s spintronics-based method eliminates the access overhead by performing computation inside a memory array. He achieves this through a novel reconfiguration scheme that allows the array to either act as a computational unit, or as a conventional memory unit. Taking this idea from concept to practical implementation requires interdisciplinary work with aspects of materials science/physics, circuit design, and computer architecture. His proposed approaches and platforms are demonstrated to tremendously reduce the energy and execution time required to perform big data computations.
Masoud received his bachelor of science degree from University of Tabriz in 2010, and his master’s degree from Sharif University of Technology in 2013. Both degrees were in electrical engineering and electronics. He is currently pursuing his doctoral degree with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. He has interned with Cadence Design Systems (Voltus R&D team, Austin, TX) over fall 2019 and spring 2020. Preciously, Masoud won the best paper award at the 20th ISQED (March 2019) for his work on in-memory computation using spin-Hall magnetic tunnel junctions.
Stress tends to bring about change, and a great stressor such as COVID-19 can radically alter lives. There is no question that the current pandemic has been disruptive to our activities, moods, and our ability to perform productive work. Our roles as educators and students have been upended, causing us to question our methods of teaching and learning. I found myself in this position the first day I moved my lectures to the online format required by the University. Could I translate my face-to-face lectures into the Zoom format? Should I do this directly? And if not, what changes should I make to my teaching?
My Physical Optics Lecture
For my physical optics class (EE 5621), I had a series of pre-recorded lectures that could serve as a basis for the instruction. However, good teaching is a two-way street where students can ask questions and the instructor can take the educational pulse of the class. Obviously, my pre-recorded lectures did not allow for this. My first challenge then was to find a way to augment my EE5621 class in a way that could offer meaningful online content. So, I chose to enhance the taped lectures with online sessions that review the highlights, allow for dialog, and probe the important concepts in more detail. In essence, I flipped my classroom, requiring the students to watch a video while using the “in-class” time for summation, discussion, and problem solving. So far, I have found this to be a positive experience. My students seem to be engaged and are free to ask questions about basic concepts, technical details, and homework problems. Although I greatly miss seeing and interacting with everyone face-to-face, the inverted classroom style has offered some new advantages that I hope to preserve when we return to in-class teaching.
My Physical Optics Lab
My lab course (EE5622) is another story altogether. How do I offer a meaningful experience in a laboratory-based class where touching, adjusting, and observing are key aspects of the learning experience? During a normal year, the teaching assistant (TA) and I are both present in the lab and can circulate around to answer questions. The lab is a classic physics set-up, complete with lasers, optics of various kinds, detectors, camera, and computers. Converting this into a look but don’t touch format has indeed been challenging. Luckily, my TA Nathan Mowry took extensive notes and high-quality data when he was a student in the class last year. Nathan and I now meet with the students on Zoom every week for roughly the same amount of time as a standard lab period. But rather than helping the students set up equipment and take data, we devote the session to a discussion of experimental intricacies and mathematical methods that they need to apply to our pre-recorded data. Is it the same as a real laboratory experience? No. But that’s not to say it’s bad – just different. Although it pains me to know that our students are missing the joy of actually seeing the interference fringe from the interferometer they just spent an hour aligning, I know they still can appreciate the power of the optical effects and techniques we are presenting.
So how have my first two weeks of online instruction been? Well, there are definitely things I miss about face-to-face lecturing. But at the same time, the online format has forced me to evaluate my teaching methods and has introduced me to new teaching styles. In essence, I am learning new things along with the students. Sometimes adversity can be the key to advancement. And when we all come out of this struggle, I expect to be a better teacher for it.
A multidisciplinary team of scientists led by Prof. Jian-Ping Wang (Distinguished McKnight University Professor and Robert F Hartmann Chair) of ECE, and Prof. Maxim Cheeran of the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine have designed a handheld diagnostic device that is capable of detecting the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
MagiCoil, as the device is currently called, is based on magnetic particle spectroscopy (MPS) and is capable of assaying blood and respiratory material, and delivering results in about 10 minutes. It is designed to be a point-of-care system that can rapidly diagnose diseases and share test results with healthcare professionals and agencies through its smartphone interface. In a scenario such as the current Covid-19 situation, such a device can provide critical data not only for diagnosis, but also to follow and monitor the spread of the virus in the population, a vital step to control the spread of the disease.
Jian-Ping, whose research in the area dates back to over 10 years, is eager to join the fight against the virus. Keenly aware of the importance of affordability and widespread testing in the pandemic scenario, he says: “Once our first-generation prototypes are demonstrated successfully, we can ask for a company to produce the device in mass production. The estimated cost per unit is about $100 or lower. I think there is a way to produce a large enough number of MPS systems to meet a significant portion of the demand.”
Maxim, whose expertise lies in immunology, specifically the neuroimmune response to brain infections, sees immense value in point-of-care diagnostic devices such as the MPS for their accessibility: “This MPS device coupled with a smartphone interface will allow testing in remote areas and on-site settings, such as in households and clinics. By transmitting test results collected from distant locations to centrally located data analysis units, governments can have real-time epidemiological data at their fingertips.”
Echoing Maxim’s opinion, Dr. Venkatramana D Krishna, a researcher on the team from the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, says: “The MPS handheld device can help mitigate the health burden and provide early diagnosis to effectively prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as save lives.”
MPS is a novel non-invasive measurement method that is based on the collection of magnetic responses from superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles (magnetic nanoparticles or MNPS, in short). This allows for easier analysis as biological samples can be assayed with minimal processing i.e. the samples do not have to be purified or washed. The technology has two critical implications. Firstly, it supports sample handling and testing by non-technicians with minimal training requirements. A second critical advantage of this magnetic assay platform is that the biological samples show virtually no magnetic background noise, so high sensitivity measurements can be performed on minimally processed samples.
HOW DOES MAGICOIL DIAGNOSE THE SARS-CoV-2 VIRUS
In the COVID-19 scenario, antibodies specific to the SARS-CoV-2 virus are applied to the surface of the nanoparticles that are enclosed in a tube. When a respiratory sample is introduced to these MNPs, the latter bind to the proteins in the sample through antibody-antigen interaction. The process triggers the detection of specific biomarkers unique to the disease, such as the S protein (the spike structure seen in illustrations of the virus structure that attach to cells in the human body), and the N protein (seen as bound to the viral genome, it plays a critical role in how cells in your body respond to the virus). When an AC-induced magnetic field is applied (by the MPS drive system through excitation coils) to the MNPs, their response is monitored by a pair of pick-up coils. As more and more of the treated nanoparticles bind with the proteins, the magnetic responses from the MNPs weaken, thereby returning a positive result for the specific disease biomarker. The device is currently undergoing further tests to fine tune aspects critical to accurate diagnosis, and we will keep you posted.
But the story of MagiCoil will not end with swift and widespread diagnosis of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Eventually, MagiCoil’s capability can be extended to diagnose other diseases. As Jian-Ping says, “Our technology could provide another platform for the rapidly expanding telemedicine and remote diagnosis settings”.
Dr. Kai Wu, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who has worked with Prof. Jian-Ping Wang since the early days of development of the device, reiterates the potential: “MPS is a versatile platform that allows for extending this technology to other disease monitoring, food safety monitoring, and water quality monitoring simply by adjusting the reagents on nanoparticles for different target analytes.”
The bioassay platform is a truly multidisciplinary effort: besides the lead scientists, the work is supported by undergraduate and graduate student researchers from the Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Computer Science and Engineering, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, and Mechanical Engineering. The development of the device also receives critical support from the University’s Medical School and the Institute for Engineering in Medicine.
Born in Kathmandu, Nepal, Ramesh completed his schooling at St. Xavier’s School, graduating in 1976 at the top of his class. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering (with honors) from BITS in 1982. He has fond memories of his time there, inspired by professors L.K. Maheshwari and the late K.V. Ramanan, both of whom instilled a love of electronics in him.
After graduating from BITS, Ramesh went on to earn his master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi in 1984, where he architected, developed the assembly language, designed and completed the layout of an 8-bit NMOS microprocessor in collaboration with his colleague Badri Lokanathan.
Ramesh earned his doctoral degree from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in 1989 under the guidance of professors Rob. A. Rutenbar and L. Richard Carley. The focus of his research work was the automatic design and synthesis of analog circuits, and Rutenbar guided him with the CAD aspects, while Carley guided him with the analog design aspects of his research. His 1987 IEEE/ACM Design Automation Conference (DAC) paper titled, “A Prototype Framework for Knowledge-Based Analog Circuit Synthesis”, won best paper award, and was later selected as one of the most significant papers presented over the last 24 years in the Design Automation Conference. Continuing on that trajectory, Ramesh’s 1988 IEEE International Conference on Computer-Aided Design paper titled “Analog Circuit Synthesis for Performance in OASYS” was selected for The Best of ICCAD – 20 Years of Excellence in Computer Aided Design, in 2002. The book is a collection of the 42 best papers from 20 years of ICCADs selected for their impact on research and applications.
Ramesh’s Professional Contributions
After graduating from CMU in 1989 Ramesh joined Mentor Graphics in San Jose, CA where he started working on analog synthesis, but transitioned to managing a group focused on developing tools and models for power electronics due to market shifts.
In 1990 he was hired by Prof. Mos Kaveh (now Dean of the University’s College of Science and Engineering) as an assistant professor in the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. During his interview he was asked if he would be able to teach an analog circuits course. Little did he know then how fortuitous this question would prove to be. Although he spent his initial professional years on analog CAD techniques, he eventually turned his focus to biomedical and low power analog circuit design, and hasn’t looked back since. His research remains centered on low power analog circuits, data converters, and CMOS RF circuits for wireless communications.
In 2001, Ramesh had a short stint as an entrepreneur when he co-founded Bermai, Inc., a startup company developing CMOS chips for wireless multimedia applications with his then ECE colleague Prof. Jaekyun Moon. At Bermai, headquartered in Palo Alto, CA, Ramesh and Jaekyun ended up raising over $45 million in venture financing and growing the company to over 100 employees spread across multiple locations in the US.
Ramesh is the co-author of 9 books and over two hundred refereed publications. He has advised 33 doctoral and 33 master’s degree students since he joined the University of Minnesota. Grateful for the academic and professional mentoring he has received over the years, Ramesh is keen on passing it forward. He is extremely proud of his students, and is keenly appreciative of the fact that the quality of research is dependent on the caliber of the students. He considers himself very fortunate to have advised some of the best of them and credits them with being instrumental in his professional success. He takes great pleasure in meeting regularly with his former students and basking in their successes, as any proud mentor.
Ramesh’s current research efforts focus on the development of high‐performance front‐end component designs for broadband and multi‐standard wireless systems, and the development of next generation high‐speed wired communication systems. Other areas of interest include biomedical devices, data converters and sensor interface circuits, analog circuit synthesis, and micro‐power analog circuit design.
Prof. Ramesh Harjani is the E.F. Johnson Professor of Electronic Communications, and a Fellow of the IEEE, class of 2006 (“for contributions to the design and computer aided design (CAD) of analog and radio frequency circuits). He has been a visiting professor at Lucent Bell Labs, Allentown, PA and at the Army Research Laboratory, Adelphi, MA. His group has won the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) design challenges twice, in 2000 and 2003. His group has won a number of best paper awards including 1987 DAC, 1988 ICCAD, 1998 GOMAC, and the 2018 European Solid-State Circuits Conference. He has given a number of keynote talks at IEEE conferences, including APCCAS 2010, MWSCAS 2013, ASICON 2013, GlobalSIP 2014, JEC-ECC 2015. He has held numerous editorial roles with IEEE journals and has been on the technical program committee of several IEEE conferences including being the TPC Chair for IEEE CICC in 2012.
He is an avid photographer, and enjoys hiking, cooking, and traveling. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife Savita, whom he met during his time at IIT Delhi.