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Fotis Sotiropoulos

By Daniel Dunaief

Screws can’t be the best and only answer. That was the conclusion neurosurgeon Daniel Birk at the Stony Brook Neurosciences Institute came to when he was reconsidering the state-of-the-art treatment for spinal injuries. The screws, which hold the spine in place, create problems for patients in part because they aren’t as flexible as bone.

That’s where Stony Brook University’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, headed by Fotis Sotiropoulos, plans to pitch in. Working with Kenneth Kaushansky, dean of Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine, the two Stony Brook leaders have been immersed in uniting their two disciplines to find ways engineers can improve medical care.

Fotis Sotiropoulos

The two departments have created the Institute for Engineering-Driven Medicine, which will address a wide range of medical challenges that might have engineering solutions. The institute will focus on developing organs for transplantation, neurobiological challenges and cancer diagnostics.

The institute, which already taps into the medical and engineering expertise of both departments, will move into a new $75 million building at the Research and Development Park, in 2023.

The original investment from New York State’s Economic Development Council was for an advanced computing center. The state, however, had given Buffalo the same funds for a similar facility, which meant that former Stony Brook President Sam Stanley, who recently became the president of Michigan State University, needed to develop another plan.

Sotiropoulos and Kaushansky had already created a white paper that coupled engineering and medicine. They developed a proposal that the state agreed to fund. In return for their investment, the state is looking for the development of economic activity, with spin-off companies, jobs, new industries and new ideas, Kaushansky said.

The two leaders are developing “a number of new faculty recruits to flesh out the programs that are going in the building,” Kaushansky added.

Sotiropoulos, who has conducted research in the past on blood flow dynamics in prosthetic heart valves, believes in the potential of this collaboration. “This convergence of engineering and medicine is already doing what it was intended to do,” he said. Clinicians can get “crazy sci-fi ideas, talk to engineers and figure out a way to make it happen.”

In addition to spinal cord support, researchers in engineering and medicine are working on developing algorithms to make decisions about surgical interventions, such as cesarean sections. 

A recent project from principal investigator Professor Petar Djurić, chair of SBU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Gerald Quirk, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Stony Brook Medicine, recently received $3.2 million from the National Institutes of Health. The goal of the project is to use computer science to assist with the decisions doctors face during childbirth. A potential reduction in C sections could lower medical costs. 

“This is a fantastic example of this type of convergence of engineering and medicine,” said Sotiropoulos.”

Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky. Photo from SBU

While the building will host scientists across a broad spectrum of backgrounds, researchers at Stony Brook will be able to remain in their current labs and coordinate with this initiative. Combining all these skills will allow researchers to apply for more grants and, Stony Brook hopes, secure greater funding.

“For a number of years now, the [National Institutes of Health have] really favored interdisciplinary approaches to important medical problems,” Kaushansky said. “Science is becoming a team sport. The broader range of skills on your team, the more likely you’ll be successful. That’s the underlying premise behind this.”

The notion of combining medicine and engineering, while growing as an initiative at Stony Brook, isn’t unique; more than a dozen institutions in the country have similar such collaborations in place.

“We’re relatively early in the game of taking this much more holistic approach,” said Kaushansky, who saw one of the earlier efforts of this convergence when he was at the University of California at San Diego, where he worked with the Founding Chair of the Department of Bioengineering Shu Chien. 

The Stony Brook institute has created partnerships with other organizations, including Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center.

“The more clinical people we engage, the better it is for the institute,” Sotiropoulos said.

As for the bionic spine, Kaushansky has familial experience with spinal injuries. His mother suffered through several spinal surgeries. “There’s a need for much, much better mechanical weight-bearing device that will help people with back problems,” he said.

At this point, Stony Brook has gone two-thirds of the way through the National Science Foundation process to receive a $10 million grant for this spinal cord research. Sotiropoulos suggested that a bionic spine could be “a game changer.”

While the institute will seek ways to create viable medical devices, diagnostics and even organs, it will also meet the educational mandate of the school, helping to train the next generation of undergraduate and graduate students. The school already has a program called Vertically Integrated Projects, or VIPs, in place, which offers students experiential learning over the course of three or four years. The effort combines undergraduates with graduates and faculty members to work on innovative efforts.

“These projects are interdisciplinary and are all technology focused,” Sotiropoulos said. “We bring together students” from areas like engineering, computer science and medicine, which “go after big questions,” and that the VIP efforts are structured to unite engineers and doctors-in-training through the educational process.

Through the institute, Stony Brook also plans to collaborate with other Long Island research teams at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory, Sotiropoulos said, adding that the scientists are “not just interested in doing blue sky research. We are interested in developing services, algorithms, practices, whatever it is, that can improve patient care and costs.”

Indeed, given the translational element to the work, the institute is encouraging a connection with economic development efforts at Stony Brook, which will enable faculty to create spin-off companies and protect their ideas. The institute’s leadership would like to encourage the faculty to “create companies to market and take to market new products and developments,” said Sotiropoulos.

Photos from SBU

Dean Fotis Sotiropoulos, SBU president Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., state Sen. Ken LaValle and state Sen. John Flanagan in front of the current engineering building at the university. Photo from Stony Brook University

Two state senators are doing their part to engineer a better future for Stony Brook University and Long Island.

New York state Sens. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) joined SBU President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. Aug. 16 to announce the award of $25 million in state funding to the university for the initial phase of developing a new engineering building on campus — one that is estimated to cost $100 million in total. The 100,000 square-foot facility will include industrial-quality labs, active-learning classrooms and prototyping/manufacturing space.

“We have the opportunity to provide funding, sometimes discretionary, and this is a very strong investment.”

— John Flanagan

The official announcement was made at the university’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences building with representatives of local engineering companies in attendance, including VJ Technologies, Inc., Cameron Engineering & Associates, LLP, and H2M Architects & Engineers.

“We have the opportunity to provide funding, sometimes discretionary, and this is a very strong investment,” Flanagan said.

He thanked the owners and board members of the local engineering companies who traveled to Albany a few months ago to discuss the needs of engineering companies as well as the importance of recruiting talent and retaining students on Long Island.

LaValle, chairman of the Senate’s higher education committee, said he believed the new building will attract preeminent students to SBU, and thanked Flanagan for helping to secure the funds during a time when spare money isn’t plentiful

“I think it will go a long way in ensuring that we enhance where we are today in terms of providing students and faculty with an optimum state-of-the-art facility,” LaValle said.

Stanley recognized the senators as visionaries for acknowledging how critical the university is when it comes to building the technology that Long Island needs.

“I think it will go a long way in ensuring that we enhance where we are today in terms of providing students and faculty with an optimum state-of-the-art facility.”

— Ken LaValle

“The demand is tremendous,” Stanley said. “So, we really need to grow this school. We’re turning away qualified applicants from the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences because we don’t have enough space and because we need more faculty to teach.”

Fotis Sotiropoulos, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said the number of students applying to SBU has grown 60 percent since 2012, and the university has become more selective due to the lack of space. Currently, engineering students need to score at least 1400 on the SATs and to be in the 95th percentile in their class.

The dean said the research conducted at the school, in addition to impacting the economic development on Long Island, also affects the state and nation. The university focuses on engineering-driven medicine, artificial intelligence discoveries and energy systems for sustainability.

“This is where we are going to develop the medicine of the future,” Sotiropoulos said, adding SBU wants to be the hub for the state in artificial intelligence research.

Sotiropoulos said as the university develops the new facility the curriculum will be reconstructed to build learning around projects that start early in a student’s college years and continue all the way to incubating start-up companies. He said one of the goals is to keep students local after graduation.

“We want to grow the size of the engineering workforce for Long Island and the state, but we also want to educate the new kind of engineers,” Sotiropoulos said.

Alex Orlov on the campus of the University of Cambridge. Photo by Nathan Pitt, University of Cambridge

By Daniel Dunaief

The Ukranian-born Alex Orlov, who is an associate professor of materials science and chemical engineering at Stony Brook University, helps officials in a delicate balancing act.

Orlov, who is a member of the US-EU working group on Risk Assessment of Nanomaterials, helps measure, monitor and understand the hazards associated with nanoparticles, which regulatory bodies then compare to the benefit these particles have in consumer products.

“My research, which is highlighted by the European Union Commission, demonstrated that under certain conditions, [specific] nanoparticles might not be safe,” Orlov said via Skype from Cambridge, England, where he has been a visiting professor for the past four summers. For carbon nanotubes, which are used in products ranging from sports equipment to vehicles and batteries, those conditions include exposure to humidity and sunlight.

“Instead of banning and restricting their production” they can be reformulated to make them safer, he said.

Orlov described how chemical companies are conducting research to enhance the safety of their products. Globally, nanotechnology has become a growing industry, as electronics and drug companies search for ways to benefit from different physical properties that exist on a small scale. Long Island has become a focal point for research in this arena, particularly at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials and the National Synchrotron Light Source II at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Alex Orlov on the campus of the University of Cambridge. Photo by Nathan Pitt, University of Cambridge

Indeed, Orlov is working at the University of Cambridge to facilitate partnerships between researchers in the chemistry departments of the two universities, while benefiting from the facilities at BNL. “We exchange some new materials between Cambridge and Stony Brook,” he said. “We use BNL to test those materials.”

BNL is an “essential facility,” Orlov said, and is where the postdoctoral student in his lab and the five graduate students spend 30 to 60 percent of their time. The data he and his team collect can help reduce risks related to the release of nanomaterials and create safer products, he suggested.

“Most hazardous materials on Earth can be handled in a safe way,” Orlov said. “Most scientific progress and environmental protection can be merged together. Understanding the environmental impact of new technologies and reducing their risks to the environment should be at the core of scientific and technological progress.”

According to Orlov, the European Union spends more money on technological safety than the United States. European regulations, however, affect American companies, especially those that export products to companies in the European Union.

Orlov has studied how quickly toxic materials might be released in the environment under different conditions.

“What we do in our lab is put numbers” on the amount of a substance released, he said, which informs a more quantitative understanding of the risks posed by a product. Regulators seek a balance between scientific progress and industrial development in the face of uncertainty related to new technologies.

As policy makers consider the economics of regulations, they weigh the estimated cost against that value. For example, if the cost of implementing a water treatment measure is $3 million and the cost of a human life is $7 million, it’s more economical to create a water treatment plan.

Orlov teaches a course in environmental engineering. “These are the types of things I discuss with students,” he said. “For them, it’s eye opening. They are engineers. They don’t deal with economics.”

In his own research, Orlov recently published an article in which he analyzed the potential use of concrete to remove pollutants like sulfur dioxide from the air. While concrete is the biggest material people produce by weight and volume, most of it is wasted when a building gets demolished. “What we discovered,” said Orlov, who published his work in the Journal of Chemical Engineering, “is that if you take this concrete and expose new surfaces, it takes in pollutants again.”

Fotis Sotiropoulos, the dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SBU, said Orlov has added to the understanding of the potential benefits of using concrete to remove pollutants.

Other researchers have worked only with carbon dioxide, and there is “incomplete and/or even nonexistent data for other pollutants,” Sotiropoulos explained in an email. Orlov’s research could be helpful for city planners especially for end-of-life building demolition, Sotiropoulous continued. Manufacturers could take concrete from an old, crushed building and pass waste through this concrete in smokestacks.

To be sure, the production of concrete itself is energy intensive and generates pollutants like carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. “It’s not the case that concrete would take as much [pollutants] out of the air as was emitted during production,” Orlov said. On balance, however, recycled concrete could prove useful not only in reducing waste but also in removing pollutants from the air.

Orlov urged an increase in the recycling of concrete, which varies in the amount that’s recycled. He has collaborated on other projects, such as using small amounts of gold to separate water, producing hydrogen that could be used in fuel cells.

“The research showed a promising way to produce clean hydrogen from water,” Sotiropoulos said.

As for his work at Cambridge, Orlov appreciates the value the scientists in the United Kingdom place on their collaboration with their Long Island partners.

“Cambridge faculty from disciplines ranging from archeology to chemistry are aware of the SBU/BNL faculty members and their research,” Orlov said. A resident of Smithtown, Orlov has been on Long Island for eight years. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking and exploring new areas. As for his work, Orlov hopes his work helps regulators make informed decisions that protect consumers while making scientific and technological advances possible.

Student Giancarlos Llanos Romero will be joining the SBU team on a trip to Kenya this summer. Photo by Phoebe Fornof

By Daniel Dunaief

In a region known for the study of fossils left behind millions of years ago, a team of students from Stony Brook University’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences is planning to travel to Kenya this summer to learn about and try to solve the challenges of today.

The university will send eight undergraduates to the Turkana Basin Institute for the engineering department’s first program in Kenya, which will run for over four weeks. In addition to classroom study, the students will seek opportunities to offer solutions to problems ranging from refrigeration, to energy production, to water purification.

The students learned about the opportunity in the spring, only a few months before they would travel to a country where the climate and standard of living for Kenyans present new challenges. “We were skeptical about how many students we would be able to get,” said Fotis Sotiropoulos, the dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who “didn’t start marketing this” until after he took a trip to Kenya and the Turkana Basin Institute, which Stony Brook created at the direction of world-renowned anthropologist Richard Leakey.

Giancarlos Llanos Romero, who is interested in robotics and nanotechnology and is finishing his junior year, had originally planned to spend the summer seeking an internship in the Netherlands or Germany. When he learned about this opportunity, he immediately changed his focus. “I need to do this,” Romero said. “This is much more important than anything I could do in an internship.”

On first blush, the trip is anything but ideal for Romero, whose skin is sensitive to extreme heat, which he can expect to encounter in the sub-Saharan African country. He didn’t want that, however, to stop him and is planning to travel with seven other people he met for the first time last week. Romero said his immediate family, which is originally from Colombia, supported the trip.

Sotiropoulos, who is in his first year as dean, embraced the notion of connecting the engineering department with the Turkana Basin Institute. “Before I came here” said Sotiropoulos, “I felt very passionately about making sure that engineering students became familiar with the rest of the world” and that they understood global challenges, including issues like poverty and water scarcity.

Sotiropoulos met with TBI Director Lawrence Martin during one of his interviews prior to his arrival at SBU. Martin invited Sotiropoulos to visit with Richard Leakey, the founder of TBI whose family has been making scientific discoveries in Kenya for three generations.

Women and children in Kenya searching for, and drinking from, water found beneath the dry riverbed. Photo by Lynn Spinnato

This program quickly came together after those meetings. The two courses will teach students about design thinking, said Robert Kukta, the associate dean for undergraduate programs in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Stony Brook would like to help students develop “the ability to think broadly about solutions and boil it down to the essence of the problem,” Kukta said. This, he said, will all occur in the context of a different culture and local resources.

Students will start their summer experience in Nairobi and then they will travel to Princeton University’s Mpala Research Centre, Martin said. “The journey through Kenyan towns opens visitors’ eyes tremendously to how different peoples’ lives are in different parts of the world,” Martin explained by email. “The goal is not so much to contribute immediately but to understand the challenges that people face, the resources available locally and then to improve their ability to think through possible solutions.”

Once students arrive at TBI, they will have an opportunity to see fossils from many time periods, including those from late Cretaceous dinosaurs. “Every visitor I have ever taken to TBI is amazed and in awe of the abundance of fossil evidence for past life on Earth,” Martin said.

A distinguished professor in the Department of Chemistry at SBU, Benjamin Hsiao, who traveled with Sotiropoulos to Kenya in the spring, is a co-founding director of Innovative Global Energy Solutions Center. Hsiao has been developing water filtration systems through IGESC, which brings together TBI with universities, industry, international governments and foundations. He is well acquainted with the challenges the first set of students will face.

“Once we bring technologies over to Kenya, [sometimes] they do not work for reasons we have not thought of,” which include dust or a broken part for which it’s difficult to find a replacement, he said. “Those failed experiments give us tremendous insight about how to design the next-generation systems which will be much more robust and sustainable and easier to operate by local people.”

Acacia Leakey, who grew up in Kenya and is Richard Leakey’s grandniece, recently completed her senior design project as an undergraduate at Stony Brook. Her work is intended to help farmers extend the life of their tomato plants when they bring them to market.

About 32 percent of the tomatoes go to waste from the extreme heat. Acacia and her team developed a vegetable cooler that employs solar panels to reduce the temperature from 32 degrees Celsius to 15 degrees Celsius, which should extend the life of the tomatoes. Her classmates were “surprisingly supportive” of her work, she said, as some of them hadn’t considered applying their skills in a developing country.

Leakey, who will train for her master’s degree at Stony Brook this fall, will continue to provide insights into Madagascar, another developing African nation where the university has an internationally acclaimed research center. This summer, she will produce a video that will record information from villages near Centre ValBio in Madagascar, which she will bring back to Stony Brook in the hopes of encouraging others to use that information to create their own design projects next year.

As for Romero, who is raising money for the trip through a GoFundMe page, he is prepared to discover opportunities amid the challenges of his upcoming trip and is eager “to be able to actually help a community and say I left a mark.”

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