In 10 years at Lehigh, Mayuresh Kothare
, the R.L. McCann Professor in the department of chemical engineering, has earned a reputation for prevailing against the odds, often in endeavors outside his field.
In 1999, Kothare won a grant from the National Science Foundation through NSF’s initiative “XYZ-on-a-Chip” for engineering microsystems on a computer chip. His proposal was one of about 20 selected for award from amongst 350 submitted nationwide.
In 2001, Kothare received NSF’s prestigious CAREER award, which funds “junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar.”
In 2006, Kothare was elected a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), an honor that recognized his record of research collaborations with electrical engineers.
In recent weeks, Kothare has added two more distinctions. He is one of 82 young U.S. engineers chosen to take part this month in the 2008 U.S. Frontiers of Engineering Symposium sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).
And his is one of about 30 research teams, out of more than 1,250 competing, to receive grants through NSF’s Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation initiative. The three-year award will partially support a sabbatical at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where Kothare is working with biomedical engineer Nitish V. Thakor on the control of neural prostheses with brain-machine interfaces (BMIs).
BMIs interpret electric signals from brain cells and stimulate actuators to perform an action such as the movement of a cursor on a computer screen or even of an artificial limb. The technology has been hailed as offering hope to persons with brain or spinal-cord damage who have lost the ability to move their limbs or to interact with the outside world.
In good Lehigh company
The goal of NAE’s Frontiers of Engineering Symposium is to bring together U.S. engineers from a variety of disciplines who are performing “exceptional research and technical work.”
The discussions in which these researchers take part, says NAE president Charles M. Vest, “will surely help contribute to keeping us at the forefront of technological advancement and may even spark a breakthrough that changes the way we live.”
The symposium, to be hosted Sept. 18-20 by Sandia National Laboratories at the University of New Mexico, is open to engineers aged 30 to 45 who are working in academia, industry and government. More than 230 engineers were nominated by fellow engineers or organizations.
Kothare will have plenty of Lehigh company at the event.
John D. Lee is professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Iowa, where he also holds appointments in the department of neurology, the Public Policy Center and the Injury Prevention Research Center. Lee earned a B.A. in psychology from Lehigh in 1987 and a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1988. His B.S. adviser was Terry Delph, professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics.
Ji-Cheng Zhao is associate professor of materials science and engineering at Ohio State University. Zhao earned a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from Lehigh in 1995. His Ph.D. adviser was Michael Notis, professor emeritus of materials science and engineering.
Stephen J. Uftring is assistant leader of the Missile Defense Elements Group at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. Uftring earned a B.S. in engineering physics from Lehigh in 1992 and added an M.S. in 1994 and a Ph.D. in 1998, both in physics. His Ph.D. advisers were George D. Watkins and Michael Stavola, professors of physics.
The keynote address at the symposium will be delivered by another three-degree alumnus, Alton D. Romig, who earned the B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from Lehigh in 1975, 1977 and 1979. Romig is senior vice president and deputy laboratories director for integrated technologies and systems with Sandia National Labs.
Also invited to the symposium is Nelson Tansu, the P.C. Rossin Assistant Professor of electrical and computer engineering at Lehigh, who has been asked to serve on the organizing committee for NAE’s 2009 U.S. Frontiers of Engineering Symposium.
Converting thoughts to actions
At Johns Hopkins University, Kothare is for the first time seeking a medical application for his expertise in controls engineering, which is the mathematical modeling of systems and the control of their dynamic behaviors.
Working with Thakor, Kothare is attempting to overcome a key shortcoming that limits the ability of neuroprosthetic devices to interact with, and respond to signals from their environments.
Brain-machine interfaces, which are connected to the brain by microelectrodes attached to the cortex or to the scalp, translate brain signals using an algorithm, or formula, and then direct actuators to move a prosthetic device (artificial limb) or even a cursor on a computer screen.
Thakor and other experimentalists have trained monkeys to move a prosthetic device by thinking in such a way that their brain-cell signals can be interpreted and harnessed to activate the device.
“You think of the action,” says Kothare, “and your brain signals are measured and guided by an algorithm so that the actuator, through sensors in the prosthetic device, can implement the brain’s command.”
As of yet, however, BMIs have not “closed the loop,” says Kothare, who is co-director of Lehigh’s Center for Chemical Process Modeling and Control
. After a prosthetic device responds to a BMI direction, a person’s senses perceive the environment and send messages back to the brain, which then sends signals ordering corrective action, telling an artificial hand to move closer to a cup or coaxing a cursor to change direction on a screen.
It is this feedback process that Kothare is seeking to interpret and model.
“We want to understand the entire closed loop – the brain signals, the interpretation of the signals, the implementation of the brain’s command, the feedback by sensors to the brain, and the transmission of new brain signals that are modified in response to the environment. We want to measure, interpret and model this entire system.
“Force, visual and all other kinds of feedback influence how the brain changes its signals. These modified signals must be interpreted and converted into action in a closed-loop fashion.”
By seeking to unravel the complexity of the brain’s neurons, or nerve cells, in a practical neuroprosthesis, Kothare says, his collaboration with Thakor will contribute to the solution of one of NAE’s 14 “grand challenges.”
The “reverse-engineering” of the brain is one of 14 challenges posed by NAE’s Committee on Engineering’s Grand Challenges
Editor’s note: John Coulter, professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics and associate dean of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, was chosen to take part in NAE’s 1998 Frontiers of Engineering Symposium.
In February, Animangsu Ghatak ’03 Ph.D., was invited to give a presentation at NAE’s 2008 Indo-American Frontiers of Engineering Symposium. Ghatak, whose Ph.D. adviser was Manoj Chaudhury, profess