For undergraduates in the engineering school, summer often means a chance to apply their learning in new ways, whether conducting field research, working in industry or volunteering abroad. Last summer, with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting many of these plans, some students’ research projects took them in unexpected directions.
In response to increased need, the Department of Electrical Engineering boosted their support for faculty-advised summer research projects. Students explored topics including strategies for making public spaces safer, techniques for make smart phones safer, and approaches for improving the building blocks of quantum computing, among others.
Musab Almajnouni and Vincent Yang: Could LEDs Aid the Fight Against COVID?
Musab Almajnouni didn't have a back-up plan for summer. He was joining a team of biologists in Madagascar, where he would use his computational skills to study disease. So, when the coronavirus pandemic swept those plans aside, forcing him home to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, he had no idea what would come next.
That's when he got an email from his mentor, Claire Gmachl, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering. She had an idea for a project that she wanted undergraduate students to lead, and reached out to Almajnouni to gauge his interest.
"I just want to state this, and I'll probably repeat it, but she's a fantastic professor," Almajnouni said of Gmachl. He first got to know her in a first-year engineering course, which sparked enough interest for him to turn from finance to electrical engineering. "She's always made herself available for students to really get to know the material she's teaching."
With that rapport established, the following summer he interned in the Gmachl lab on a biomedical sensing project, where he learned up close the ins and outs of optics research and developed strong relationships with his colleagues.
But this next project was something different. Almajnouni teamed up with his fellow junior in electrical engineering, Vincent Yang, whose plans to intern at BAE Systems had also fallen through due to the pandemic. They would work directly under Gmachl on a project to understand how ultraviolet light emitting diodes might be used to disinfect public spaces. It wasn't a trip to Madagascar or a defense security clearance, but it seemed like a golden opportunity for the two students to put their skills to use in the fight against the very disease that had crashed their plans.
"What caught my eye specifically was the application of our research topic to COVID-19," Yang said. "Given than I lost my expected summer job to COVID, and recognizing the massive impact on people around the world, I was motivated to contribute."
Over the summer, the two Slacked and Zoomed their way through a mountain of literature on the subject. In addition to regular lab group meetings, twice a week Almajnouni and Yang met online with Gmachl to parse their questions and find the essential thread to move ever deeper into the subject. After a preliminary review, they began developing a model for more efficient UV-emitting devices.
"Musab and Vincent were such amazing researchers," Gmachl said. "They always were a step ahead of me in exploring and evaluating various device geometries."
This project was one of six funded by the Stephen C. Johnson Slingshot Fund for Innovation, an unprecedented effort by electrical engineering to support faculty-advised summer research for its undergraduate students.
Yang took the lead in working out the optical simulations through a computer modeling tool, adjusting the geometries by a few nanometers at a time until the numbers matched their needs, which Almajnouni helped define through his research of the materials. By summer's end, they had identified a wavelength of ultraviolet light that shows evidence of being both safe and effective for public spaces. This fall they are continuing the work as independent research, with a goal of drawing their analysis toward the design of a useful device. The team believes LEDs could one day transform the health and safety of public spaces. But the research is far from conclusive.
"The next step is to just write a paper and try to publish it and see where it takes the scientific community," Almajnouni said.
In total, 14 summer projects (16 students) were supported by the Slingshot Fund in 2020. The others were:
Project: Hardware Module for Smart Phones to Support Machine Learning Algorithms for Sensor-Based Impostor Detection
Adviser: Ruby Lee
Project: Design of a Coherent Injector GaAs/A1GaAs Quantum Cascade Laser of Varying AI Concentrations with Waveguides
Adviser: Claire Gmachl
Project: Speed Advantages of Tandem Simulation using RISC-V
Adviser: Sharad Malik
Project: Development of an EDGE Profiling Tool and Comparative Analysis of Edge ML to Cloud-Distributed ML
Adviser: Mung Chiang
Project: Programming Microwave Pulse Experiments in Qiskit for Measurement of Quantum States
Adviser: Hakan Türeci
Project: Reconfigurable Antenna Design Based on User Movements
Adviser: Naveen Verma
Project: Studying Beamforming Architectures for Multiband Phased Arrays
Adviser: Kaushik Sengupta
Akash Pattnaik and Tobias Zypman
Project: Converting CT Scans into X-Ray Images to Identify Patterns in Covid-19 Lungs
Adviser: Jason Fleischer
Project: Parsing Online Database of Molecular Crystal Structures to Identify Organic Semiconductor Candidates
Adviser: Barry Rand
Project: 3D Environments with Annotation of Unobservable State Variables
Adviser: Naveen Verma
Project: Comprehensive Design of Miniaturized Non-Invasive Glucose Sensor
Adviser: Claire Gmachl
Project: Out-of-Order Execution Processor with the Efficiency of In-Order Execution
Adviser: David August