faculty at work, advancing technology one step at a time
School of Engineering
and Applied Science is striving to break into the top 20 engineering
schools in the country. In the most recent U.S. News & World Report
survey, U.Va.'s Engineer ing School ranked 27th, tied with Harvard,
Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania and University of California,
San Diego. Recent grants -- in particular, the $10.5 million gift
from the Whitaker Foundation for biomedical engineering and a
$5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build
a Materials Research Science and Engineering Center -- recognize
U.Va.'s growing national reputation in engineering. Recruiting
and retaining top-notch faculty members is a key element of the
Engineering School's strategy for success.
are profiles of some of the Engineering School's most promising
young academic leaders. They are not only devoted to students,
serving as mentors and advisers, but dedicated to their roles
as scientists and scholars, helping to expand the knowledge in
cooks up the lightest solid known -- and we're not talking cheese
engineering professors stand out in Pamela Norris' life.
first one taught her undergraduate thermodynamics class at a university
in the Southeast in the fall of 1984. The crusty old male professor
glared at the smattering of females in his classroom and announced
that women weren't supposed to be engineers.
that moment, I determined that I would get the highest grade in
the class and he would apologize to me," Norris said. "And I did
and he did."
second professor was Chang-Lin Tien, then chancellor and professor
of mechanical engineering who ran a laboratory studying microscale
heat transfer at the University of California-Berkeley. Norris
turned down several offers of associate professorships to work
in Tien's lab after receiving a doctorate at the Georgia Institute
of Technology for her study of heat transfer in diesel engines.
Tien advised her to build her career around challenging problems:
"He said, 'Always work at the limits, because that's where the
exciting developments will be,'" Norris recalled.
the 34-year-old associate professor of mechanical and aerospace
engineering teaches thermodynamics at the University's School
of Engineering and Applied Science, while balancing a heavy load
of academic and professional responsibilities. She directs more
than $2 million in sponsored research in the two laboratories
she founded at U.Va., the Microscale Heat Transfer Laboratory
and the Aerogel Research Laboratory. Along the way, Norris --
who stands just over five feet tall, has a mop of curly blond
hair and radiates excitement -- has filed several patents and
won numerous honors.
The traditional study of heat transfer looks at how heat is generated,
stored and transported in materials and of the effects of these
processes on materials and systems. From heating and air conditioning
systems to keeping cell phones from getting too hot during use,
heat transfer affects nearly every aspect of modern life.
heat transfer involves studying the movement of heat on a microscopic
level over very short periods of time. Research in this area can
help high-performance microelectronic chip manufacturers who seek
to pack more and more components onto their chips to increase
operating speed. The goal of Norris' research in microscale heat
transfer is to develop a high-tech sensor that will detect faults
in metallic films thinner than a human hair for use by the semiconductor
are fascinating materials -- the lightest solids ever made --
with a broad array of potential uses, according to Norris. "I'd
never heard of aerogels before [working with Tien]," Norris said.
"I was amazed at their properties."
Made from different materials, including silica, alumnia or zirconia,
aerogels are highly porous, ultra-lightweight solids. Because
of their insulating properties -- thermal, electrical and acoustical
-- they are of great interest to manufacturers of windows, semiconductors
and acoustical paneling. Their intricate porous microstructure
also allows them to be filled with other materials, creating "smart
aerogels" that have entirely new uses, such as environmental sensing,
with both peacetime and wartime applications.
In her research labs, Norris is collaborating with Veridan-Pacific-Sierra
Research Corp. to determine the effectiveness of aerogels in detecting
biological agents in the environment and with the National Institutes
of Health on the development of a material for DNA sequencing
on microchips. The cost and time savings of such chip-based analytical
methods will help streamline current genome projects and enable
the development of hand-held, rapid medical diagnostic equipment.
with her research and teaching, Norris loves mentoring students.
She has advised more than two dozen graduate and undergraduate
students who, in their turn, have taught her important lessons
about research and about life, she said. She tries to involve
her students in all aspects of her research and gives them a lot
of responsibility. "I expect a lot, but I give them a lot of credit
for their work," Norris said.
she hopes that, working together with her students, Norris can
keep pushing the limits of where engineers -- men and women --
applies engineering to the circulatory system
is Tom Skalak's fascination with the human body's ability to adapt
that has shaped his career.
"If a bridge collapses, it can't rebuild itself," said Skalak,
"but the human body can adapt to changed conditions. It's the
most fundamental challenge in biomedical engineering and what
makes it different from other engineering problems."
a professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering
and Applied Science, Skalak's research focuses on the human circulatory
system, in particular, the flow of blood through the network of
tiny blood vessels, the "arterioles," one size up from the tiniest
is where all the action is," Skalak notes.
research explores how small blood vessels compensate for physical
or chemical changes in their environment that slow blood flow
or increase blood pressure. Once the process is fully understood,
Skalak and his students will be able to help pharmaceutical companies
develop new drug therapies for a broad range of diseases and conditions
involving the circulatory system, including heart disease, stroke,
diabetes, wound healing and post- surgery recovery.
better understanding of the adaptability of the circulatory system
may also be used in developing treatments for cancer that will
starve cancer cells of their nutrients by cutting off their blood
its nature, Skalak's research is interdisciplinary and depends
on the cooperation of people in various fields of medicine and
engineering. His lab also depends on the efforts of half a dozen
graduate and undergraduate students who have helped develop the
new methods they now use to conduct their experiments.
field is resource intensive. In the past five years Skalak - supported
by his students, colleagues, and administrators - has helped bring
in grants in excess of $16.5 million, including a $10.5 million
gift from the Whitaker Foundation.
research and publications in the field of biomechanics and microcirculation
have been recognized by his peers who elected him president of
the Biomedical Engineering Society of America this year.
his career has involved reading in a very specialized field, Skalak
believes one of the most important qualities of a scientist is
to be well read in the humanities as well as the sciences.
literature, politics and philosophy is very important in forming
the scientific mind," Skalak said. "It teaches you values that
should drive your science. It teaches you critical thinking and
personal integrity. It teaches you that you are standing on the
shoulders of others while pointing up the importance of being
an independent thinker.
"In choosing the students to work in his lab, Skalak looks for
students with good character who are good team players and have
a grasp of the big picture as well as their place in it.
want them to be able to put their work in perspective, to ask
themselves if they are working on the most important thing, or
whether they should switch projects to address a broader, more
important question," Skalak said. "I want them not just ready
to go to work tomorrow but ready to address the important problems
of the future."
builds new materials, atom by atom
Robert Hull first used an electron microscope when he was an undergraduate
at Oxford University.
could see individual atoms of silicon crystals," Hull said,
with a touch of amazement still in his voice. "In 1979, that
capability was really new. There were only a handful of places
in the world where you could do that. From that moment, I was
decade-long stint in industry -- at AT&T Bell Laboratories and
Hewlett Packard Laboratories -- led to an academic career, beginning
with a visiting professorship at the University of Tokyo. Now
a professor of materials science in the School of Engineering
and Applied Science, Hull holds the Heinz and Doris Wilsdorf Distinguished
has published more than 150 papers on his research in nanotechnology,
which involves creating and observing things on a very small scale
-- about 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
He served as president of the Materials Research Society in 1997.
this fall, U.Va. received a prestigious $5 million grant from
the National Science Foundation to establish a Materials Research
Science and Engineering Center. Hull was the team leader of an
interdisciplinary group of U.Va. researchers that drew up the
works with a focused-ion-beam system to build new structures and
create new materials with certain desired characteristics. It
allows him to look at the failure of materials at the nano level.
And it lets him see how very thin metal films form and grow.
lab also is working to refine equipment that can stamp tiny patterns
on the surfaces of materials. His research has the potential to
help a wide range of materials manufacturers improve their processes,
while reducing their costs.
the lab, Hull enjoys the challenge of teaching.
is more rewarding than having a student come up with a solution
for your problem," Hull said. "They come up with things
I wouldn't have thought of. So you're adding to the scientific
process by training people to do that."
works to make chemical processes more efficient
Like the chemicals he works with, Robert J. Davis is a catalyst.
associate professor of chemical engineering who has been on the
Engineering faculty for 10 years, Davis is working to make chemical
processes faster and more efficient. The bottom line: lower costs
and a safer environment.
increasing reliance on chemicals for everything from medicines
to food to building materials has had a major environmental impact,
explained Davis, who won the Rodman Scholars' teaching award last
year. Generally, his work examines catalysis -- the addition of
a chemical product to speed up chemical reactions while minimizing
waste and maximizing the desired product.
example, many chemical plants use large quantities of liquid acids
and bases in their manufacturing -- liquids that are often shipped
across country by rail. The byproduct at the end of the process
is often some sort of corrosive salt, which must be disposed of.
Davis' goal has been to come up with novel solids that will behave
the same as the liquids, but are much easier to transport and
produce fewer byproducts.
work may also have an impact in the auto industry. Federal regulations
have required that automakers lower the emissions in their products
dramatically in recent years. The introduction of the catalytic
converter has largely accomplished this task -- but only when
the converters are warmed up to their normal running temperature.
Davis' Department of Energy-sponsored research has identified
chemicals that are effective in reducing emissions within the
first 30 seconds of a car's operation, before the engine is fully
warm, he said.
area of possible future exploration that interests him is finding
a way to use solar energy to extract hydrogen from water as a
virtually limitless clean energy source. "A lot of people
have been working on that for decades," he said. "That's
a hard one."
tackles computing problems
tackles computing problems Gabriel Robins awakened to the capabilities
of computers when he was 7 or 8 years old and saw the movie, "2001:
A Space Odyssey." Hal 9000, the spaceship's intelligent onboard
computer, left an indelible mark on Robins' mind. "Computers
are an amazing tool that magnifies the capabilities of our brain,"
said Robins, the Walter N. Munster Associate Professor of Computer
Science at the School of Engineering and Applied Science. "Other
tools -- cars, engines, planes, submarines, helicopters -- are
mundane by comparison. Computers are in a class all by themselves."
to a program for gifted children at Bar-Ilan University in Tel
Aviv, Israel, Robins began at an early age to pursue what would
become a lifelong interest in computers.
possesses a working knowledge of dozens of computer languages,
operating systems and hardware platforms. He has addressed a variety
of specific problems in computer science, but most fall under
the rubric of "optimization" -- finding simpler ways
for computer hardware and software programs to solve increasingly
complicated problems faster and cheaper.
A major research interest of Robins' is interconnections and finding
the best ways to connect components. Another area of interest
involves working with semiconductor manufacturers to increase
the production yield of computer chip manufacturing plants.
applications of his research include the field of logistics, where
dispatchers seek the shortest, simplest routes connecting a number
of (potentially moving) destinations. And the U.S. Army uses his
work in landmine detection.
fun, he does math, with serious results. An algorithm Robins developed
-- a solution for a long-standing math problem, "the discrete
Plateau problem of minimal surfaces" -- was published in
the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1992 and
received national news coverage.
joining the U.Va. faculty in 1992, Robins has won numerous honors.
They include two high-profile national awards, the National Science
Foundation Young Investigator Award ($312,500) and the Packard
Foundation Fellowship ($500,000). And as co-principal investigator,
he secured three grants from the National Institutes of Health's
National Library of Medicine (for more than $3.1 million).
personal recipe for success is based on persistence.
billionaires had many, many failures and one good idea,"
Robins said. "One good idea makes up for many failures. My
philosophy of life is, don't be afraid to fail, but fail fast.
You will probably fail many times in your life. Just fail fast
and move on until eventually you get to success."
studies past inventors to teach future innovators
"Invention is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration."
Bernard Carlson gives his students hands-on experience of this
observation by Thomas Edison.
an associate professor in the Engineering School's Division of
Technology, Culture and Communication, specializes in the history
of American technology and business. On the faculty since 1986,
he has researched such inventors as Edison, Alexander Graham Bell
and most recently Nikola Tesla, and how the introduction of new
technology requires engineers and managers to integrate new products
with changes in business organization and marketing strategy.
His teaching process has grown out of studying inventors, he says.
"In my research, the most successful inventors are able to
translate their ideas, to negotiate and interact with various
groups," Carlson said. This directly correlates with TCC's
mission, to enable students "to tell an effective story about
their technological work to manufacturers, government officials
and customers. We also work on questions of ethics and the larger
responsibility to society," he said.
courses teach students the importance of "systematic perspiration,"
he said. To make this point, he has his first-year students build
a simple clock using a kit that doesn't have good instructions.
Only about 5 percent of the students initially are able to build
a working model, which they all then have to improve and defend
in a mock patent defense, where Carlson and his colleagues are
"merciless," he said. The students also produce manufacturing
and marketing proposals of their improved clock designs. The exercise
teaches students that "you can't invent something without
fully understanding it and being able to explain it," Carlson
with a grant from the Sloan Foundation, he is writing "the
first serious biography on Tesla that deals with the details of
his technology." Tesla was born in Croatia in 1856 to Serb
parents and died an American citizen in 1943. In the 1890s, he
envisioned a wireless network for power and communications, even
before Marconi, noted Carlson, who has titled his biography Ideal
and Illusion. Princeton University Press will publish the book