Nov. 10-16, 2000
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Engineering faculty at work, advancing technology one step at a time
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IN THIS ISSUE

Engineering faculty at work, advancing technology one step at a time

The 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.

Here 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 their fields.


Pamela NorrisNorris cooks up the lightest solid known -- and we're not talking cheese souffle

Two engineering professors stand out in Pamela Norris' life.

The 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.

"At 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."

The 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.

Now, 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.

Microscale 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 manufacturing industry.

Aerogels 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.

Along 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.

And she hopes that, working together with her students, Norris can keep pushing the limits of where engineers -- men and women -- should be.

-- Charlotte Crystal


Skalak applies engineering to the circulatory system

It 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."

Now 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 capillaries.

"Microcirculation is where all the action is," Skalak notes.

His 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.

A 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 supply.

By 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.

The 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.

Skalak's 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.

While 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.

"Reading 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.

"I 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."

-- Charlotte Crystal


Hull builds new materials, atom by atom

Robert Hull first used an electron microscope when he was an undergraduate at Oxford University.

"You 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 hooked."

A 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 Research Chair.

Hull 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.

Earlier 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 proposal.

Hull 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.

Hull's 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.

Outside the lab, Hull enjoys the challenge of teaching.

"Nothing 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."

-- Charlotte Crystal


Bob DavisDavis works to make chemical processes more efficient

Like the chemicals he works with, Robert J. Davis is a catalyst.

An 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.

Humankind's 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.

For 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.

Davis' 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.

One 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."

-- Dan Heuchert


Gabriel RobinsRobins tackles computing problems

Robins 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."

Thanks 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.

Robins 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.

Other 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.

For 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.

Since 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).

Robins' personal recipe for success is based on persistence.

"Most 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."

-- Charlotte Crystal


W. Bernard CarlsonCarlson studies past inventors to teach future innovators

"Invention is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration."

W. Bernard Carlson gives his students hands-on experience of this observation by Thomas Edison.

Carlson, 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.

Carlson's 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 said.

Currently, 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 in 2002.

-- Rebecca Arrington

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