A Science Fair on Steroids: Grad Students Showcase Research in Portland

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Sai Krishna Allani

Graduate student research often takes place in secluded and cramped campus laboratories. Master’s and doctoral candidates log long hours on important research, yet they rarely have the opportunity to share their work with the world in person.

The Oregon State University College of Engineering is changing this reality for graduate students by showcasing and celebrating research at its annual Graduate Engineering Research Expo. About 200 master’s and doctoral students from five engineering schools packed a large ballroom at the Portland Art Museum to display a dizzying array of colorful research posters and discuss their work with approximately 250 visitors.

In his remarks opening the expo, Dean Scott Ashford referred to it as a “science fair on steroids.” That’s partly because many of the visitors were industry representatives who were interested not only in seeing the research coming out of Oregon State but also looking for potential employees from among the researchers.

Tom Bergmann (’10, Construction Engineering Management), operations process manager for Portland-based On Electric Group, was there to check out the latest research.

“A big thing for us is not getting too comfortable,” said Bergmann. “We have competitors, so we want to stay on top of what’s up-and-coming, and there is a lot of that here. We are also constantly looking for ways to cut waste.”

Mark Owen (’81, Mechanical Engineering) is founder and chief executive officer of Puralytics, an industry-leading water purification company based in Beaverton. He came to the event to see new technologies, particularly in his interest areas of water, sensors, and robotics. “It’s an opportunity to meet interesting people and see new technologies,” Owen said.

Ashford expressed pride in the researchers for the breadth and depth of their work. “Your research will fuel the economy, drive change, and create a better a future for people all over the world,” he said.

From the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering

Doctoral candidate Sarah Burch is developing a storm water filter system containing biochar made from hazelnut shells. Her research shows that this form of biochar can remove more copper from water for longer periods of time than both traditional activated charcoal filter systems and biochar made from other woody materials.

“I’m very passionate about clean water,” said Burch, who grew up in Texas, daughter of an oil industry geophysicist and a mathematician.

Burch said that her research is a critical breakthrough for juvenile Coho salmon, whose ability to smell predators is compromised in water containing copper at levels greater than 2 parts per billion (ppb). Activated carbon can only remove copper down to about 5 ppb, while the hazelnut shell biochar can reduce copper levels to 2 ppb.

Other benefits are that the heat, gasses, and oil produced during the process used to convert the hazelnut shells into biochar can be captured and used in various ways.

Before coming to Oregon State, Burch worked for an environmental consulting company in Ohio and saw a lot of money and energy being spent on highly engineered remediation processes.

“That experience motivated me to pursue more sustainable alternatives that use readily available materials,” she said. “I chose OSU because of this project.”

From the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering

Cassie is a bipedal robot under development in the Dynamic Robotics Laboratory. She is the next generation of the recently retired ATRIAS.

“Cassie will be three times more efficient and three times lighter than ATRIAS,” said Patrick Clary, a doctoral student. “We’re refining and optimizing everything we learned from ATRIAS, including a new custom-built higher-efficiency cycloid transmission.”

The research team hopes that Cassie will be able to walk continuously for an hour and run a 9-minute mile.

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Hossein Faraji

Hossein Faraji, a doctoral candidate from Iran, is looking to apply the biomechanics of jumping spiders to a robot capable of leaping over obstacles by using front legs to vault into low-level, high-accuracy jumps. Sai Krishna Allani, a master’s student from Hyderabad, India, is researching ways to improve the mechanics of grasping in robotic hands.

“Humans do this very well, but with robots, grasping is not all that great yet,” Alani said. “In robotics, we have good vision and dynamics, but we need grasping — that’s very important.”

From the School of Civil and Construction Engineering

Master’s student Matthew Gillins from Utah is looking into the use of drones to inspect highway bridges as a way to save time and resources, improve safety for both inspectors and bridge users, and help with earthquake preparedness.

The Federal Highway Administration requires a close visual inspection of most bridges every two years. “My research will determine whether drones can manage this function and obtain the high-resolution imagery we need,” said Gillins, who hopes to operate his own inspection and surveying business. “I see a future where drones will be used for routine inspections to identify problems, followed by in-depth inspections and repairs.”

From the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

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Henrique Dantas

Henrique Dantas came to Oregon State from Brazil to work with professor John Matthews on his signal processing research that seeks to understand how the human brain controls the trajectory of hand movements. They envision the day when people with disabilities can control a wheelchair simply by thinking.

“We are trying to unpack the complex decisions in the brain that move a hand,” Dantas said. He and his team are using electrodes implanted near the brain to gather data and analyze it to predict hand position. Dantas’ career goal is to work at Google or Microsoft on machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Anahita Sanandaji, a doctoral candidate from Iran, is looking at ways her research can improve 3-D image segmentation, which is used in applications such as CT scans. Although automatic algorithms exist, they are not currently as accurate as a visual review by a human being, which is extremely time-consuming.

“So we are observing human experts — using videotape, eye tracking, audio recordings, and more — to see how the mind works and how their behaviors can improve the algorithms,” Sanandaji said.

From the School of Nuclear Engineering

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Junwei Jia

Research by Junwei Jia, a doctoral candidate, is aimed at addressing growing public concerns about radiation contamination in the environment. Jia studied honeybee hives to create a computational model that could help determine the percentage of biota in a specific contaminated area.

By studying the bees’ daily movement pattern (landing on flowers, collecting pollen, going back to their hives), Jia can understand better how radiological contamination spreads throughout the environment.

“It is very efficient, because the bees go everywhere,” he said.

Honeybees and other organisms may be more sensitive to radiation than humans, so Jia’s system promises to detect radiation at lower levels. He uses the converted codes to calculate radiation absorption in humans.

Jia came to Oregon State from China because of its top-10 ranked Radiation Health Physics program and because his advisor, Kathryn Higley, is known for her ecology-related research.

Master’s student Steven Czyz is developing a system that can detect radio isotopes from nuclear explosions at extremely low concentrations. This will be useful in whether underground nuclear testing has being carried out, Czyz said.

“My design improves upon other systems,” said Czyz who came to Oregon State from Michigan and hopes to pursue a doctorate following completion of his master’s degree. “With this system, we can say without a doubt whether or not there was a nuclear detonation.”

Another distinguishing characteristic of this detection system is that it operates at room temperature, eliminating the need for cooling.

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