Science and Technology Fund Supports Economic Growth

Prof. Holly Yanco at NERVE Center
Prof. Holly Yanco, director of the university’s New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center, poses with NASA’s high-tech humanoid robot named “Valkyrie.”

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Three teams of UMass Lowell researchers — led by Prof. Holly Yanco and Assoc. Prof. Yu Cao, both from the Department of Computer Science, and Asst. Prof. Seongkyu Yoon from the Department of Chemical Engineering — are among the recipients of $834,000 in grants from this year’s UMass President Science & Technology (S&T) Initiatives Fund. The professors’ projects range from designing better robot systems for people with disabilities to establishing a regional biomanufacturing hub in the Northeast. The rest of the grantees are faculty members from the Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth and Worcester campuses.

In addition, UMass Lowell is a research partner in three other S&T fund projects — a UMass Amherst-led study entitled “Bio-Mechanics for Disease Diagnosis and Cell Engineering,” a UMass Boston-led study in quantum photonics and a UMass Dartmouth-led study into energy-absorbing materials for mitigating head injuries in sports and in the battlefield. Overall, UMass Lowell is involved in six of the nine projects funded this year.

The annual S&T fund, which is open to faculty members in science and technology disciplines, supports initiatives that strengthen the UMass system’s research and development efforts, deepen its ties with Massachusetts industry and research institutions, leverage external resources, contribute to the state’s economic growth and improve the quality of life of its citizens.

“With these grants, we are investing in the vision, expertise and commitment of faculty members from all five UMass campuses,” says UMass President Marty Meehan. “We are supporting distinguished scholars who enrich us through their diligent pursuits.”

Expanding and Creating New Collaborations

Yanco, who heads UMass Lowell’s New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center, received $123,000 in seed funding to expand the center’s capabilities so it can test and model both humans and robots performing a wide variety of tasks, in order to develop highly capable assistive and wearable robots and devices. Collaborating with Yanco on the project are Assoc. Prof. Haim Levkowitz (computer science), Asst. Profs. Pei-Chun Kao and Yi-Ning Wu (both physical therapy) and Prof. Bryan Buchholz (work environment).
NERVE Center robot
The NERVE Center is the region’s only comprehensive indoor facility dedicated to robotics research, testing, training and evaluation.

The NERVE Center will partner with researchers from UMass Medical School to develop sensor technology and visualization methods to measure human performance, both unassisted and while wearing assistive robotic devices such as an “exoskeleton.” This study would lead to the design of better exoskeletons that could potentially help in rehabilitating people with muscular or skeletal injuries, as well as assisting those suffering from cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder or stroke.

Cao, director of the department’s Computational Intelligence and Biomedical Informatics Lab, was awarded $125,000 to establish a Center for Digital Health in collaboration with UMass Lowell Prof. Katherine Tucker (clinical laboratory and nutritional sciences), Assoc. Prof. Benyuan Liu (computer science), Assoc. Prof. Yan Luo (electrical and computer engineering) and Asst. Prof. Jong Soo Lee (mathematics), as well as researchers and clinical practitioners from UMass Boston and UMass Medical School.
Prof. Yu Cao presentation
Assoc. Prof. Yu Cao gives a presentation on the proposed UMass Center for Digital Health.

The center’s goal is to use digital technology, such as cloud computing, “Big Data” analytics, sensor monitoring and mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, to improve the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of public healthcare while reducing wait times, medical errors and cost. Researchers will evaluate and validate novel tools and algorithms, build high-performance cyber network infrastructure for transmitting health data and computation, partner with industry, generate technology transfer and promote education for the digital health workforce in hospitals and in the field.

Yoon, in collaboration with UMass Lowell chemical engineering Assoc. Prof. Carl Lawton and Dr. Mark Klempner of UMass Medical School’s Mass Biologics, received $136,000 to support the creation of the Biomanufacturing Innovation Institute (BMII). This project is in response to a request for proposal from the U.S. National Network for Manufacturing Innovation to develop a biomanufacturing consortium in the Northeast.
Prof. Seongkyu Yoon at biomanufacturing lab
Asst. Prof. Seongkyu Yoon has proposed the creation of a Biomanufacturing Innovation Institute.

The U.S. biomanufacturing industry is one of the fastest-growing and most important contributors to the country’s economic activity, producing commercially important biomaterials and biomolecules for use in medicine, food and beverage processing and industrial applications. BMII will serve as home for all UMass biomanufacturing R&D as well as the single point of contact and collaboration for federal and state agencies, academic institutions and industry partners.

Investing in Faculty Discovery and Innovation

This is the 13th year of the President’s S&T Initiatives Fund awards.

“The program has generated significant benefits over the years,” notes Meehan. “With over $10 million invested since 2004, over 80 grantees have helped leverage over $250 million in external funds for UMass. Additionally, their work has helped launch several important new initiatives, helped campuses secure an impressive array of new industry and institutional partners and further strengthened our role in supporting the state’s innovation economy.”

He adds: “This program vividly demonstrates the impact that a public research university like UMass has in that it unlocks work of real scholarly significance and also produces a profound and enduring economic impact.”