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Seven Penn State College of Engineering faculty members were awarded the College of Engineering’s 2020 Research Opportunities for mid-Career Knowledge EnhancemenT (ROCKET) Seed Grant to fund exploration of new or existing research areas.

Gordon Warn, associate professor of civil engineering; Jose Ventura, professor of industrial engineering, dean’s fellow and coordinator of the operations research graduate program in industrial engineering; Julio Urbina, associate professor of electrical engineering; Linda Hanagan, associate professor of architectural engineering; Paris von Lockette, associate professor of mechanical engineering; Richard Mistrick, associate professor of architectural engineering; and Greg Huff, associate professor of electrical engineering, were named 2020 grant awardees.

“I am confident that this group of awardees will leverage the college’s funding to make great strides in a new research direction,” said Chris Rahn, J. ‘Lee’ Everett Professor of Mechanical Engineering and associate dean for innovation, who oversees the ROCKET Seed Grant Program. “They are excited to explore these new areas and will work hard with their students to get preliminary results. They have all committed to writing proposals for external funding, and we expect to see strong return on our investment in the coming years.”

The ROCKET Seed Grant recipients were selected from a pool of submissions from across the College of Engineering and include numerous engineering disciplines. Applicants for this grant were required to submit proposals that included an explanation of their proposed research, expected outcomes and the possible impact the research could have. Awardees were chosen based on the potential their new research area has to attract high-impact research funding from the state and federal governments, industry or foundations.

Warn plans to use the seed funding to study how deep reinforcement learning can be used in design optimization, departing from traditional methodologies that eliminate elements in a fully connected structure until an optimal design is achieved. In the new approach, a reinforcement learning agent will “learn’’ how to sequentially alter a basic configuration to obtain the most optimal design, regardless of the scale and complexity of the structure.

Ventura will use the grant to explore the practical impact of new mechanisms for combinatorial auctions and exchanges in supply chain procurement, wireless spectrum and cloud computing. These markets currently lack proper auction mechanisms, given that the value of the goods is not merely the sum of the values of individual goods in the bundle, but rather the process by which they are bundled. In supply chain applications, for example, coordinating procurement and inventory decisions among the various members of a supply chain is a key component in its effective management. By developing a system that incorporates procurement auction mechanisms, Ventura could help companies better bundle goods and price the total process to benefit the company while still appealing to customers.

Urbina will use the seed funding to explore the tracking patterns of insect pollinators. To the detriment of global food production, the environment and the economy, pollinator populations are declining due to a variety of factors. Currently, there are no technologies capable of investigating the responses of pollinators to stresses or tracking their behavior for long periods of time in the air or in soils. Urbina plans to develop a proof of concept of a new type of radar system to show that it is possible to track insects inside various types of soil, which ultimately could lead to a better understanding of pollinators and the impacts that stressors have on them.

Hanagan, in an internal collaboration with the federally funded Talent Search Program, housed in the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity at Penn State, will use the seed grant to pilot a program aimed at increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — education and career paths. The pilot program will target economically disadvantaged middle and high school students through technology-rich architectural engineering learning modules as a way for students to relate core STEM concepts, skills and careers to something familiar: buildings. The learning modules will be augmented by mentoring activities with local building industry professionals to highlight the vast career opportunities in STEM and the impact engineers have on the communities in which they live and work.

Von Lockette will use the grant to enhance artificial hearts by replacing the currently used impellers, small propellers that move the blood within the biodevice, with a deformable magneto-active elastomer (MAE) tube. Ideally, this approach will result in less blood cell damage and increase the efficiency of blood pumping, as compared to impellers. The softer MAE tube, which has the ability to be more elastic and responsive, will expand and contract due to a magnetic field, stimulating blood flow. While von Lockette is experienced in magneto-active materials, this project represents a new avenue for his research within the biomedical field.

Mistrick and Huff jointly received seed funding in support of their research focused on developing a low-cost wearable sensor that will track and log the 24-hour circadian light exposure a person receives as he or she goes about his or her daily activities. To develop the sensor, which will likely be worn on a collar, as a necklace or attached to eyeglasses, Mistrick and Huff will investigate the use of different light sensing and filtering technologies, data aggregation and sensor fusion techniques, wireless power and data transfer to create working prototypes and perform experimental campaigns to demonstrate their capabilities.

All research activity will begin in January 2020 and continue for one full year using funds from the ROCKET Seed Grant. Ideally, each researcher will receive additional funding from the state and federal governments, industry or foundations to continue exploration in that field.

Source: Seven engineering faculty members receive ROCKET Seed Grant to fund new research | Penn State University