Winter News Roundup

March 6, 2018

Northwestern-Exelon Shine in Energy Projects

Launched in May of 2016, the Northwestern-Exelon Master Research Agreement established an initial five-year research funding pool around grid management and resilience, energy storage, and renewables technologies. Since its inception, the partnership between the University and Exelon, the nation’s leading competitive energy provider, has launched two, three-year research projects.

Mark Hersam, the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, is tackling two of the biggest impediments to greater market penetration of lithium-ion technologies — stability and charge time — with the goal of reducing charge time from several hours to as low as 10 minutes.

“It takes a few minutes to refuel an internal combustion engine, compared to the few hours it takes to recharge an electric vehicle. Therefore, if we increase battery charging rates by a factor of 10, the charging time becomes comparable to refueling your car,” Hersam says.

Michael R. Wasielewski, the Clare Hamilton Hall Professor of Chemistry, aims to enhance solar cell performance from 33 to 45 percent using singlet fission and self-assembly fabrication.

“At Northwestern, we have the expertise to self-assemble molecules into larger structures that have a specific order, and we also have experience in solar cell fabrication,” says Wasielewski. “The project is designed to be primarily translational and will help us determine whether our materials will really work in the context of a prototype solar cell.”

NIMSI Positioned For Industry Growth

The United States is expected to be the most competitive manufacturing nation in the world by 2020, according to the 2016 Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index.

“America’s ability to innovate, integrate, collaborate, and attract the brightest researchers in the world will help it to create new technologies that can result in more value-added products and service,” said Jian Cao, director of the Northwestern Initiative on Manufacturing Science and Innovation (NIMSI). “This notion was exactly why NIMSI was launched in 2015.”

NIMSI has been integral in numerous externally funded research efforts, including the ongoing exploration by six NIMSI-associated faculty of a seamless numerical system for predicting the quality of powder-based additive manufactured parts.

One critical aspect in manufacturing metal-based additive parts is the lack of a way to rapidly determine the process parameters and to certify the quality of the parts made.

The NIMSI system would help overcome those limitations and allow manufacturers to produce complex parts with internal channels that are used for effective thermal control, like those used in turbine blades, or molds for mass-producing plastic parts.

CLP Research Projects Earn 2018 Cornew Innovation Awards

Two teams of Chemistry of Life Processes Institute (CLP) investigators were each recently awarded $50,000 in seed funding to initiate new research projects by the Institute’s Executive Advisory Board. Recipients of the CLP Cornew Innovation awards were selected through a competitive process culminating in presentations to the board.

Funding was awarded to Hao Zhang, biomedical engineering; Thomas O’Halloran, chemistry; and John Troy, biomedical engineering, to investigate the ability of zinc to prevent glaucoma using proprietary imaging technology developed by Zhang and his collaborators. David Harris, chemistry, and Irawati Kandela, Center for Developmental Therapeutics, received funding to support their work on the development of Cobalt-based molecular MRI probes for detecting tumors based on differences in extracellular pH between tumor and normal tissue.

Exploring Underwater Robots, Nerve Interfaces at SQI

When Jonathan Rivnay, biomedical engineering, joined the faculty about a year ago, he knew he was joining a community of outstanding collaborators where his research on organic bioelectronics could flourish.

“Northwestern presented an opportunity where the barrier between the more fundamental, chemistry and materials science side and the medical or translational side was really low.” The Simpson Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology (SQI), in particular, felt like the perfect fit for his laboratory. “SQI was a logical choice — where it’s physically located, the type of research that’s going on here just brings all of that together.”

That environment has already generated collaborative projects, including one focused on incorporating the Rivnay group’s materials and devices into peripheral nerve interfaces. “It’s an opportunity to get plugged into the Northwestern ecosystem. There are folks in the medical school and at the the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab who will serve as collaborators and formal mentors on the project and allow us to span the range from fundamentals and fabrication, all the way to validation in animal models and feedback from clinicians.”

Perhaps the most unexpected of Rivnay’s collaborations is one shared with the Neuroscience and Robotics lab led by Malcolm MacIver. “Malcom’s group develops these underwater robots that steer based on active electrosense, which mimics the way some fish sense their environment. We got to talking about some of their challenges, and right away I thought our materials could help.” Initial experiments have proven promising. “I never thought I’d end up playing with robots, but it’s been neat to be able to show up on campus, have a few conversations, and suddenly be involved in these kinds of projects.”

Educating Educators: SIS Connects D65, Northwestern

University Research Center Science in Society is collaborating with Brian Reiser, learning sciences, to help teachers in Evanston’s K–8 public schools District 65 change the way they teach science.

“In the traditional model of science education, teachers provide the answers,” says Science in Society’s District 65/Northwestern Partnership Coordinator Jen Lewin.
In the new model, outlined by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), this dynamic is flipped.

Teachers introduce a phenomenon and students guide an investigation to discover the explanation. This collaborative process is designed to foster a deep understanding of core ideas and help students build science skills.

But many teachers across the country lack access to the tools, resources, and support they need to make the pedagogical shift — a problem Reiser is co-developing tools to address. Lewin teamed up with Reiser to bring a customized version of these resources to the teachers in Northwestern’s own backyard.

In November, Lewin, Reiser’s team, and D65 teacher leaders organized a training session for more than 100 fourth- through eighth-grade teachers.

“This new way of teaching has changed the way my students do science,” says Jamie Noll, a D65 teacher and program participant.

NU-Q Students Survey Rohingya Refugees

The impact of resettlement and integration among Rohingya refugees in Malaysia was recently explored by two Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) student researchers. Ibtesaam Moosa and Habibah Abbas spent three weeks at the end of 2017 in Malaysia to interview two groups of Rohingya refugees: those who arrived in Malaysia after 2012 and those who were in the country before the conflict involving minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar began that same year.

“As media and communication professionals, these students are using their skills to give voice to the voiceless through research, inquiry, and investigation,” says Everette E. Dennis, dean and CEO at NU-Q.

The project is being funded through an Office of Undergraduate Research grant.

“The Rohingya crisis is a timely and global issue that requires attention,” says Moosa. “Most of the focus by international media is on getting refugees out of Myanmar to a ‘safer’ country. However, we are interested in exploring what happens to them once they reach these new countries and whether they are they able to live normal lives there? Do they ever really get resettled?”

In addition to researching the resettlement of refugees, Moosa and Abbas will also research how well the refugees have been able to integrate into Malaysian society despite not having a legal status in the country.

Expanding View for Astronomers

Northwestern is known for its strength in theoretical astrophysics and now it is poised to lead in observational astronomy, too. The Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) recently signed contracts to secure institutional access to the Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT) in Arizona and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Both observatories have unique and complementary capabilities. MMT can target and refocus quickly, which is important for fast-changing celestial phenomena called transients. Keck has a larger collecting area, which allows researchers to explore older and fainter signals.

Prior to the new telescope contracts, Northwestern astronomers did not have guaranteed access to the MMT, Keck, or any other research-grade observational facility. Now, University researchers are guaranteed an allotment of time per year to collect data, a significant commitment to and expansion of observational capabilities at Northwestern. CIERA will now have the ability to train students in observational astronomy with world-class facilities. Researchers will have more freedom with their projects because of the removal of the observatory time application process; guaranteed time allows researchers to take on more high-risk, high-reward projects.

Team Science Moves the Needle on Prenatal Origins of Disease

As a Perinatal Origins of Disease strategic research initiative funded by the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Stanley Manne Children's Research Institute, the “Promoting Healthy Brain Project“ (PHBP) is a cornerstone initiative of the Institute for Innovations in Developmental Sciences (DevSci), led by Director Laurie Wakschlag, who is also vice chair of medical social sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine.

The PHBP brings together an unusually broad scope of biomedical and social scientists from across Northwestern's Chicago and Evanston campuses. To improve gestational biology and resultant neurodevelopmental health, the PHBP integrates bioengineering, prevention science, and developmental neuroscience.

PHBP investigators embrace the challenges and rewards of team science.

Elizabeth Norton, communication sciences and disorders, notes “Integrating my developmental cognitive neuroscience with intervention science greatly enhances the impact and rigor of my research.”

Seasoned investigators echo this view. “Some see transdisciplinary science as challenging because it forces one to move beyond a narrow, safe range of expertise,” says John Rogers, the Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Medicine. “Working with people who speak different scientific languages and perspectives
leads to the best science and highest impact and brings excitement and opportunity.” Through this innovative team science approach DevSci and Lurie Children’s advance their mission to achieve a healthier earlier population.

SHyNE-ing a Spotlight on NUANCE

One of the central tenets in science and engineering is the concept of the “form-function” or “structure-property” relationship. The recurring and imperative need for tools to unlock this connection at the atomic and molecular scale led to the formation of the Northwestern University Atomic and Nanoscale Characterization Experimental Center (NUANCE) 15 years ago.

Now, as the lead facility in the Soft and Hybrid Nanotechnology Experimental (SHyNE) Resource, NUANCE has propelled Northwestern to national recognition for excellence in research facilities as part of the National Science Foundation’s National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure. Through this new program, NUANCE has partnered with five other nanotechnology-oriented core facilities at Northwestern and the Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility at the University of Chicago to provide external users access to these facility resources. SHyNE focuses on providing external industrial, academic, nonprofit, and government users with a “one-stop-shop for nanoscale fabrication and characterization,” says Ben Myers, director of operations for the SHyNE Resource. “We provide access to the training, expertise and advanced equipment necessary to solve real-world research problems, and also serve as an invaluable resource for our education and outreach mission.”

SHyNE already has more than 100 external industrial users from a range of industries, many of which focus on soft materials and non-traditional applications of nanotechnology, including biomedical, pharmaceutical, agricultural, and food and beverage industries. “It’s not often you can perform an experiment and then eat the experiment,” says Vinayak Dravid, SHyNE director and founding director of NUANCE.