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1. Cohen-Karni Studies Electrical Activity of Neurons

By Alexandra George

Electrical Activity of Neurons

Imagine using the electrical properties of neurons to illuminate aspects of neural diseases. Imagine screening for drugs using the electric signals of the brain. Imagine devices better able to communicate with brain cells.

Carnegie Mellon University Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering Tzahi Cohen-Karni is conducting the research leading to these applications. He recently was awarded the Office of Naval Research’s Young Investigator Award, which supports scientists and engineers who show exceptional promise for creative research early in their career.

Cohen-Karni and researchers in his lab are investigating the communication of neurons, basic units of the brain that transmit information to other nerve, muscle or gland cells, at the nanoscale level. The project is called, “Three-Dimensional Nanosensors Array For Measurement of the Electrical Activity of Microscale Human Brain Tissue.”

While many approaches exist for studying the electrophysiological signals of the brain, Cohen-Karni will take an approach that both complements and improves current methods.

“Think about a tiny bit of engineered brain with sensors embedded in it. Each sensor is a site. You keep it in a dish, and every so often you plug it in and record the signals,” Cohen-Karni said. “The challenge will be in the development of the platforms and the interpretation of the data we collect.”

Cohen-Karni and his team will develop a platform that can record and influence the electrical signals of neurons in three dimensions. Current methods involve bulky systems, such as glass capillaries (called patch clamp pipettes) used to record intracellular signals. Cohen-Karni’s approach will use smaller sensors to record signals from a smaller subset of cells, with mechanical properties closer to that of human tissue.

While the bulk of the work is yet to happen, Ph.D. students Sahil Rastogi and Anna Kalmykov are working on a graphene-based sensors and 3-D assembly.

“Now we are trying to bring the ideas from each direction and fuse them together,” Cohen-Karni said.

Cohen-Karni will collaborate with Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering Ge Yang, who works on optical detection of biological processes with cells. Through their collaboration, they will be able to correlate the electrical signals of the brain with optical signals.

“Many things we do will be the inception of other things,” Cohen-Karni said. “Say we develop a certain device or sensor for this project, then we can use it for other applications, too.”

While serving as the groundwork for revolutionary bioelectronics research for the U.S. Navy, this technology will be used to fuse the biological world with the digital world, affecting the input and output of brain signals. It also will lead to new prosthetics that can restore motion and vision.

“Many current techniques only provide snapshots,” Cohen-Karni said. “You label a cell and fix it, and take it to the microscope. We are trying to have a way to continuously monitor a state of tissue. In theory it sounds easy to do, but it will actually take a long while to do this.”

2. IDeATe Lab Featured on "Adam Savage's Maker Tour"

Carnegie Mellon University's IDeATe Network recently was featured in Adam Savage's Maker Tour series on

Savage, the former co-host of "MythBusters" and current editor-in-chief of, interviewed students and faculty in the Integrative Design, Arts and Technology (IDeATe) Network and explored its labs in the basement of Hunt Library last fall during a national tour focused on maker spaces and innovation in education, entrepreneurship and workforce development.

Keith Webster, CMU's dean of University Libraries and director of emerging and integrative media initiatives, told Savage the program brings together students from across the university, who learn how others outside of their respective fields think.

"In the 21st century, our students are going to be dealing with big challenges, which no one can solve on their own," Webster said. "We need to find a way in which students can gain those experiences of learning to work with other people and what each other brings to the problem."

Read more at:

3. Carnegie Mellon Africa Students Attended Facebook Conference

Four students from Carnegie Mellon University Africa (CMU-Africa) attended the Facebook Developer Conference F8 in San Jose, Calif., where they showcased their messenger bots to some of the world’s top tech developers.

Lenah Chacha, Aimable Rwema, Joshua Ocero and Davy Uwizera were selected to attend the conference after distinguishing themselves during a CMU-Africa bot party and hackathon competition last month.

A bot for Messenger communicates with customers using the Messenger platform and combines aspects of artificial intelligence to learn from that interaction. Bots are applications that typically perform tasks that are structured and repetitive at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human, such as Sephora’s Virtual Artist, which matches an image sent by users through Messenger to the lipstick closest in color in Sephora’s stock.

The bot party and hackathon at CMU-Africa was one of 33 taking place in Africa and the Middle East, but the only bot party in the region that was followed by a 24-hour hackathon. During the bot party, students could interact with the team from Facebook to gain insight on Messenger’s technology. The team included Jennifer Fong, the strategic partnerships manager from Facebook U.S., and Proud Dzambukir, the strategic partnerships manager from Facebook South Africa. In the hackathon competition, students had 24 hours to come up with their own Messenger bots to address a local issue.

“We built the hackathon into our event because we wanted to provide an opportunity for our students to showcase their technical abilities and encourage them to submit their bots to the regional Middle East and Africa Bots for Messenger Challenge,” said Bruce Krogh, director of CMU-Africa.

The winning team was Chacha and Rwema, both of whom are pursuing a master’s degree in information technology at CMU-Africa. The two built BiasharaBot, which enables merchants, who do not have access to expensive inventory software, to catalogue inventory on their platform and connect them with buyers. The bot also facilitates the buying process by presenting buyers with all available options for items they are looking for on demand.

Information technology master’s degree students Ocero and Uwizera emerged as the runners-up with FARMBOT. Their bot connects farmers (or cooperatives) and buyers to sell or purchase produce while estimating crop price by location based on the bot interaction, which helps stakeholders react accordingly. In the long run, the bot can give early warnings on food security by location and can help plan transportation in rural areas based on the data collected by the bot.

“The bot party and hackathon showed me the importance of building a business or idea on a social media platform,” Rwema said. “Messenger is used by over a billion people worldwide, so building your business model on something that accesses such a huge market is something that will help you reach your goals once you start a company.”

The winners, as well as the other 15 teams that participated from CMU-Africa, will have the opportunity to submit their bot for Facebook’s global Bots for Messenger Challenge on April 28.

“Attending F8 is a great opportunity to mingle with Facebook developers from around the world and to view their perspectives — but even more exciting is having the opportunity to visit Silicon Valley, where people’s dreams become reality,” Ocero said.

Facebook and CMU Host Bot Party and Hackathon Day 2

4. Pozzi Earns NSF CAREER Award To Help Optimize Data Collection from Sensors

By Adam Dove

Matteo Pozzi

Matteo Pozzi sees great potential in sensors and robotic technology that collect data to help inform decision-making. The National Science Foundation sees great potential in him.

The NSF has given the associate professor of civil and environmental engineering a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award to suggest strategies that are optimal for collecting information and for taking actions. The CAREER Award is one of the NSF's most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research and education.

Through integrating models and computational approaches, Pozzi said he hopes to optimize infrastructure operation and maintenance, and the continued collection of information.

“Because we are managing such limited resources, data collection and this process of learning about the infrastructure, must be optimized,” he said, proposing that algorithms could offer guidance on where and when to add more sensors, schedule inspections or conduct strategic testing.

“Managers also have to compare the benefits of collecting information with the benefits of repairing various components, where each choice is expensive,” he said.

As Pozzi establishes and refines his algorithms, he also will develop methods to teach infrastructure planning and analysis. Partnering with CMU’s Summer Engineering Experience for Girls program, Pozzi plans to build a simulation game in which students act as virtual infrastructure managers who must develop, test and revise decision-making strategies in the face of persistent risk and uncertainty.

“I'm excited because it's an expansive, long-term project that allows me to investigate topics I am passionate about, to educate students and to form a path in the direction in which I want to research and teach,” he said.

5. Carnegie Mellon Recognized as a Top Tech Transfer University

By Ken Walters

Carnegie Mellon was recognized as one of the best universities for technology transfer, ranking 10th out of more than 200 universities, according to a new report from the Milken Institute.

A group of workers

The report, “Concept to Commercialization: The Best Universities for Technology Transfer,” cited CMU’s world-class computer science and robotics research and several of its technology transfer and commercialization programs, including the Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation (CTTEC).

“This recognition from the Milken Institute is another sign of the vibrant entrepreneurial spirit that permeates this university,” said Vijayakumar (Kumar) Bhagavatula, CMU’s interim vice provost for research. “With CMU’s talented faculty, students and staff, we look forward to continued growth in the number and quality of companies that are created at CMU."

Although it does not have a medical school, Carnegie Mellon attracted $244 million in research expenditures in 2015. Overall, 312 licenses were issued between 2012 and 2015, and $38 million in licensing income was generated over the same period.

To bolster its efforts, the university recently received a gift from CMU professor Aleksandar Kavčić and his wife, Dr. Sofija Kavčić, to create the Mary Jo Howard Dively Fund for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation. The $3 million fund will further expand CTTEC’s capacity and is named after Carnegie Mellon’s vice president and general counsel in recognition of her support.

The Milken Institute research report highlights the vital role played by research universities and argues research funding should be a top priority for enhancing economic growth in the United States. Authored by Ross DeVol, Joe Lee and Minoli Ratnatunga, the report focuses on four key indicators of technology transfer success: patents issued, licenses issued, licensing income and startups formed. To address the productivity of commercialization activity, it normalizes each of these outcome measures by research expenditures at each institution.

6. NIH Awards Team $7 Million for Autism Genetics Research

By Shilo Rea

A research team, including scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, has received a $7 million grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) to extend the work of the Autism Sequencing Consortium (ASC) through 2022. The work will expand the ASC’s sample to include more than 50,000 families.

Established in 2010, the ASC collects and shares samples and genetic data from individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Kathryn Roeder
Kathryn Roeder is a principal investigator on the project.

In addition to Carnegie Mellon, team partners are the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the University of California at San Francisco.

"In our latest project we analyze the entire genomes of 500 autism families. That’s a tremendous amount of data — 3 billion base pairs per genome. The challenges involved in attempting to find a signal in such a vast amount of data are enormous," said Kathryn Roeder, professor of statistics and computational biology at CMU and a principal investigator on the project.

Currently, the ASC includes more than 150 researchers who have generated gene-sequencing data from roughly 29,000 individuals, making it the largest sequencing study to date in autism.

"Increasing the sample size so substantially is an important step in making important discoveries about the disorder," said Bernie Devlin, professor of psychiatry and human genetics at Pitt’s School of Medicine, who is also a principal investigator on the grant.

"Historically, the number of risk genes found has steadily increased with the number of patients studied, so it’s important that we continue to add patients to the data set,” said Joseph D. Buxbaum, the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Research Professor of Psychiatry, Neuroscience and Genetics and Genomic Sciences at Mount Sinai. “We are thrilled to receive this grant, which will enable our unique, collaborative research consortium to continue the work that is accelerating such important discovery."

Research by the ASC has included developing new statistical tools that identified 65 genes associated with risk for ASD and predicted that several hundred more are yet to be found; providing clues about the genetic makeup of the disorder; and determining that although rare mutations can have a big impact on genetic risk for autism, most risk stems from common inherited genetic variants.

The NIMH, part of the National Institutes of Health, previously awarded the ASC $2.25 million in 2013.

7. CMU Embraces Special Olympics

By Laura Kelly

For the second consecutive year, Carnegie Mellon University will host the Pennsylvania Special Olympics Western Sectional Spring Games on Saturday, April 29. More than 600 special olympians, 8-years-old and over, will come to campus to compete in basketball, track & field, swimming, tennis and golf.

Leading the university-wide effort in partnering with the Pennsylvania Special Olympics to host the games are CMU Police, the Department of Athletics and the CMU ROTC program.

“It has been so inspiring to see our entire university community embrace the Special Olympic Games as a way to demonstrate our core values of respect and inclusion for people of all abilities,” said Provost Farnam Jahanian.

Among those special athletes competing will be Tim Spence, who serves on the planning committee.

“Without Special Olympics, life would be dull. When I give speeches, I say that my life would be like a black and white photo without Special Olympics,” Spence said. “Special Olympics gives me something to look forward to, goals to work toward and confidence that I will succeed.”

Joining Spence on the planning committee are many CMU student-athletes.

“The excitement, competitiveness and hard work you get to see in these athletes is truly an incredible experience,” said Lisa Murphy, a senior psychology major and the all-time leading scorer on the women’s basketball team. “I get the chance to interact with dedicated, fun and courageous athletes. The ‘joy of sport’ is always evident in Special Olympics athletes and seeing their beaming faces at the awards ceremony is really special.”

“I say that my life would be like a black and white photo without Special Olympics.” — Tim Spence

Carnegie Mellon University Police support Special Olympics through various fundraisers during the year, including the Polar Plunge, an annual event in which members of police departments, organizations and groups take a winter dip into the Ohio River.

“I got involved with the Plunge about nine years ago, which is how a lot of cops get involved with the Special Olympics,” said CMU Lt. Joe Meyers. “From there I found myself getting in deeper and deeper with Special Olympics. It’s just something I believe in.”

Bringing the Special Olympics to Carnegie Mellon was something Meyers and other members of the University Police Department have been planning for years. Their efforts paid off last spring.

“The reception from the Carnegie Mellon community in 2016 was amazing. The effort and focus from the committee made the 2016 event a success, and the work they have put in will make 2017 even better,” said Mike Ermer, a western Pennsylvania director for the Special Olympics.

As the games draw near, more and more members of the university community are getting involved. Jahanian and six university deans participated in ‘Dunk-A-Dean’ at this year’s Spring Carnival to raise funds for Special Olympics. Many students, faculty and staff have volunteered to help during the games and some have signed up to be “Fans in the Stands” to cheer on the participants.

“I am particularly proud to have joined forces with CMU Police in the Carnival Dunk Tank again this year to raise money and awareness for this event – it was an honor to get dunked for such a worthy cause!” Jahanian said.

Special Olympics Pennsylvania provides year-round training and competition in 21 Olympic-type sports to nearly 20,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities or closely related developmental disabilities.

For more information about how you can help “Reveal the Champion Inside” thousands of Special Olympics athletes, visit

Register online to volunteer for the games or be a “Fan in the Stands.”

8. School of Architecture Senior Exhibition, “What Do We Know?” Opens April 27

Miller Gallery and the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University will jointly present “What Do We Know?” in the Miller Gallery from Thursday, April 27, through Saturday, April 29. The exhibition includes final thesis works and independent projects from 11 seniors in CMU’s School of Architecture.

What Do We Know

The exhibition features a reception from 6 – 8 p.m. Friday, April 28, and two full days of project reviews from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m., April 28-29. The exhibit, reception and reviews are free and open to the public.

The Class of 2017 says they have “dedicated themselves to the process of revealing latent potential in a diverse set of architectural focuses.” Despite the varied scope of the theses topics, the students describe their work as “reach[ing] far past the safe confines of conventional architecture.” The projects expand the scope of the profession to address the “how and why” of design, “investigate the physicality of architecture,” and to “question the goals of the design process itself, railing against latent hierarchies and demanding a more mindful process.”

“The S17 thesis/IP studio has operated with energy, creativity and criticality to produce 11 distinct architectural propositions in response to today’s deeply divided world,” said Mary-Lou Arscott, studio professor and associate head of the School of Architecture. “While the results are exuberant, we should be cautioned by their conclusions.”

The Exhibitors + Their Projects:

Thesis: CRITICAL MASS, Dyani Robarge | ARCHITECTURE BY THE LANDSCAPE, Scott Holmes | MAKING MINDFULNESS, Matt Porter | SOFT: An Investigation of Gender Expression in Architecture, Amy Rosen | PETROCHEMICAL LANDSCAPES, Sophie Riedel | PALIMPSEST FUTURE, Kirk Newton

Independent Projects: PP: PLASTIC PAVILION, Cy Kim + Bobby Esposito | AID.E+ Alexa Roberts | HOUSE-FREE, Ana Mernik | OSTRANENIE, Sam Day

In the words of the exhibiting students, “Each of the installations asks a pointed, politically charged question, and provides some equally radical reactions. This exhibit is not a collection of work, but the manifesto of a new generation of architects graduating into the world. What do we know? Come in and find out.”

For more information about the exhibition, visit the Miller Gallery website. For further details on the April 28 reception and to RSVP, visit the event Facebook page.

9. Self-Driving Buggies Reach Historic Milestone

By Emily Durham

Image of the RoboBuggy team
From left to right, Antonio Garcia-Smith, Danielle Quan, Sean Reidy, Abha Agrawal and Adam Zeloof are members of the RoboBuggy team.

For the first time in history, two self-driving buggies will be part of Carnegie Mellon University's Spring Carnival Sweepstakes.

Carnegie Mellon has been at the forefront of autonomous driving technology for three decades, and students have been working to bring that technology to the buggy races. This year they succeeded.

During early morning practice sessions this month, two buggies driven by computers, rather than by students tucked inside the three-wheeled, torpedo-like shell, successfully steered and braked their way around the 4,412-foot-long course.

On April 8, team RoboBuggy fielded the first autonomous buggy to steer itself through the course. And on April 9, the Atlas Project, part of the Carnegie Involvement Association, also known as CIA, completed its first successful autonomous run.

Like traditional buggies, the machines are pushed uphill by humans on Tech Street, then freeroll down Schenley Drive before being pushed up Frew Street. The difference is the buggy is doing the steering and navigation throughout.

Both self-driving buggies will be on display during the Sweepstakes Design Showcase and Buggy Races as part of Spring Carnival 2017, April 20-22.

"I joined RoboClub, which is the organization that sponsors RoboBuggy, in my freshman year," said Danielle Quan, chairman of RoboBuggy and a junior majoring in mechanical engineering and robotics. "This is very quintessentially CMU — it's buggies and robots, so I immediately wanted to get involved."

Matt White, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science in 1996, first began the RoboBuggy project with a conversation between himself and Mark Stehlik, now associate dean for outreach in the School of Computer Science. He said they had the idea of adapting the technology coming out of CMU's Field Robotics Center's NavLab project for Buggy. He worked on a hardware platform as an independent study.

Since then, RoboBuggy has been revived by several interdisciplinary student teams. The most recent iteration of RoboBuggy has existed since 2013 as a project within the CMU Robotics Club. The Atlas Project started two years ago.

"It was surreal, honestly, watching it steer itself after having failed every other time," said Benjamin Warwick, founder of the Atlas Project and a junior in mechanical engineering. "What I'm hoping this will do is encourage other people to start robotic buggies of their own."

The first buggy races were held as part of the first alumni celebration, called Campus Week, in 1920. In 1928, Campus Week was replaced by Spring Carnival and a booth competition was introduced. Frew Street was completed and the course took on its present-day format.

Listen to a podcast, produced by the College of Engineering to learn more about the autonomous buggy teams.

10. A Grand Challenge

By Abby Simmons

Image of David Brumley

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) gathered for a regional meeting and symposium at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute to discuss cybersecurity, which is now one of the greatest challenges in the 21st century.

CMU President Subra Suresh's opening remarks on the intersection of technology and humanity noted the unintended consequences of technological advancements. Suresh referenced the NAE's 20 Greatest Engineering Achievements in the 20th Century, a list of inventions that revolutionized the way we live, including automobiles, spacecraft and computers. Several years later, the organization identified its 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century, and securing cyberspace is now one of them.

"The remarkable thing about this is, if you put the two lists side by side, you cannot help but wonder if there is at least some partial connection to the achievements we helped to create in the 20th century and the grand challenges we face today," Suresh said at the April 13 meeting.

NAE President C.D. Mote Jr. added that current challenges are not about things — they are about people.

"And they are about all people on the planet," he said.

David Hickton, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security, delivered the keynote address, "Confronting the Cyber Threat." He gave attendees a behind-the-scenes look at critical cybercrime cases solved during the six years he served as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. During that time, he often worked with experts at CMU and the University of Pittsburgh.

"We have some of the best investigators here in Pittsburgh, and when they put their minds to it, they can find anybody," Hickton said.

Hickton described how cybersecurity professionals are protecting the safety and security of people, safeguarding the intellectual property of corporations and the jobs of their employees, building resilient infrastructure and leveling the playing field for individuals who follow the rule of law.

Following the keynote speech, several CMU faculty members shared their research. David Brumley, director of CyLab, CMU's security and privacy institute, presented his work aimed at automatically checking software for exploitable bugs. His spinoff, ForAllSecure, developed a fully autonomous system that won the 2016 DARPA Cyber Grand Challenge, and he advises CMU's top-ranked Capture the Flag team, the Plaid Parliament of Pwning.

Professor Raj Rajkumar of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department shared milestones from more than 30 years of autonomous vehicle research at CMU. He said emerging connected vehicle technology can improve safety, however, researchers also must address the multiple entry points it provides for malicious attacks.

Lorrie Cranor presented her work to make privacy and security software and systems more effective and easier to use. Cranor, director of the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory, recently returned to the university after spending a year as the Federal Trade Commission's chief technologist.

David Manz, senior cybersecurity scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy research laboratory, previewed his forthcoming book, "Research Methods for Cybersecurity," co-authored with PNNL's Thomas W. Edgar. While a majority of cybersecurity research falls into an applied category, Manz said, we need to push the rigor for more scientific approaches.

In her hardware-focused talk, Cyber Research Scientist Katie Liszewski provided an overview of cyber threats to the electronic supply chain. She explained ways her team at Battelle, a global research and development organization, developed time- and cost-effective machine learning techniques to test hardware for cloned and counterfeit materials.

Greg Shannon, chief scientist in the SEI's CERT division, recently returned to CMU after a stint at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as assistant director for cybersecurity strategy. He concluded the NAE symposium by addressing a fundamental step in solving the grand challenge of securing cyberspace: Experts must understand the nature of how humans perceive the building and breaking of trust.

"We chose cybersecurity as our theme today because it is such a pressing challenge that extends across engineering disciplines," said Paul Nielsen, director and CEO of the SEI, and master of ceremonies for the event. "Our growing dependence on autonomous systems and other technologies underscores the urgency of the work still to be done in assuring the security of the systems we use now and will depend on in the future."