All posts by callahan

Lift Bridge Wins Award, Snags Trailer⁠—Built to Last 

Portage Lake Lift Bridge is a double-deck, vertical lift bridge, the only one of its type in Michigan. Here shown with a blue sky and summer day in the background.
The monumental Portage Lake Lift Bridge—a double-deck, vertical lift bridge—is the only one of its type in Michigan.

The Portage Lake Bridge, or more commonly known as the Lift Bridge, was designated in May, 2019 as an American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Michigan State Historic Civil Engineering Landmark of the Year. Built in 1959, the bridge provides a key role in connecting the Keweenaw’s local industries to the nation, and uses a first-of-its-kind intermediate lift span position. It also was an early example of accelerated bridge construction. 

The Lift Bridge is a double-deck vertical lift bridge⁠—the only one of its type in Michigan and uncommon nationwide. While the lower deck was originally used by trains; these days, snowmobiles roar through the lower deck in winter. This riveted steel bridge was built to support the Keweenaw’s copper mining and logging industries and to serve the nation’s need for copper and timber. So you might say, it’s built to carry heavy loads!

the Caterpillar motor in the boat Janet was in
One of two Caterpillar engines on Don’s boat.

I was invited one recent Friday to meet one of our civil engineering alumni from the class of ‘66, Donald R. Anderson. He was docked in Hancock, just east of the Lift Bridge, traveling with his son, up from Grand Haven. They were in town waiting for the extended family, to arrive and spend a few weeks together on the boat as they worked their way through the Apostle Islands area. We were chatting, taking a look at the engines, and enjoying some local cider when BAM! A very loud boom sounded from the Lift Bridge. We all turned to watch as a tandem trailer loaded with trailers pulled to a halt. Over the next hour, inspections of the rig, and bridge seemed to happen while we looked up from below with high-tech binoculars and speculated about the impact. We figured that being in tandem, one of the trailers rocked up just as the truck pulled through and snagged that edge a bit. The truck eventually pulled down and around and took time to do a safety check just behind the marina.

A section of the lift bridge is shown with a tandem trailer loaded with trailers inside
A tandem trailer loaded with trailers comes to a halt on the Lift Bridge

On my way home, pedaling across the bridge I stopped and took a few images. You can see how there is a bit of battered metal at the leading edge on the Houghton side. No easy way to tell what marks are new or old from down on the ground (and I am a metallurgist). My assessment⁠—that bridge was built to last. I bet it will still be in use for its 100th anniversary. They build things to last up here in the Keweenaw. And remember your metallurgy: steel can plastically deform and even strengthen as a result of the increased number of dislocations.

underside of Portage Lake Lift Bridge
Lift Bridge wear and tear 

Dr. Tess Ahlborn, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Michigan Technological University, working with two recent civil engineering masters of science graduates Emma Beachy and Michael Prast, submitted the application of Lift Bridge for Historic Civil Engineering Landmark Award at both the state and national levels. While Lift Bridge has now won the state ASCE Landmark of the Year award, the jury’s still out on the national level award. You can read more about the Lift Bridge here.

Thank you Tess, Emma and Michael, and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, for the 300 pages of historical content that supported the nomination.

Dr. Tess Ahlborn, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Center for Structural Durability at Michigan Tech

Keys to a Unique Nameplate

I’ve just received an amazing gift. A unique, foundry-casting of my name in brass. The Michigan Technological University foundry is one of the few remaining operational university metallurgical facilities where students can work to create 3D positive prints, stamp them into sand, and then pour (with eye protection, fireproof aprons and face shields, tongs, and gloves) orange-hot molten metal into the sand to create metal castings.

I’m near the end of my first year as Dean of Engineering at Michigan Technological University. As background, it’s relevant to note that Michigan Tech was founded in 1885 to support the emerging copper and iron mining activities Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula. Founded to train the future mining and metallurgical engineers, Michigan Tech through the years has established an incredibly strong reputation for training “can-do” engineers—many who know a bit about metallurgy! But even I was surprised when presented with a personalized nameplate for my office—cast in the MSE foundry using brass recovered from a cache of old university office keys!

My new nameplate.

The university had accumulated a large number of brass keys from locks that were long-ago decommissioned. Looking for an ultimate way to securely dispose of the keys, the university public safety department approached the foundry team to ask if they could be melted and destroyed using the foundry. “Of course,” they replied. Timing is always important. At about that same time, Materials Science and Engineering Chair Steve Kampe had asked the foundry team to make a nameplate for me. I was just starting my new job as Dean, and happened to have my own credentials as a metallurgical engineer. Over the next several weeks, a pattern was 3D printed and the key brass was compositionally modified to facilitate its use as a casting alloy—and the nameplate came to be.

Sam Dlugoss holds a version of the finished nameplate
Sam Dlugoss

The “Dean nameplate project” was led by Sam Dlugoss, a chemical engineering student hired as a co-op employee in the foundry. I am humbled each time I see it as I unlock my office door with my own brass key. I think about the hands of the graduate students, staff, and faculty that are represented in the keys that ultimately were melted into my nameplate—and how these dedicated and aspiring engineers and scientists carried their keys and opened their labs and offices each day for many years, to do the work that has established the reputation we now carry on at Michigan Tech.

Last week, students in the foundry created more nameplates, this time for our College of Engineering Advisory Board Members. In the photos below, the students are working with iron.

A dip type thermocouple probe is used to measure the temperature of the liquid iron before tapping the furnace.
A dip type thermocouple probe is used to measure the temperature of the liquid iron before tapping the furnace.
As the iron is tapped into the ladle, ferrosilicon inoculant is added to the liquid stream. The inoculant provides nucleation sites for creating the proper iron-graphite microstructure in the solidified gray cast iron metal.
As the metal is tapped into the ladle, ferrosilicon inoculant is added to the liquid stream. The inoculant provides nucleation sites for creating the proper iron-graphite microstructure in the solidified gray cast iron metal.
After tapping into the ladle is complete, some sparks fly as the inoculant reacts with the liquid iron.
After tapping into the ladle is complete, some sparks fly as the inoculant reacts with the liquid iron.
The pouring team fills the molds.
The pouring team fills the molds.
 The pouring basin is kept full so that the molten metal quickly fills the mold cavity.
The pouring basin is kept full so that the molten metal quickly fills the mold cavity.
As the pouring team fills the 3rd mold [middle ground], an MSE staff member [foreground] lifts the mold jacket from the 2nd mold, and will transfer it to the waiting 4th mold [background] prior to it being poured. The jacket supports the green sand mold against the hydraulic pressure of the liquid metal entering the mold.
As the pouring team fills the 3rd mold [middle ground], an MSE staff member [foreground] lifts the mold jacket from the 2nd mold, and will transfer it to the waiting 4th mold [background] prior to it being poured. The jacket supports the green sand mold against the hydraulic pressure of the liquid metal entering the mold.
The metal has solidified but the molds are left to cool for a few minutes before the castings are shaken out.
The metal has solidified but the molds are left to cool for a few minutes before the castings are shaken out.
A mold with a casting inside is transported to the shake-out bin.
A mold with a casting inside is transported to the shake-out bin.
The molds are dumped into the shake-out bin where they disintegrate. Because sand is a good insulator the castings are still very hot after shake-out, as evidenced by the still glowing runner section. A few taps with a hammer loosens the sand. This green sand will be reused to make more molds after it is conditioned and remixed with water.
The molds are dumped into the shake-out bin where they disintegrate. Because sand is a good insulator the castings are still very hot after shake-out, as evidenced by the still glowing runner section. A few taps with a hammer loosens the sand. This green sand will be reused to make more molds after it is conditioned and remixed with water.
Once cool, the nameplates will be separated, then buffed and polished.

Now, if you’re interested in metallurgy, and you want to know more, please let me know—Callahan@mtu.edu.

Janet Callahan, Dean
College of Engineering
Michigan Tech


Michigan Tech—at the Intersection of Engineering and Medicine

Undergraduate research in the Biomedical Optics Laboratory at Michgan Tech
Undergraduate research in the Biomedical Optics Laboratory at Michgan Tech

There’s a lot of cutting-edge, health-focused research going on at Michigan Tech, in areas that engage undergraduates in hands-on research. This is because we care deeply about improving the human condition, and we teach this “first-hand.”

If you are interested in medicine, possess a desire to help others, and enjoy creative problem solving, read on. Michigan Tech researchers tackle genetics, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, just to name a few. Still more areas focus on improving health, fitness, clean water, sleep, medical imaging, and more.

In the College of Engineering alone, we have over 30 faculty—in biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, environmental engineering, materials science and engineering, and mechanical engineering—who engage in health-aligned research, engaging both undergraduates as well as graduate students in research.

Catching Viruses in the Lab
For example, in Chemical Engineering, students in Prof. Caryn Heldt’s lab “catch” viruses by understanding their sticky outer layers. The complex structures making the surface of a virus are small weaves of proteins that impact they way a virus interacts with cells and its environment. A slight change in protein sequence makes this surface slightly water-repelling, or hydrophobic, causing it to stick to other hydrophobic surfaces. Using this knowledge, they are finding new ways to detect and remove viruses before they make people sick, and also reduce cost and development time for new vaccines.

“I’m interested in how water around a virus can be controlled to decrease the cost of making vaccines and other medicines,” says Caryn Heldt. Her team conducts research using parvovirus because it’s small and chemically stable.

Accelerated Healing
In Biomedical Engineering, students in Prof. Rupak Rajachar’s lab are developing a minimally invasive, injectable hydrogel for achilles tendinitis, one of the most common and painful sports injuries. “To cells in the body, a wound must seem as if a bomb has gone off,” he says.  The team’s hydrogel formula allows tendon tissue to recover organization by restoring the initial cues that tendon cells need in order to function. Two commonly prescribed, simple therapies—range of motion exercises and applying cold or heat—boost the effectiveness of the hydrogel. Even a single injection can accelerate healing.

Prof. Rajachar and his team culture tendon cells with a bit of their injectable hydrogel in a petri dish, then watch under a microscope to see just how tendon cells respond over time. “In the presence of the hydrogel, cells of interest (called tenocytes) maintain their tendon cell behavior,” he says.

Human-Centered Monitoring
In Mechanical Engineering, students in Prof. Ye Sun’s Human Centered Monitoring Lab are turning embroidered logos into wearable electronics. Health monitoring devices like FitBit, apps on cell phones, and heart monitors are seemingly everywhere, but what if embroidery on clothing could replace these devices altogether? By using conductive thread and passive electronics‚ tiny semiconductors, resistors and capacitors‚ Prof. Sun and her team do it with stitching—lightweight, flexible, and beautiful embroidery. They’re also building a manufacturing network and cloud-based website for ordering.

Ye Sarah Suns hands are show holding a prototype of a flexible electronic circuit, where the stitches themselves become the circuit.
“I hope flexible, wearable electronics will interest a new generation of engineers by appealing to their artistic sides,” says Dr. Ye Sarah Sun. She is holding a prototype of a flexible electronic circuit, where the stitches themselves become the circuit.

Fighting Cancer with Fruit Flies
And in Biological Sciences, students in Prof. Thomas Werner’s lab perform transgenics, where they insert pieces of foreign DNA into fruit fly embryos, to determine the role genes play in the pigmentation of fruit flies. Biologists use fruit flies to study wing spots, metabolism, and aging. This is important because the same genes and major metabolic pathways in fruit flies affect cancer and other diseases in humans.

five fruit flies with striped bodies are shown. The genes that govern abdominal colors and patterns in fruit flies may provide insight into human cancer genes.
“There are a few hundred toolkit genes that all animals share and they build us as embryos and continue to help us as we develop,” says Prof. Werner. “But the differences in their regulation—when and where and how much they function—brings about the diversity of life.”

Engineers Go to Medical School
In case you are a student who is considering medical school, engineering majors stack up very well in acceptances to medical school, especially when considering research experiences and the associated research publications that our students co-author. In our Department of Biomedical Engineering alone, in 2017-18, BME majors had an 86% acceptance rate to med school.

I Followed My Heart
As a personal anecdote, my first university degree was a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. My curiosity about materials (especially metals) led me to a PhD in Materials Science. This multidisciplinary background led me to start a company with a cardiologist who needed my expertise. He had a vision for an improved angioplasty device to treat restenosis, which is when heart stents become narrow or blocked. Our company was based on my invention, related to applying tiny doses of radiation to a blockage to help in-stent restenosis. In all my career, this two years of work on this angioplasty device—it captured my imagination, my attention, and my heart (no pun intended). This intersection of engineering and medicine—it’s a life-changing experience to get personally engaged.

Now, if you’re interested in health care or working in a research lab, and you want to know more, please let me know—Callahan@mtu.edu

Janet Callahan, Dean
College of Engineering
Michigan Tech


The Earth Needs You!

Whales and birds
Partnering with NOAA, a Michigan Tech biomedical engineering senior design team advised by Dr. Rupak Rajachar developed a telemetry tag for tracking humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine. The tag enters only into a whale’s blubber layer and releases an adhesive hydrogel to help it stay in with less injury and infection.

Save Lives—and the Life of our Planet—as an Engineer
Today, on Earth Day 2019, I am keenly aware how much the Earth needs engineers. All around the world, people with a wide range of expertise are coming together to address pollution and climate change, to help mend the web of life. Engineers are essential members of those teams. The Earth needs engineers to help solve complex problems that ensure access to clean air and water, food, energy, shelter, health care, mobility, and protection from natural hazards.

Learn by doing at Michigan Tech
Through hands-on experiences in the classroom, the lab, in the field, and abroad, engineering students at Michigan Tech begin to contribute solutions to the world’s increasingly complex problems just as soon as they arrive on campus, in their first year.

Last week was Design Expo at Michigan Tech, an annual event here on campus where student inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs put their life-improving projects before judges and the public. More than 100 real-world undergraduate student projects were on display, presented by teams taking part in either Enterprise or Senior Design programs. As I toured around the event, talking with student teams, I was grateful for their efforts and all the heart and soul they invest in their work. Many of these students are preparing to graduate and are eager to share their ideas with the world.

Group of students
Green Campus Enterprise at Michigan Tech

Sustainability-oriented Engineering
There’s a lot of leading edge, ground-breaking, sustainability-oriented engineering going on at Michigan Tech.  I’d like to share with you a small sample of what students are doing to make a difference in the life of our planet. If you are interested in sustainability, and are a creative problem solver, read on.

Students of the Alternative Energy Enterprise are working on a Renewable Energy Mission Module (REMM) donated by Oshkosh Corporation, converting it from military to civilian use. It’s a transportable source of renewable energy fitted with a folding blade wind turbine, a folding solar panel array, a rechargeable battery pack, an integrated generator, and even a microbial fuel cell that uses microbes to breakdown wastewater and release electrons.

Humane Interface Design Enterprise is developing an easy, do-it-yourself temperature and climate sensor that can be used to track microclimates around the worldalong with a website to upload and log the data.

Consumer Products Manufacturing Enterprise is working with General Motors to investigate waste disposal of its auto paint sludge. CPM also works Kohler to research and develop resin recycling techniques, as well as new products that can be derived from resin waste streams.

Supermileage Systems Enterprise builds a single-seat, high-efficiency vehicle, and then competes in either the SAE Collegiate Design Series or the Shell Eco-marathon. Current fuel economy: 425 mpg. Goal: 1,000 mpg.

Green Campus Enterprise annually measures and works to reduce the carbon footprint of Michigan Tech. Right now the team is conducting feasibility studies and design work on tiny home communities for student housing, and wind turbines atop Mont Ripley, Michigan Tech’s downhill ski area.

Clean Snowmobile Enterprise works to reduce snowmobile emissions and noise, while increasing fuel economy and maintaining an enjoyable riding experience.

Students outside with their vehicle
Michigan Tech’s Supermileage Systems Enterprise, at SAE International’s Collegiate Design Supermileage Competition in Marshall, Michigan.

To help track endangered whales, one senior design team developed a blubber-only implantable tag for NOAA, to increase retention and minimize tissue damage for use in conservation efforts.

Working with sponsor Winsert, another senior design team discovered ways to reduce the use of cobalt in metal alloys used to produce combustion engine valve seats. Cobalt is an expensive element with a rapidly fluctuating price due to political instability in the primary supplier country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Yet another senior design team designed a fuel economy impact software tool for sponsor MacLean-Fogg. The software instantaneously evaluates how the mass of a vehicle will impact fuel economy and energy usage. While the initial project scope focused on the additional mass of lug nuts, the program calculates the effects of various additional masses, stationary or rotating.

DTE Energy needed a way to inspect electrostatic precipitators (ESPs), which remove ash particulates from flue gasses. One senior design team invented a camera-equipped crawling robot able to identify the broken electrodes that reduce ESP efficiency.

Micrograph with micron scale marker
Microstructure of arc melted Tribaloy T-400, a cobalt-based alloy.

A Bit More about Enterprise and Senior Design
Michigan Tech’s Enterprise Program is open to all majors. First year through graduate-level student teams develop products, processes, and services within their market space. Faculty advisors coach and guide, while industry sponsors serve both as clients and mentors. Students can choose among 24 existing Enterprise teams, or start up one of their own.

Senior Design at Michigan Tech challenges teams of highly dedicated senior-level engineering students to explore and address real-world design challenges in their final year. Teams work with an industry sponsor, following the complete design process from ideation to realization. It’s more like a first job than a last class.

Now, if sustainability is your passion, and you want to know more, please let me know—Callahan@mtu.edu

Janet Callahan, Dean
College of Engineering
Michigan Tech

Design Expo 2019 Photo Gallery


Acoustics—Michigan Tech is Listening!

I’ve been thinking about acoustics lately, after learning about some of the sound-focused interdisciplinary research and learning that engage Michigan Tech faculty.

Cool Sound, Hot Speakers
For example, mechanical engineering Prof. Andrew Barnard (Sound Man) has students working on developing flexible and stretchable nanotube speakers—no moving parts, weighing next to nothing. His popular technical elective: Acoustics and Noise Control is a hands-on course where mechanical engineering seniors solve technical problems, such as designing noise suppression devices and systems.

“I was a musician, so I was into acoustics without even knowing it,” says Andrew Barnard.

Wireless Underwater Acoustic Communication
In electrical and computer engineering, Prof. Zhaohui Wang has her students investigating underwater (and under-ice) acoustic communication. They use machine learning principles to model, understand, and predict underwater dynamics in real time, node by node.

Zhaohui Wang lowers a node into Lake Superior to test acoustic signals under ice, working with Jamey Anderson of the Great Lakes Research Center.

Volcano Sounds
Seismic and acoustic signals are ways to monitor volcanic activity, and Prof. Greg Waite has his students taking the ‘pulse’ of shallow volcanic eruptions using a combination of sensing instruments and field observation. We have four BS majors focused on the Earth beneath us: Geological Engineering, Geology, Applied Geophysics, and Mining Engineering; all of these fields rely on remote sensing for real-time information.

Greg Waite and his team monitor Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala. It’s very active, with small explosions each day. It can also erupt violently, threatening thousands. With better monitoring, they hope to determine more accurate, and timely, evacuation plans.

Make Sound Amazing
Yet another major focused on sound at Michigan Tech is the BS in Audio Production and Technology degree, which has students producing a radio drama and mixing a new multi-track recording weekly, all in their first year. Prof. Christopher Plummer’s loudspeaker design class is another tech favorite—and students keep the speakers they designed and built.

Student built loudspeakers at Michigan Tech!

There’s no doubt about it—acoustics is a field where a person’s genuine interest in sound can lead to breakthrough ideas and accomplishments that inform the world around us.

Now, if acoustics sounds interesting, and you want to hear more, please let me know—Callahan@mtu.edu.

Janet Callahan, Dean
College of Engineering
Michigan Tech


Choosing Her Major Takes Two Years for this Dean of Engineering

Dean Janet Callahan (left) congratulates an engineering graduate during Fall Commencement at Michigan Tech.

Vague Notions

Like many students, when I started university, I had only a vague notion about what my major would be. So, I selected courses that would count in any major. That first semester I took a university required course, Calculus 1, an elective (choir), and Chemistry 1. In my second semester, I just kept going, with Calc 2, Chemistry 2, another university requirement, and an elective (keyboarding). Soon, that first year led to a second, and by then I had a vague notion of being “pre-med,” knowing that doctors made a good living.

Doing the Work

In my second year I kept taking math (Calc 3 and “Diffy-Qs”) and also took two semesters of Physics with Calculus. It turns out there are two levels of physics, and physics with calculus is the higher level. That year, I also took organic chemistry, which was required for the examination that pre-med students take, the MCAT. I thought Physics would be really hard; I hadn’t had it in high school, but I just kept doing all the homework. This was how I made it through all those math courses, and I did fine. I struggled a bit in Differential Equations but squeaked through that, earning my lowest grade ever (C).

A Revelation

In my fourth semester, I took biology, required for pre-meds, and Holy Cow—I suddenly knew I DIDN’T want to be a doctor. It was just mushy dead frog, and I had no interest in which organ was the kidney. Or actually any interest in frog organs. That precipitated a spate of research, as I needed a major that would yield a job in two more years. Back then—and I assure you this is true—there was no internet, so I headed off to the library. I had three constraints: First, I had to love the major, second, it had to pay well, and third—I needed to be able to finish it in my two remaining years.

Finding the Fit

At the highest range of salaries, I found a major I had never heard of before, “chemical engineering.” Flipping through the university catalog, I found I was actually on track for my junior year, if I could convince someone to override a first-year engineering course prerequisite. I headed over to the chemical engineering department office, and it turned out the person in charge of such things was the department chair. And so I found myself in a meeting with the chemical engineering chair, earnestly explaining why he should let me into two key courses, Unit Operations and Thermodynamics. I had taken all the chemistry and physics, I explained. I had to wear him down a bit, but he finally did let me in the junior year courses, and I was a chemical engineering major! And that is how I came to earn my Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering, class of ’83.

If you are a student who is not quite sure what to major in—don’t sweat it. You’ll figure it out over time. And if I can be of help to you along your journey, please let me know—Callahan@mtu.edu

Janet Callahan, Dean
College of Engineering
Michigan Tech