Category: Features

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Jeremy Bos: What’s next after FIRST?

“This could be you,” says Michigan Tech ECE assistant professor Jeremy Bos. “Our AutoDrive team brought home the second most trophies at competition last year.”

Jeremy Bos shares his knowledge on Husky Bites, a free, interactive webinar this Monday, July 6 at 6 pm EST. Learn something new in just 20 minutes, with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.

FIRST®. You might know it as First Robotics—an international organization dedicated to motivating the next generation to understand, use and enjoy science and technology. Founder and inventor Dean Kamen describes FIRST as “using robots to build kids. “It’s not about the robots,” he said. “FIRST is transforming the way kids see the world.”

FIRST now has more than 67,000 teams around the world, and has given over $80 million in college scholarships. At Michigan Tech, at last count, there are close to fifty FIRST scholarship recipients.

So, for high school seniors now embarking on their college careers, what’s next after FIRST? How do you enter the field of robotics?

What’s more, how do you know if robotics could be the right career for you?

Jeremy Bos: “When I have time I bike, ski, hike, kayak, and stargaze. I spend time with my dog, Rigel, on the Tech Trails nearly every day.”

“Many first year students considering engineering, science, and technology are introduced to these fields from FIRST robotics and similar high school competitions,” says Jeremy Bos, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Michigan Tech. “In fact, one of the most common questions I hear from new students is ‘What is there at Michigan Tech that’s like FIRST?’ and ‘What major should I choose to have a career in robotics?’”.

Bos is a Michigan Tech alum, having earned his BS in Electrical Engineering at Michigan Tech in 2000 and his PhD in Electrical Engineering and Optics in 2012. He worked at GM on short range wireless product development, and spent several years at the Air Force Research Laboratory on Maui before coming back to Tech as an assistant professor.

Like most things in life there is no one answer that applies to everyone, says Bos. He helps students take their FIRST-inspired passion for robotics and find a place for it Michigan Tech. “What are your affinities? Knowing those, I can help point you in the right direction,” he says.

“One thing I can do is to share an overview of careers in robotics.” says Bos. Hint: it involves the “M’s” the “E’s” and the “C’s”. (Listen to the overview during his live session on Husky Bites to learn more, or catch the Zoom video later.)

Bos is advisor and manager of several robot platforms on campus, including the Robotic Systems Enterprise team, part of Michigan Tech’s award-winning Enterprise program. “It’s one of the best places on campus to learn robotics,” says Bos.

The team’s many projects come in many shapes and sizes, from designing a vision system for work with a robotic arm, to an automatic power management system for weather buoys. Clients include Ford Motor Company and Michigan Tech’s Great Lakes Research Center.

In 2010, as an electrical engineering PhD student at Michigan Tech, Bos organized the investigation of the Paulding Light mystery, working with students in the University’s student chapter of SPIE, the international society of optics and photonics. “We were looking for a project that would be both fun and educational. I thought, ‘What about the Paulding Light?’”

“We use more than just the skills and talents of computer science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering majors,” adds Bos “All majors are welcome in the enterprise.”

The team’s main focus is the SAE AutoDrive Challenge, where college teams compete to develop and demonstrate a fully autonomous driving passenger vehicle. Michigan Tech is one of eight universities selected to participate in the 3-year AutoDrive Challenge, sponsored and hosted by GM and SAE International.

Bos mentors the AutoDrive team of 40 undergraduate and graduate students along with Darrell Robinette, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics.

The team out started with a Chevy Bolt, named it Prometheus Borealis, and then turned it into a competition vehicle outfitted it with sensors, control systems and computer processors so that it could navigate an urban driving course in automated driving mode.

The team took Prometheus Borealis on a trip to GM’s Desert Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona in 2018 for an on-site evaluation in the SAE AutoDrive Challenge.
A closer look at some of the LiDAR hardware atop Prometheus Borealis. LiDAR = Light Imaging Detecting and Radar
Snow tires + winter weather = data for the Michigan Tech SAE AutoDrive Challenge team. “Roughly, this is an overhead perspective shot of the what the LiDAR mounted on Prometheus Borealis ‘sees’. The car is not visible but is at the center of the image heading north on US-41 from the Houghton Memorial Airport towards the town of Calumet,” Bos explains. “The clutter visible on the left of the image near the center/car is caused by snow. The ‘V’ notch in the center/top of the image is a dead zone caused by ice build up on the front on the LiDAR unit, a problem we’ve been working to solve.”


Bos accompanies students to the SAE AutoDrive Challenge competitions.
The next one is coming up this October in East Liberty, Ohio. Teams are judged in a variety of areas—Object Detection, Localization, MathWorks, and Simulation, to name a few. His expertise in autonomous vehicles and vehicular networks, as well as industrial automation and controls makes Bos an ideal mentor for the students.

My own contribution to this effort is called ‘Autonomy at the End of the Earth.’ My research focuses on the operation of autonomous vehicles in hazardous weather. Specifically, the ice and snow we encounter on a daily basis between November and April.

Jeremy Bos


Bos says he is excited about the brand new Robotics Engineering degree program at Michigan Tech. It will be offered for the first time this fall in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Robotics Engineering will cover all the skills you need for developing autonomous vehicles. It’s a unique set of skills now in heavy demand, with a little bit of everything—all the letters (M’s, E’s and C’s) and a little bit more—with a focus on learning the cutting edge.”

When did you first get into engineering? What sparked your interest?

My Dad ran a turn-key industrial automation and robotics business throughout most of my childhood. In fact, I got my first job at age 12 when I was sequestered at home with strep throat. I felt fine, but couldn’t go to school. My Dad put me to work writing programs for what I know now are Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs); the ‘brains’ of most industrial automation systems.

Later, I was involved with Odyssey of the Mind and Science Olympiad. I also really liked these new things called ‘personal computers’ and spent quite a bit of time programming them. By the time I was in high school I was teaching classes at the local library on computer building, repair, and this other new thing called ‘The Internet’. A career in STEM was a certainty. I ended up in engineering because I like to build things (even if only on a computer) and I like to solve problems (generally with computers and math).

Tell us about your growing up. What do you do for fun?

I was born in Santa Clara, California just as Silicon Valley was starting to be a thing. I grew up in Grand Haven, Michigan where I graduated from high school and then went to Michigan Tech for my undergraduate degree. I liked it so much I came back twice. I now live in Houghton with my wife, and fellow alumna, Jessica (STC ’00). We have a boisterous dog, Rigel, named after a star in the constellation Orion, who bikes or skis with me on the Tech trails nearly every day.

When I have time I also like to kayak, and stargaze. I’ve even tried my hand at astrophotography at Michigan Tech’s AMJOCH Observatory. It’s a telescope, but hopefully, soon it will be a robot, too.

Learn more:

@MTUAutonomy winter driving data set test 1

Look Ma, No Driver

Huskies Hit the Road

Creativity and Cool Gizmos: Dean Kamen at Michigan Tech

Just in time for Halloween, Michigan Tech Students Solve the Mystery of the Paulding Light

It’s Out There, Return of the Paulding Light


Daisuke Minakata: Scrubbing Water

Daisuke Minakata shares his knowledge on Husky Bites, a free, interactive webinar this Monday, June 29 at 6 pm EST. Learn something new in just 20 minutes, with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.

Do you trust your tap water? It’s regulated, but exactly how is tap water treated? And what about wastewater? Is it treated to protect the environment? 

Daisuke Minakata, an associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Michigan Technological University, studies the trace organic chemicals in our water. He’s also developing a tool municipalities can use to remove them.

Dr. Daisuke Minakata: “In high school I learned that environmental engineers can be leaders who help solve the Earth’s most difficult sustainability and environmental problems. That’s when I decided to become an engineer.”

“Anthropogenic chemicals—the ones resulting from the influence of human beings—are present in water everywhere,” he says. And not just a few. Hundreds, even thousands of different ones. Of particular concern are Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), an emerging groups of contaminants.

Most water treatment facilities around the country were not designed to remove synthetic organic chemicals like those found in opioids, dioxins, pesticides, flame retardants, plastics, and other pharmaceutical and personal care products, says Minakata.

This affects natural environmental waters like the Great Lakes, and rivers and streams. These pollutants have the potential to harm fish and wildlife—and us, too.

To solve this problem, Minakata investigates the effectiveness of two of the most widely used removal methods: reverse osmosis (RO), and advanced oxidation process (AOP).

PFAS foam is toxic and sticky. If you happen see it, do not touch it, or if you do come in contact, be sure to wash it off. Keep pets away from it, too.

“RO is a membrane-based technology. It separates dissolved contaminants from water,” Minakata explains. “AOPs are oxidation technologies that destroy trace organic chemicals.” Both RO and AOP are highly advanced water and wastewater treatment processes. They are promising, he says, but not yet practical. 

“The very idea of using an RO and AOPs for each trace organic chemical is incredibly daunting. It would be extremely time consuming and expensive,” he says. 

Instead, Minakata and his research team at Michigan Tech, along with collaborators at the University of New Mexico, have developed a model for predicting the rejection mechanisms of hundreds of organic chemicals through different membrane products at different operational conditions. Their project was funded by the WateReuse Research Foundation

“The rejection mechanisms of organic chemicals by RO are extremely complicated—but the use of computational chemistry tools helped us understand the mechanisms,” says Minakata. “Our ultimate goal is to develop a tool that can predict the fate of chemicals through RO at full-scale, so that water utilities can design and operate an RO system whenever a newly identified chemical becomes regulated.”

Reverse osmosis (RO) at a water treatment demonstration plant in California. Credit Daisuke Minakata
Advanced oxidation processes (AOPs) at the same California water treatment demonstration plant, above. Credit: Daisuke Minakata.

To understand and predict how trace organic chemicals degrade when destroyed in AOPs, Minakata works with a second collaborator, Michigan Tech social scientist Mark Rouleau. They use computational chemistry, experiments, and sophisticated modeling.

Water reuse, aka reclaimed water, is the use of treated municipal wastewater for beneficial purposes including irrigation, industrial uses, and even drinking water.

“Solving this problem is especially critical for the benefit of communities in dry, arid regions of the world, because of the urgent need for water reuse in those places,” says Minakata. Water reuse, aka reclaimed water, is the use of treated municipal wastewater for beneficial purposes including irrigation, industrial uses, and even drinking water. It’s also the way astronauts at the International Space Station get their water. (Note: Minakata will explain how it works during his session of Husky Bites.)

Dr. Daisuke Minakata does a lot of work in one of the nation’s top undergraduate teaching labs, the Environmental Process Simulation Center, right here on campus at Michigan Tech.

Over the past few years Minakata’s research team has included nine undergraduate research assistants, all supported either through their own research fellowships or Minakata’s research grants.

In his classes, Minakata invites students to come see him if they are interested in undergraduate research within “the first two minutes of my talk.” For many, those first few minutes have become life changing and in the words of one student who longed to make a difference, “a dream come true.”

By encouraging and enabling undergraduate students to pursue research, Dr. Minakata is helping to develop a vibrant intellectual community among the students in the College of Engineering.

Dean Janet Callahan, College of Engineering, Michigan Tech

Minakata is a member of Michigan Tech’s Sustainable Futures Institute and the Great Lakes Research Center. In addition to being a faculty member in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, he is also an affiliated associate professor in both the Department of Chemistry and Department of Physics. Be sure to check out Dr. Minakata’s website, too.

“I never get tired of looking at this image,” says Daisuke Minakata, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Michigan Tech.

When did you first get into engineering? What sparked your interest?

I loved watching a beautiful image of planet Earth, one with a very clear sky and blue water, during my high school days. However, as I began to learn how life on Earth suffers many difficult environmental problems, including air pollution and water contamination, I also learned that environmental engineers can be leaders who help solve the Earth’s most difficult sustainability problems. That is when I decided to become an engineer.

In my undergraduate curriculum, the water quality and treatment classes I took were the toughest subjects to get an A. I had to work the hardest to understand the content. So, naturally, I decided to enter this discipline as I got to know about water engineering more. And then, there’s our blue planet, the image. Water makes the Earth look blue from space.

Tell us about your growing up. What do you do for fun?

I was born and raised in Japan. I came to the U.S. for the first time as a high school exchange student, just for one month. I lived in Virginia, in a place called Silverplate, a suburb of D.C. I went to Thomas Jefferson Science and Technology High School, which was the sister school of my Japanese high school, and one of the nation’s top scientific high schools. And I did like it. This triggered my study abroad dream. I was impressed by the US high school education system in the US. It’s one that never just looks for the systematic solution, but values process/logic and discussion-based classes.

So, while in college, during my graduate studies, I took a one year leave from Kyoto University in Japan and studied at U Penn (University of Pennsylvania) as a visiting graduate student for one year. Finally, I moved to Atlanta, Georgia in order to get a PhD at Georgia Institute of Technology. I accepted my position at Michigan Tech in 2013.

I’m now a father of two kids. Both are Yoopers, born here in the UP of Michigan. My wife and I really enjoy skiing (downhill and cross country) with the kids each winter. 

Summing it all up, so far I’ve lived in Virginia (1 month), Philly in Pennsylvania while going to U Penn (1 year), Phoenix in Arizona to start my PhD (3.5 years), and Atlanta in Georgia to complete my PhD and work as a research engineer (5 years). Then finally in Houghton, Michigan (7 years). I do like all the cities I have lived in. The place I am currently living is our two kids’ birthplace, and our real home. Of course it’s our favorite place, after our Japanese hometown.


Dr. Minakata: in Husky Bites, Dean Callahan will ask you to tell us about your dog!

Learn More:

Engineers Capture Sun in a Box

Break It Down: Understanding the Formation of Chemical Byproducts During Water Treatment

The Princess and the Water Treatment Problem


Darian Reed: From Volunteer to New Career

Michigan Tech civil engineering student Darian Reed is Logistics Section Chief for Houghton and Keweenaw Counties, supplying PPE to hospitals, nursing homes and local organizations.

COVID-19 has changed the lives of so many. For one Michigan Tech civil engineering undergraduate student, COVID-19 shaped his life in a way never imagined. 

Originally from Monroe, Michigan, Darian Reed came to the UP to pursue a degree in civil engineering at Michigan Tech and a career in the construction industry. Feeling a strong connection to the local community, this year Reed began volunteering his time and talents near campus, with Superior Search and Rescue. His contributions gained the recognition of Chris VanArsdale, a civil engineering alumnus and current doctoral student, who serves as the emergency management coordinator for both Houghton and Keweenaw counties. 

Needing to staff emergency response activities for both counties, VanArsdale asked Reed to serve as Logistics Section Chief—and Reed jumped at the chance. In this new role he receives resource need requests from local organizations, including hospitals and nursing homes. He submits their resource requests to the State, who will approve or deny the requests for masks, thermometers and other essential resources in the fight against COVID-19. 

Day in, day out, Darian Reed says he feels highly motivated. “This work provides me with the fuel I need to keep going amid the uncertainty of this pandemic.”

Reed also handles regional donations, including the 3D printed face shields printed at Michigan Tech. “I get to be the Santa Claus of the area, distributing the resources to all the requesting organizations,” says Reed. “I am happy to share that the State of Michigan has been able to fulfill requests for many resources to date, with gowns and no-touch thermometers as some of the few exceptions. This is great news for our community.”

Reed is now on the last leg of a long (and sometimes slow) process of requesting supplies. A local health care provider or non-profit first requests resources from the emergency manager, the supplies they cannot find or obtain themselves. These requests are entered into the State of Michigan’s online portal called MICIMS (Michigan Critical Incident Management System). As resources become available, they are shipped to Marquette, which is the central receiving hub in the UP. From there, resources are sorted by county and shipped to a regional hub (Greenland in the case of five counties in the Western UP Health Department’s area of responsibility). The National Guard breaks down these shipments and transports them to each county. At that point, it becomes the county’s responsibility to distribute the requested resources. That’s where Reed comes in.

Best of all for Reed, the experience has illuminated an entirely new career path. Because of his experiences this summer, his career goals have changed—from construction to emergency management. He still plans to complete his degree in Civil Engineering.

“The civil engineering skills I learned from my classes at Tech and my co-op experience with Kiewit last fall served me well. Managing construction crews and working with a variety of government agencies both have helped me to develop an important skill set.”

Reed is already on his way, completing several FEMA emergency management courses in his spare time, and taking classes for his Professional Emergency Manager certification. “I’ve been doing the training real-time, by learning online and then implementing what I have learned almost immediately,” he says.

“Through this experience I value the connection I am making with my adopted home more than ever before,” he says. “I also value this opportunity for personal growth.” When asked how others could follow in his footprints, he suggests volunteering for any local community event or with your local first responders. “Volunteers are needed and the more you show up, the more you can do. Great opportunities will come your way!”


Tony Pinar: How Do Machines Learn?

Tony Pinar shares his knowledge on Husky Bites, a free, interactive webinar this Monday, June 22 at 6 pm EST. Learn something new in just 20 minutes, with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.

Can machines learn, for real? Just how intelligent are they? Will machines and robots someday take over the world?

“Machine learning has become a popular tool in the digital world,” says Tony Pinar. “For people outside the field it seems almost magical that a machine could learn.”

Machine-learning algorithms do indeed “learn”, though it probably is not as glamorous as many people think. And not only that, says Pinar, they can be fooled.

ECE faculty member Dr. Tony Pinar earned his BS, MS and PhD in electrical engineering, all at Michigan Tech.

A lecturer and researcher in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Michigan Tech, Pinar demystifies machine learning for students, and shows them how it’s done.

Pinar has even taught his own laptop a thing or two.

“Machine learning is actually a subfield of AI, or artificial intelligence,” says Pinar. “That’s a buzz word for simulating intelligence with a machine.”

Machine learning, he explains, is a collection of algorithms, biologically-inspired neural networks, that allow a computer to learn properties from observations, often with the goal of prediction.

“One pretty common misconception is that AI and machine learning are new. While the field has made leaps in the last few decades, some aspects of machine learning were developed in the 1800s, probably by Gauss,” says Pinar. Carl Friedrich Gauss, the German mathematician, is considered to be one of the greatest mathematicians of all time.

Pinar’s own research interests are in applied machine learning and data fusion. “It is exciting to me to watch the cutting edge move forward, see what sticks and what doesn’t, and observe how the directions of the field evolve,” he says. “It’s also rewarding to work on open-ended and novel problems that are in their infancy and at the cutting edge of today’s technology.”

Pinar is a member of the Institute of Computing and Cybersystems (ICC) at Michigan Tech. ICC provides a platform for innovative research and supports collaboration. The ICC’s 50 members represent 15 academic units at Michigan Tech.

It is exciting to me to watch the cutting edge move forward, see what sticks and what doesn’t, and observe how the directions of the field evolve.

Dr. Tony Pinar

“Often, the strongest solutions to be found are multidisciplinary, where people from many different fields work on the same problem,” notes Pinar.

As senior design coordinator for Michigan Tech’s ECE department, Pinar mentors students working on the final big design project of their senior year. Michigan Tech’s senior design program is more like a first job than a last class, and many projects are sponsored by industry.

What does working on senior design look like? It looks like testing, iterating, compiling, and teaming. This group of ME, EE, and CpE students is working on the SICK LiDAR challenge. They they ended up winning an Honorable Mention in the nationwide competition.

One senior design team that Pinar advised this past spring⁠—a multidisciplinary team comprised of students majoring in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and computer engineering⁠—competed in the TiM$10K Challenge, a national innovation and design competition. Student teams were invited to participate from 20 different universities by Sick USA. Sick AG, based in Waldkirch, Germany, is a global manufacturer of sensors and sensor solutions.

For the competition, teams were supplied with a 270-foot SICK LiDAR sensor, the TIM, and accessories, and challenged to solve a problem, create a solution or new application.

The Tech team members — Brian Parvin, Kurtis Alessi, Alex Kirchner, David Brushaber and Paul Allen — earned Honorable Mention (fourth place overall) for their project, Evaluating Road Markings (the Road Stripe Evaluator). The innovative product aims to help resolve issues caused by poor road markings.

“Road stripes around the world require frequent maintenance,” Pinar explains. “That’s because fading road stripes cause fatal car accidents and other safety concerns. The team’s software and device can be mounted on police cars in order to cover a wide region. And instead of repainting all road stripes, road crews can become discerning, learning which roads need repainting, and focus only on those, potentially saving a fortune each year on paint and maintenance.”

“Each year, fading road stripes cause fatal car accidents,” says Pinar. “This senior design team’s software and device the Road Stripe Evaluator, could potentially save lives.”

SICK asked each team in the competition to submit a video and paper for judging upon completion of its project. A panel of judges decided the winning submissions based on creativity and innovation, ability to solve a customer problem, commercial potential, entrepreneurship of the team, and reporting.

While the team’s prototype does not depend on machine learning, the project may continue in upcoming semester. That way, another senior design team will be able to build a machine learning solution into the prototype, notes Pinar.

In April, the team also won an Honorable Mention for the Road Stripe Evaluator project at Michigan Tech’s Design Expo, competing with 50+ other senior design teams.

How did you first get interested in engineering? What sparked your interest?

I was raised near the small town of Trout Creek, Michigan. I’ve always been obsessed with figuring out how things work. I was also interested in electricity from a young age, thanks to my dad, who had me help him to wire houses as an electrician. These led me to pursue electrical engineering at Michigan Tech, where I learned EE was so much more than power distribution.

You earned your BS, MS and PhD at Michigan Tech, all in electrical engineering. What kind of projects did you work on as a student?

I had the opportunity to work on many interesting projects as a student, both applied and research-based. As an undergrad I contributed to projects such as a solar-tracking solar panel, a Tesla coil, and an industry-sponsored project concerning wireless power transfer. In graduate school I worked on projects involving autonomous underwater gliders, 3D metal printers, and explosive hazard detection using ground penetrating radar; my dissertation was focused on the algorithms I developed and used for much of the explosive hazard detection problem.

What do you like most about teaching electrical engineering?

Teaching is like a puzzle where one may have to take a difficult concept, reduce it to digestible pieces, and deliver them to fresh minds in a way to maximize understanding and insight. That challenge is what drives me to be a better teacher. It keeps me on my toes, forces me to constantly identify holes in my knowledge, and drives me to continuously strive to learn new things.

Can you tell us about your life now? Any hobbies?

I live in Hancock with my wife, Noelle, and our two small boys, Malcolm and Dexter. If I’m not spending time outdoors in the Keweenaw with my family, you will probably find me playing guitar or tinkering with a side project.

Learn More

232: Road Marking Reflectivity Evaluator


Andrew Barnard: A Quieter Future


Andrew Barnard works on a noise control survey on the R/V Blue Heron in Lake Superior.

Andrew Barnard shares his knowledge on Husky Bites, a free, interactive webinar this Monday, June 15 at 6 pm. Learn something new in just 20 minutes, with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.

Let’s say you wanted to quiet the loud auxiliary power unit on a large Abrams tank or any other loud noisy contraption. Would carbon nanotubes, thinner than a human hair, immediately come to mind? Probably not—but that is exactly the solution that Andrew Barnard has developed.

Why a nanotube speaker instead of the usual kind? It’s flexible and stretchable, with no moving parts, and you can put it practically anywhere. Plus, it weighs next to nothing. Four ounces of the material will cover an acre.

“Carbon nanotubes can oscillate their surface temperature almost instantaneously to produce noise canceling sound waves,” he explains. His technology—a coaxial active exhaust noise control system—is based on using a thin film of carbon nanotubes as a thermophone, or loudspeaker.

Why else use carbon nanotubes? “The material is flexible and stretchable, with no moving parts, and you can put it practically anywhere,” he says. “Plus, it weighs next to nothing. Four ounces of the material will cover an acre.”

“Building with Lego sets as a kid is probably what sparked my design and engineering mindset,” says Andrew Barnard. Fast forward about 30 years. Barnard is now an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics at Michigan Tech, specializing in the field of acoustics, vibration, and noise control engineering. He is the Director of the Great Lakes Research Center. He is advisor of Michigan Tech’s Strategic Education through Naval Systems Experiences (SENSE) Enterprise team. Last year he earned the Michigan Tech Distinguished Teaching Award. And he knows what it’s like to be a Michigan Tech student; he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering at Tech before heading to Penn State for a PhD in acoustics.

Barnard is faculty advisor to Michigan Tech’s SENSE (Strategic Education through Naval Systems Experience) Enterprise. It’s a relatively new team. Students design, build, and test engineering systems with a focus on Navy applications in all domains: space, air, land, sea, and undersea. Like all of SENSE is open to students in any major.  The Nautical Emergency Rescue Device (NERD) is the team’s longest-running project. 

Q: What exactly is the NERD?

It’s like a mechanized life ring. If you’ve got someone 100 yards offshore, it takes away the danger of swimming out to them or the time it takes to get a boat. A life ring can only be thrown maybe 25 yards and if it’s windy it’s hard to get the life ring to the person. The NERD uses plastic PVC piping, low-cost remote vehicle propellers and the same controls used for remote-controlled planes and boats. The project is sponsored in part by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.


Students in the SENSE Enterprise designed and built a prototype of the NERD. “It’s sort of like a drone that can be used as a life raft, cheap and affordable enough that it can be kept at popular swimming beaches or in squad car trunks and used very quickly.”
The SENSE Enterprise logo, created by team members. Learn more about all 24 Enterprise teams at mtu.edu/enterprise

“I like to tell students on the SENSE team that I don’t do anything, they do everything, I’m just there to make sure they don’t go off the rails; to help them work through that design process, to watch them fail and help them pick themselves up and succeed.”

Andrew Barnard

Q: What is your research focus?

I do acoustics in general. What I’m interested in is making mechanical things quiet. I tend to work on any type of system with rotating equipment: ship propellers, hard drives, hydraulic systems. That is to say, anything moving that creates sound or is affected by sound.

“It’s a very customer-centered research field because everyone has a set of transducers built into their heads—ears.”We have lots of customers to talk to and lots of customer problems to fix because certain sounds drive people nuts.

We have the same problems under water. The overall background noise in the ocean has been rising steadily since WWII. How does that affect marine mammals and fish species? How does their behavior change based on ambient noise background? That’s what we’re trying to find out.


Andrew Barnard and his students work on developing flexible and stretchable nanotube speakers.

Q: How do you like to learn?

I had lots of great professors when I was a student here at Michigan Tech; Chuck Van Karsen is a good example. Chuck was a terrific professor, knew the material back and forth, but would take the time to teach it to you. He was always showing us how we could relate the pieces of an equation to things in real life that we touch every day. I thought those types of lessons were really helpful in learning the material, so I try to bring those kinds of things into my classes as well. I’ve had so many good professors it’s hard to single out just a few. 

“Everyone has a set of transducers built into their heads—ears.”

Andrew Barnard

Q: How did you know you wanted to be an acoustic engineer?

In college, I did several internships. Two of them taught me what I didn’t want to do, a very valuable lesson. The third one was working on noise control of tractors with John Deere. That sparked my interest in the field and propelled me on to graduate school to learn more. I’ve had mentors over the years that have been vital to keeping me pursuing the long and winding path to my current position. 

Q: Can you tell us more about your growing up? 

I was born and raised outside of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, cradled between Lake Michigan and the bay of Green Bay.  I come from a long line of teachers. My mother was a kindergarten teacher and both my grandmothers were teachers. In my free time nowadays I enjoy hiking and waterfalling in the UP with my wife, Becky, entertaining our dog, and playing mediocre rounds of golf.

Andrew Barnard grew up in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Pictured here is the Ship Canal Pierhead Lighthouse, located just off the coastline of Lake Michigan

Learn More

Sound Man

Q&A with Michigan Tech Teaching Award Winner Andrew Barnard

Q&A with Great Lakes Research Center’s Andrew Barnard

SENSE Enterprise at Michigan Tech

Want to know more about Husky Bites? Read about it here.


Chad Deering: Predicting Volcanic Unrest Via Plant Life Stress

Vegetative stress at the foot of the Kīlauea Volcano in Hawaii

After a volcanic eruption, it can take years for vegetation to recover, and landscapes are often forever changed. But well before any eruption takes place, the assemblage of plant species on and around the volcano show signs of stress, or even die off. 

Chad Deering

Chad Deering, a volcanologist in the Department of Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences at Michigan Technological University uses hyperspectral remote sensing data, acquired during an airborne campaign over Hawaii, to predict future volcanic eruptions on the Big Island. Deering and his team of graduate students from Michigan Tech are collaborating with scientists from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and the University of New Mexico. 

“The replenishment of a shallow magma reservoir can signal the onset of an eruption at a dormant volcanic system, such as at Mauna Loa. It can also indicate significant changes in eruptive behavior at an already active volcano, as in what occurred at Kīlauea,” Deering says. 

“Rising magma ultimately results in a flux of volatiles through the ground, including carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Active vent plumes of those same gases include particulate matter, even thermal energy, and those often enter the atmosphere, as well. “

By detecting and characterizing those fluxes and their effects on the health and extent of local vegetation, Deering is able to recognize significant changes in a volcano’s behavior. The result: a new, cost-effective way to forecast volcanic hazards and events.

“Monitoring vegetative stress on a volcano can potentially provide a much-needed early warning system for those living near and around volcanoes,” adds Deering. An estimated 500 million people are living in danger zones around the world.

“Our preliminary results indicate a strong correlation between emissions of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide gas from soil—as well as the thermal anomalies—and different aspects of vegetative stress.” 

Deering’s team uses highly sensitive hyperspectral analysis to distinguish between effects of different gas species and thermal anomalies on variations in vegetative stress. “This is important as CO2 and H2S have different solubilities in magma. That allows us a semi-quantitative measure of the depth of magma as it rises.

With the results of their study, the team developed a remote-sensing automated detection algorithm that can be used in satellite-based platforms to detect volcanic unrest at volcanoes worldwide. 

“In particular, this tool will allow the scientific community to monitor volcanoes that are otherwise inaccessible due to heavy vegetation and/or their remote locations,” adds Deering. “It will also remove technical barriers such as establishing extensive and expensive seismic arrays that are difficult to maintain.”

NASA gathered the hyperspectral data over the course of a year, starting in 2017. Deering and his team are now analyzing more recent data, collected last year. “We want to determine whether we could have predicted the recent volcanic fissure emergence and activity taking place in Hawaii.”


Guy Meadows: Shipwrecks and Underwater Robots

Guy Meadows: “I love being on the waters of the Great Lakes and the oceans⁠—and having an engineering career that allows me to do what I love.

Guy Meadows shares his knowledge at Husky Bites, a free, interactive webinar this Monday, June 8 at 6 pm. Learn something new in just 20 minutes, with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.

Guy Meadows uses an underwater robot to chart new territories in the field of underwater exploration. But not just any old robot—one of the world’s best.

Its name is Iver3, and it has two dual processor computers on board, Wifi, GPS, water flow and speed of sound sensors, and the latest in sonar technology. It can dive 330 feet and cover 20-plus miles of water on missions up to 8 hours. It also has a high definition camera, lights and a satellite phone. These combined features make Iver an impressive research tool.

The IVER3. Consider it a robotic Aquaman. “Iver performs like a superhero,” says Meadows.

With Iver, Meadows and his team are able to provide ultra-high resolution acoustic images underneath the waters of the Great Lakes. “Whether it’s tracking underwater features, looking at shipwrecks, or mapping trout spawning beds, we can do this all much more precisely and in much greater detail than was ever possible,” he says.

Meadows is director of the Marine Engineering Laboratory, and the Robbins Professor of Sustainable Marine Engineering at Michigan Tech. His work with Iver is cutting edge. “Iver can obtain a ‘survey quality’ map of a swath of the bottom of Lake Superior,” he explains. “The map size depends on the altitude of the robot above the lake floor, but at ten meters above the bottom you can map an entire football field.”

“What we’re doing is seeing with sound waves. Acoustic energy shines on the target and illuminates it for us. Navy research vessels use active remote sensing, too,” he adds. “But we can see a lot more clearly with Iver.”

A sepia-toned looking image of a shipwreck at the bottom of Lake Superior. Both the ship and its shadow are visible at a high resolution of detail.
Here is the John J. Audubon, which sank in Lake Huron in 1854 in 180 feet of water and now within the NOAA’s marine sanctuary boundaries. “We’re seeing with sound waves,” Guy Meadows explains. “Acoustic energy illuminates the target and allows a higher resolution image of the shipwreck and its acoustic shadow.”

Michigan Tech students learn how to program Iver as part of their many classes onboard Agassiz, the university’s research vessel. “If we set up the geometry just right, we can get the highest possible quality sonar image,” Meadows explains.

“When we go out to look at shipwrecks in Lake Superior, we program Iver to fly a prescribed distance from the bottom of the lake, and a prescribed distance from the vessel. We can see both the image of the target vessel, and its acoustic shadow,” says Meadows. “The images are fantastic, but the shadows also provide a great deal of valuable information and detail.”

Q: When did you first get into engineering? What sparked your interest?

“I was born and raised in the City of Detroit. I went to Detroit Public Schools, and when I went to college I had to work to make ends meet. I got a job as a cook in the dorm, and and eventually worked my way up to lead cook. I was cooking breakfast for 1,200 people each morning. One of my fellow classmates was studying engineering, too. He had a job working for a professor doing research on storm waves and beaches. I had no idea I could be hired by a professor and get paid money to work on the beach! I quit my job in the kitchen soon after, and went to work for that professor instead. I had been a competitive swimmer in high school, and the beach was where I really wanted to be. When I graduated with my degree, having grown up in Detroit, I went to work for Ford. I have to thank my first boss for assigning me to work on rear axle shafts. After about two months, I called my former professor, to see if I could come back to college.

My advice for students just starting out is to spend your first year exploring all your options. Find out what you really want to do. I had no idea I could turn a mechanical engineering degree into a job working on the beach. Turns out, I could⁠—and I’m still doing it today.

Q: What do you like to do when you’re not on the beach or out on the water?

Having grown up in Detroit, I have had the opportunity to live, work and grow in a very diverse community. While as a faculty member at the University of Michigan, I was part of a great team that started the M-STEM Academies and became its founding director. The M-STEM mission is “to strengthen and diversify the cohort of students who receive their baccalaureate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), with the ultimate goal of increasing the number and diversity of students who are well prepared to seek career opportunities or to pursue graduate or professional training in the STEM disciplines in the new global economy.” This effort has been a very important part of my journey.

More about Guy Meadows

Throughout his career Guy Meadows has influenced policy and explored societal impacts of environmental forecasting for coastal management, recreational health and safety, and regional climate change.

Guy Meadows on the dock of the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Tech, in front of a large, bright yellow buoy (about the size of a very small compact car) that is used to collect data in Lake Superior.
Guy Meadows, Director of the Marine Engineering Laboratory, and Robbins Professor of Sustainable Marine Engineering at Michigan Tech.

After graduation from Purdue University with PhD in Marine Science in 1977, he joined the faculty of the University of Michigan College of Engineering, where he served as professor of physical oceanography for 35 years. During that time, Meadows served as director of the Ocean Engineering Laboratory, director of the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research (NOAA, Joint Institute), director of the Marine Hydrodynamics Laboratories.

Meadows joined Michigan Tech in June of 2012, to help establish the new Great Lakes Research Center. His primary goal is to blend scientific understanding and technological advancements into environmentally sound engineering solutions for the marine environment, through teaching, research and service.

His research focuses on geophysical fluid dynamics, with an emphasis on environmental forecasting, full-scale Great Lakes and coastal ocean experimental hydrodynamics.

His teaching reaches beyond the University to less formal settings and includes five nationally televised documentaries for the History and Discovery Channels.

Read & View More

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Subsurface Vehicles at Michigan Tech’s Great Lakes Research Center

Be Brief: Shipwreck

Freshwater Flights Reveal What Lies Beneath

To Protect and Preserve



Becky Ong: Color-Changing Potions and Magical Microbes

Miscanthus, otherwise known as Switchgrass, a perennial grass, can be used for making biofuels. “But plant materials are very complex,” says Dr. Rebecca Ong. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what is in there. We have much more to learn.”

Dr. Becky Ong shares her knowledge on Husky Bites, a free, interactive webinar this Monday, June 1 at 6 pm. Learn something new in just 20 minutes, with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.

Fungus Breath? It’s a good thing!

Enter the magical world of herbology and potions with Dr. Becky Ong. Learn how to make your own color-changing potion and use it to find the best conditions to generate and collect fungus breath. Discover the science behind the magic, what makes plants and microbes so cool. 

Dr. Becky Ong in her lab at Michigan Technological University. She is both a biologist and a chemical engineer.

Dr. Ong, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, runs the Biofuels & Bio-based Products Lab at Michigan Tech, where she and her team of student researchers put plants to good use.

“As engineers we aren’t just learning about the world, but we’re applying our knowledge of the world to make it a better place,” she says. “That is what I love. As a chemical engineer, I get to merge chemistry, biology, physics, and math to help solve such crazy huge problems as: how we’re going to have enough energy and food for everyone in the future; how we’re going to deal with all this waste that we’re creating; how to keep our environment clean, beautiful and safe for ourselves and the creatures who share our world.” 

For this session of Husky Bites, you’re going to want to gather some common household supplies. No time for supplies? Just watch it happen in Dr. Ong’s kitchen live via Zoom. Learn the details at mtu.edu/huskybites

Dr. Ong, a born Yooper,  is a Michigan Tech alumna. She graduated in 2005 with two degrees, one in Biological Sciences, and the other in Chemical Engineering. She went on to Michigan State University to earn a PhD in Chemical Engineering in 2011. Growing up, she was one of the youngest garden club enthusiasts in northern Michigan, a science-loving kid who accompanied her grandparents to club events like “growing great gardens” or “tulip time.” When she wasn’t tending the family garden, she was “mucking about in nature” learning from parents who had both trained as foresters.

“We conduct many small-scale experiments in the lab—on a variety of plant materials grown under different environmental conditions. We want to determine just how those conditions affect the production of biofuels.”

Q: When did you first get into engineering? What sparked your interest?

I first became interested in engineering in high school when I learned it was a way to combine math and science to solve problems. I loved math and science and thought that sounded brilliant. However, I didn’t understand at the time what that really meant. I thought “problems” meant the types of problems you solve in math class. Since then I’ve learned these problems are major issues that are faced by all of humanity, such as: How do we enable widespread access to clean energy? How do we produce sufficient amounts of safe vaccines and medicine, particularly in a crisis? How do we process food products, while maintaining safety and nutritional quality? As a chemical engineer I am able to combine my love of biology, chemistry, physics, and math to create novel solutions to society’s problems. One thing I love about MTU is that the university gives students tons of hands-on opportunities to solve real problems, not just problems out of a textbook (though we still do a fair number of those!). These are the types of problems our students will be solving when they go on to their future careers.

Q: Tell us about yourself. What do you like to do outside the lab?

I’m a born Yooper who grew up in the small-town northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan and came back to the UP for school.

I love the Copper Country and MTU students so much, I managed to persuade my husband to come back to Houghton 5 years ago. Now I live near campus with my husband, 4-year-old daughter, our Torbie cat and our curly-haired dog.

We read science fiction and fantasy stories; play board games; kayak on the canals and lakes while watching for signs of wildlife; make new things out of yarn, fabric, wood, and plastic (not all at the same time)—and practice herbology (plants and plant lore) and potions in the garden and kitchen. 

Huskies in the Biofuels & Bio-based Products Lab at Michigan Tech

Biofuels and Dry Spells: Switchgrass Changes During a Drought
Sustainable Foam: Coming Soon to a Cushion Near You

Want to know more about Husky Bites? 

Read about it here.

Husky Bites is BYOC: Bring Your Own Curiosity to this Family-Friendly Free Webinar, Mondays this Summer at 6 pm EST.

Biofuels and Dry Spells: Switchgrass Changes During a Drought

High yields. A deep root system that prevents soil erosion and allows for minimal irrigation. The ability to pull large amounts of carbon out of the air and sequester it in the soil. Beneficial effects on wildlife, pollination, and water quality. Perennial grasses, such as switchgrass and elephant grass, are wonderful in many ways and especially promising biofuel feedstocks. But that promise, a team of researchers discovered, may evaporate during a drought.

“The characteristics of any living organism are linked to their genetics and the environment they experience during growth,” says Rebecca Ong, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Michigan Technological University. “Bioenergy production is no different. It’s a chain where every link, including the feedstock characteristics, influences the final product—the fuel.”

Ong is both a chemical engineer and a biologist. She holds a unique perspective on how the bioenergy system fits together, which comes in handy, especially now, in light of a recent puzzling discovery.

“Plants have lower biomass yields during a drought. You understand this when you don’t need to mow your lawn after a dry spell,” she explains. “The same is true with switchgrass. Besides the expected effect on crop yields, we were completely unable to produce fuel from switchgrass—using one of our standard biofuel microbes—grown during a major drought year.”

“At the lab scale this is an interesting result. But at the industrial scale, this could potentially be devastating to a biorefinery,” she says.

Ong, her research team, and colleagues within the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), a cross-disciplinary research center led by the University of Wisconsin–Madison, are making efforts to understand, pulling in researchers from across the production chain to study the problem. 

Ong is the only Michigan Tech faculty member in the GLBRC. “Our team was able to identify some of the compounds formed in the plant in response to drought stress, contributing to the inhibition. But plant materials are very complex. We’ve only scratched the surface of what is in there. We have much more to learn.”

The first step, she says, is to understand what inhibits fuel production. “Once we know that, we can engineer solutions: new, tailor-made plants with improved characteristics, as well as modifications to processing, such as the use of different microbes, to overcome these issues.”

Ong points out that in the U.S., gasoline is largely supplemented with E10 ethanol, derived from sugars in corn grain. However renewable fuels can be produced from any source of sugars—including perennial grasses, which if planted on less productive land do not conflict with food production.

“Ultimately, if we are to replace fossil energy in the long term, we need a broad alternative energy portfolio,” says Ong. “We need industry to succeed. We are engaging in highly collaborative research to ensure that happens.”


Sustainable Foam: Coming Soon to a Cushion Near You

Chemical engineering major Lauren Spahn presented her research at the Michigan Tech Undergraduate Research Symposium last spring. Her lignin project was supported by Portage Health Foundation, the DeVlieg Foundation, and Michigan Tech’s Pavlis Honors College.

Most polyurethane foam, found in cushions, couches, mattress, insulation, shoes, and more, is made from petroleum. Soon, with help from undergraduate researcher and chemical engineering major Lauren Spahn, it will also be environmentally-friendly, sustainable, and made from renewable biomass.

Spahn works in the Biofuels & Bio-based Products Laboratory at Michigan Technological University, where researchers put plants—and their lignin—to good use. The lab is directed by Dr. Rebecca Ong, an assistant professor of chemical engineering.

Q&A with Lauren Spahn

Q: Please tell us about the lab.

A: “Our goal in working with Dr. Ong is to develop sustainable industries using renewable lignocellulosic biomass⁠—the material derived from plant cell walls. There are five of us working on Dr. Ong’s team. We develop novel co-products from the side streams of biofuel production, and pulp and paper production. We’re trying to make good use of the leftover materials.

 

Lignocellulose, aka biomass, is the dry matter of plants. Energy crops like this Elephant Grass, are grown as a raw material for the production of biofuels.

Q: What kind of research are you doing?

A: My particular research project involves plant-based polyurethane foams. Unlike conventional poly foams, bio-based foams are generated from lignin, a renewable material. Lignin is like a glue that holds wood fibers together. It has the potential to replace petroleum-derived polymers in many applications. In the lab, we purify the lignin from something called “black liquor”⁠. It’s not what sounds like. Black liquor is a by-product from the kraft process when pulpwood is made into paper. Lignin is collected by forcing dissolved lignin to precipitate or fall out of the solution (this is the opposite of the process of dissolving, which brings a solid into solution). By adjusting the functional properties of lignin during the precipitation process, we hope to be able to tailor the characteristics of resulting foams. It’s called functionalization.

Typically in the lab process, functionalization occurs on lignin that has already been purified. What we hope to do is integrate functionalization into the purification process, to reduce energy and raw material inputs, and improve the economics and sustainability of the process, too.

Purified lignin, used to make bio-foam. The resulting foam will likely be light or dark brown in color because of the color of the lignin. It would probably be used in applications where color does not matter (such as the interior of cushions/equipment).

Q: How did you get started in undergraduate research?

A: I came to Michigan Tech knowing I wanted to get involved in research. As a first-year student, I was accepted into the Undergraduate Research Internship Program (URSIP), through the Pavlis Honors College here at Tech. Through this program I received funding, mentorship, and guidance as I looked to identify a research mentor. 

Q: How did you find Dr. Ong, or how did she find you?

A: I wanted to work with Dr. Ong because I found the work in her lab to be very interesting and relevant to the world we live in, in terms of sustainability. She was more than willing to welcome me into the lab and assist me in my research when I needed it. I am very thankful for all her help and guidance. 

Q: What is the most challenging and difficult part of the work and the experience?

A: Not everything always goes according to plan. Achieving the desired result often takes many iterations, adjustments, and even restructuring the experiment itself. After a while, it can even become discouraging.

Lignin is like a glue that holds wood fibers together, giving trees their shape and stability, and making them resistant to wind and pests. Pictured above, a biofuel plantation in Oregon.

Q: What do you do when you get discouraged? How do you persevere?

A: I start thinking about my goals. I enjoy my research—it’s fun! Once I remind myself why I like it, I am able to get back to work. 

Q: What do you enjoy most about research?

A: I enjoy being able to run experiments in the lab that directly lead to new designs, processes, or products in the world around me. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to think up new product ideas, then go through the steps needed to implement them in the real world. 

Q: What are your career goals and plans?

A: I plan to go to graduate school for a PhD in chemical engineering, to work in R&D for industry. I am very passionate about research—I want to continue participating in research in my professional career.


Lignin at the nanoscale, imaged with transmission electron microscopy (TEM). Raisa Carmen Andeme Ela, a PhD candidate working in Dr. Ong’s lab, generated this image to examine the fundamental mechanisms driving lignin precipitation.

Q: Why did you choose engineering as your major, and why chemical engineering?

A: I chose chemical engineering because the field is so large. Chemical engineers can work in industry in numerous areas. I liked the wide variety of work that I could enter into as a career. 

Michigan Tech translates research into the new technologies, products, and jobs that move our economy forward.

Did you know?

  • Michigan Tech has more than 35 research centers and institutes
  • 20 percent of all Michigan Tech patent applications involve undergraduate students
  • Students in any engineering discipline are welcome to give research a try
  • Research expenditures at Michigan Tech—over $44 million-—have increased by 33% over the last decade, despite increased competition for research funding. 
  • Michigan Tech research leads to more invention disclosures—the first notification that an invention has been created—than any other research institution in Michigan.