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Kanwal Rekhi Receives Michigan Tech’s Highest Honor: Melvin Calvin Medal of Distinction

Kanwal Rekhi talking with students at Michigan Tech’s Design Expo

Kanwal Rekhi, a visionary who routinely works to forward entrepreneurial skills and educational opportunities at Michigan Tech and around the world, received the Melvin Calvin Medal of Distinction during mid-year Commencement in December. The medal is awarded to individuals associated with Michigan Tech who, like its Nobel prize-winning namesake, have exhibited extraordinarily distinguished professional and personal accomplishments. Rekhi, who earned his master’s in electrical engineering from Michigan Tech in 1969, is managing director of Inventus Capital Partners in California.

The native of Punjab, in what was then British India (now Pakistan), earned a master’s in electrical engineering from Michigan Tech in 1969. In the more than half a century since his time on campus, MTU has never been far from Rekhi’s thoughts–and generosity.

After leaving Michigan Tech, Rekhi worked as an engineer and manager before becoming an entrepreneur. In 1982, he co-founded Excelan, a company that made Ethernet cards to connect PCs to the fledgling Internet. Excelean became the first Indian-owned company to go public in the U.S. In the early 90s, he became a venture capitalist investing in more than 50 startups and sitting on the board of directors of more than 20 companies.

In the past few decades, Rekhi has been a tireless supporter and benefactor to Michigan Tech. He developed and funded the Rekhi Innovation Challenge, a crowdfunding competition to help promote and support student innovation. He provided major funding for the Silicon Valley Experience, an immersive tour during spring break of San Francisco area companies that includes meetings with entrepreneurs and Michigan Tech alumni, and is a sponsor of the 14 Floors Entrepreneur Alumni Mentoring Sessions.

Additionally, every student who has walked the Michigan Tech campus in the past 15 years has passed the Kanwal and Ann Rekhi Computer Science Hall, dedicated in April of 2005.

The Melvin Calvin Medal of Distinction is bestowed on individuals associated with the University who have exhibited especially distinguished professional and personal accomplishments. It is named for 1931 Michigan Tech alumnus Melvin Calvin, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for unraveling the biochemical secrets of photosynthesis. The series of biochemical reactions Calvin identified is known as the Calvin Cycle.

“Kanwal and his accomplishments epitomize the values we share as an institution. His passion for Michigan Tech is unparalleled and he is most deserving of this award.”

Rick Koubek, President, Michigan Technological University

While the Melvin Calvin Medal of Distinction is Michigan Tech’s highest honor, it is far from the first recognition the University has given Rekhi. He has received the Distinguished Alumni Award, the Board of Control Silver Medal, an honorary Doctorate in Business and Engineering, and was inducted into the Electrical Engineering Academy.


Husky Bites Starts Up Again on Monday, January 24!

Join us for a Bite!

Craving some brain food, but not a full meal? Join us for a bite at mtu.edu/huskybites!

Grab some dinner with College of Engineering Dean Janet Callahan and special guests at 6 p.m. (ET) each Monday during Husky Bites, a free interactive Zoom webinar, followed by Q&A. Have some fun, and learn something new. Everyone is welcome!

Husky Bites is a free family-friendly webinar that nourishes your mind. The Spring 2022 series kicks off this Monday (January 24) with “Winter Carnival—One Hundred Years,” presented by University Archivist and alumna Lindsay Hiltunen. From queens to cookouts, snow statues to snowballs, skating reviews to dog sled races, discover the history of Winter Carnival across the decades, through rich images of fun and festivities via the Michigan Tech Archives. Joining in will be mechanical engineering alumna Cynthia Hodges, who serves as a Wikipedian in Residence (WiR) for Michigan Tech. To celebrate the 100th anniversary, she is organizing a Winter Carnival Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, and alumni and students are welcome to help. 

Check out the full Spring 2022 “menu” at mtu.edu/huskybites.

“We created Husky Bites for anyone who likes to learn, across the universe,” says Dean Callahan. “We aim to make it very interactive, with ‘quizzes’ (in Zoom that’s a multiple choice poll) during the session. Everyone is welcome, and bound to learn something new. Entire families enjoy it. We have prizes, too, for attendance.” 

The series features special guests—engineering professors, students, and even some Michigan Tech alumni, who each share a mini lecture, or “bite”. During Husky Bites, special guests also weave in their own personal journey in engineering, science and more.

Have you joined us yet for Husky Bites? We’d love to hear from you. Join Husky Bites a little early on Zoom, starting at 5:45 pm, for some extra conversation. Write your comments, questions or feedback in Chat. Or stay after for the Q&A. Sometimes faculty get more than 50 questions, but they do their best to answer them all, either during the session, or after, via email.

“Grab some supper, or just flop down on your couch. This family friendly event is BYOC (Bring Your Own Curiosity).”

Dean Janet Callahan

Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites. Check out past sessions, there, too. You can also catch Husky Bites on the College of Engineering Facebook page.


Tau Beta Pi Inducts 15 New Members at Michigan Tech

Congratulations to our Fall 2021 Tau Beta Pi Initiates! (Not pictured here: Andrew Scott and Dr. Mary Raber)

The College of Engineering recently inducted 14 students and one eminent engineer into the Michigan Tech chapter of Tau Beta Pi.

Tau Beta Pi is a nationally recognized engineering honor society and is the only one that recognizes all engineering professions. Students who join are the top 1/8th of their junior class, top 1/5th of their senior class, or the top 1/5th of graduate students who have completed 50% of their coursework. The society celebrates those who have distinguished scholarship and exemplary character, and members strive to maintain integrity and excellence in engineering.

Mary Raber is Chair of Michigan Tech’s Department of Engineering Fundamentals

Fall 2021 Initiates

Undergraduate Students: Dom Bianchi, Mechanical Engineering; Sean Bonner, Civil Engineering; Sam Breuer, Computer & Electrical Engineering; Sophia Brylinski, Materials Science & Engineering; Spencer Crawford, Computer Engineering; Jacqui Foreman, Chemical Engineering; Stephen Gillman, Computer Engineering; Michael Kilmer, Materials Science & Engineering; Emerald Mehler, Chemical Engineering; Ben Stier, Computer Engineering; Alex Stockman, Computer Engineering; and Jordan Zais, Biomedical Engineering

Graduate Students: Tonie Johnson, MS, Biomedical Engineering; and Andrew Scott, MS Electrical & Computer Engineering

Eminent Engineer

Dr. Mary Raber


The Portage Lake Bridge

Portage Lift Bridge, Hancock, Michigan

An ASCE National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark

Dr. Tess Ahlborn

Located a little more than a stone’s throw from the Michigan Tech campus, the Portage Lake Bridge connects the cities of Houghton and Hancock, Michigan. The Lift Bridge was named as an ASCE National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in late 2019, following a State Historic Landmark designation in 2018.

The Michigan Tech trio who submitted its 300-page application to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) includes Professor Tess Ahlborn and two of her former students, Michael Prast ’19, now a timber structural engineer at Fire Tower Engineered Timber in Calumet, Michigan; and Emma Beachy ‘19, a design engineer at Corbin Consulting in Portland, Oregon. Both earned both their BS and MS degrees in civil engineering at Michigan Tech.

Emma Beachy wearing patterned knit capstands in front of a waterfall in the wood.
Emma Beachy ’19

“Emma and Michael are two of Michigan Tech’s best students,” says Ahlborn. “I mentioned the topic of National Historic Landmarks during Bridge Design class, and let the class know I would be delighted if someone wanted to work on a nomination application for the Portage Lake Bridge. It didn’t take long for Emma and Michael to speak up, and the rest is history. I can’t thank them enough for taking on this project and seeing it through the application process.”

Michael leans at a wooden deck looking out over a harbor on Lake Superior with sailboats
Michael Prast ’18

Prof. Ahlborn is a Michigan Tech alum, too. She earned her BS and MS at Michigan Tech, then went to the University of Minnesota to earn a Doctorate of Philosophy in Civil Engineering in 1998. She’s been a member of the faculty at Michigan Tech for the past 26 years, teaching structural engineering courses focusing on concrete and the design of concrete buildings and bridges.

Ahlborn has a passion for bridges, something that began when she was quite small. “Growing up, I once told my mom I loved bridges. After that, she started taking me to look at a different bridge each week. Michigan has such beautiful bridges!”

“Bridges are structural art! A piece of art fully exposed to the elements. They involve so many people every day.”

Prof. Tess Ahlborn

As the former Director of the Center for Structural Durability within the Michigan Tech Transportation Institute, Ahlborn has worked with the MDOT (Michigan Department of Transportation) and USDOT (US Department of Transportation) to seek solutions to improve resiliency of our nation’s transportation infrastructure.

In 2020, Ahlborn was appointed to the American Concrete Institute Committee 318, placing her in the small group of people who establish the ACI structural concrete building code used around the world, a “Supreme Court” of concrete, if you will.

After water, concrete is the most widely used substance on the planet. As a member of the committee, Ahlborn helps to chart the future of structural concrete—its safety, sustainability, technological advances and environmental impacts.

Ahlborn is also a world expert in remote sensing applications for bridge condition assessment.

As for her secrets to good teaching, she insists there aren’t any. “All you have to do is be fair and consistent and crack a joke once in a while,” said Ahlborn.


Bo Chen: What’s next, NEXTCAR?

Bo Chen shares her knowledge on Husky Bites, a free, interactive webinar this Monday, November 15 at 6 pm ET. Learn something new in just 20 minutes (or so), with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.

Bo Chen is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Electrical Engineering at Michigan Tech. She’s been a visiting Professor at Argonne National Laboratory, and was named ASME Fellow in 2020.

What’s next, NEXTCAR? What are you doing for supper this Monday night 11/15 at 6 pm ET? Grab a bite with Dean Janet Callahan and Bo Chen, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Electrical Engineering at Michigan Tech.

During Husky Bites, Prof. Chen and one of her former students, alum Dr. Joe Oncken, will share how engineers go about designing and creating the crucial elements of an all-electric vehicle ecosystem. Oncken earned his PhD at Michigan Tech—he’s now a postdoctoral researcher at Idaho National Lab.

Chen and her research team at Michigan Tech envision an all-electric future. They develop advanced control algorithms to build the nation’s electric vehicle charging infrastructure and highly efficient hybrid electric vehicles, integrating with advanced sensing technologies that allow for predictive control in real time. These technologies enable the kind of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication that will reduce our nation’s energy consumption. 

Drs. Chen and Oncken among the fleet, outside at the APSRC.

Throughout her career Chen has made major contributions in the field of embedded systems, developing cutting-edge applications for hybrid-electric and electric autonomous systems. 

One of Chen’s courses at Michigan Tech, Model-based Embedded Control System Design, is regularly in high demand, not only by ME students but also EE students. “This is a testament to her teaching ability and the importance of the topic,” says ME-EM department chair Bill Predebon.

Chen’s Intelligent Mechatronics and Embedded Systems Lab is located on the 5th floor of the ME-EM building. But she spends a good deal of time working on NEXTCAR research at the Advanced Power Systems Research Center (APSRC), located a few miles from campus near the Houghton Memorial Airport.

“Vehicles that are both connected and automated—two paradigm-shifting technologies—will soon become vital for the improvement of safety, mobility, and efficiency of our transportation systems.”

Bo Chen

In 2016 the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects-Energy (ARPA-E) awarded $2.5M to Michigan Tech for NEXTCAR research. The project—led by ME-EM Professor Jeff Naber as PI and Co-PIs Chen, Darrell Robinette, Mahdi Shahbakhti, and Kuilin Zhang—developed and demonstrated their energy reduction technologies using a fleet of eight Gen II Chevy Volt plug-in-hybrid vehicles (aka PHEVs).

The team tested the fleet on a 24-mile test loop to showcase energy optimization, forecasting, and controls—including vehicle-to-vehicle communications.

“The rich information provided by connectivity—and the capability of on-board intelligent controls—are shifting the old way (reactive and isolated vehicle/powertrain control) to the new way (predictive, cooperative, and integrated vehicle dynamics and powertrain control),” Chen explains.

Michigan Tech’s NEXTCAR research delivers direct implementation of engineering solutions, tested within the realities of on-road conditions.

Oncken is a hands-on engineer, but not all of his graduate research at Michigan Tech was done under the hood of a hybrid-electric vehicle. In an effort to maximize fuel efficiency in the fleet’s Chevy Volts, he worked with Chen where the car’s digital and mechanical parts meet—powertrain control. He looked at future driving conditions, such as changing traffic lights, and modified the vehicle’s powertrain operation to use the minimum amount of fuel.

Working in Chen’s lab, Oncken used Simulink software to develop a model, specifically looking at predictive controller design. That means when a traffic signal turns red, a self-driving vehicle not only knows to stop, but also gets directions on the best way to slow down and minimize fuel use. 

All in a day’s work for Dr. Joe Oncken

Oncken would simulate this in the Simulink model, embed the program into the Chevy Volt, then test it using five upgraded traffic signals in Houghton that rely on dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) to talk directly to the car’s programming.

By the end of the NEXTCAR project, the Michigan Tech team had achieved a 21 percent reduction in energy consumption.

Dr. Chen with her graduate students at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Now, with new funding from ARPA-E for NEXTCAR II, the team shifts to a broader application of vehicles with level 4 and 5 of autonomy. They will seek to reduce energy consumption by 30 percent this time in the hybrid Chrysler Pacifica and further apply the savings to the RAM 1500 and the Chevy Bolt—while also considering level 4 and 5 automation to gain efficiencies. 

Naber and Chen, along with Grant Ovist, Jeremy Bos, Darrell Robinette, Basha Dudekula and several more graduate students now work together on NEXTCAR II with another round of funding worth $4.5M. They’ll maintain vehicles in multiple locations, both on the Michigan Tech campus and at American Center for Mobility (ACM) for road testing. ACM is a partner in the project, along with Stellantis and GM.

Prof. Chen, how did you first get into engineering? What sparked your interest?

I was attracted by the power of automation and controls. It is currently affecting every aspect of our lives. I want to make contributions specifically to advance the automation technologies.

In her spare time, Dr. Chen likes to work out and travel. Here she’s in Horseshoe Bend, Arizona

Hometown, family?

I was raised in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province in China. I lived in Davis, California for 8 years while earning my PhD at the University of California-Davis. My daughter loves snowboarding and lives in New Jersey.

Dr. Oncken, where did you grow up?

I grew up with my parents and two sisters in Grand Forks, North Dakota. I earned my BS in Mechanical Engineering at the University of North Dakota in 2016. I came to Michigan Tech to earn my PhD soon after, and graduated in 2020.

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

There wasn’t any one moment that made me decide to get into engineering. It was more of a process throughout my childhood. Growing up, I was always interested in how things work. My dad is very mechanically inclined so he was alway fixing things around the house and woodworking, so that launched my interest as a young kid. At that time he worked for John Deere, so I got to spend time sitting in tractors and combines, something that will spark any 5 year old’s interest in mechanical things. 

In high school, I also worked for a John Deere dealer. Another job I had involved the technical side (lighting, sound, and set building) of theater and concert productions. While these may seem like two different worlds, they both gave me a behind-the-scenes look at how machinery and large technical systems operate. Together they made me want to pursue a career where I’d be the one designing how things work. 

Finally, living in a university town, there were lots of opportunities to tour the University of North Dakota’s engineering school and see what students got to work on, opportunities that cemented my desire to go into engineering myself.

Joe, out on the Tech Trails.

Any hobbies? Pets?

My main hobby is anything outdoors. I spend my free time mountain biking in the summer, skiing in the winter—and hiking when I’m not doing one of the previous two things.

I also really enjoy cooking and wood working. I don’t currently have any pets, but I did grow up with dogs. I will have a dog of my own sooner rather than later!

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