Three faculty have achieved important early-career benchmarks

Pictured l to r: Ravi Balasubramanian, David Blunck and Yiğit Mengüç

MIME Adds More Early-Career Standouts

Three faculty have achieved important early-career benchmarks by earning prestigious and competitive research awards from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Defense. That the academic hat trick occurred in a single year is a unique accomplishment for the school, which now lists 11 of its 50 research faculty as past winners. Altogether, research funding for the 2016 awards totals more than $1.5 million.

“The School of MIME has had an amazing growth trajectory in the past few years. We’ve doubled our enrollments and hired many more than 20 new faculty in the past five years, and launched new degree programs and expanded our teaching and research facilities,” said Interim School Head David Cann.

“These high visibility awards signal that we are making a global research impact, and our newly hired faculty members are an integral part of our plan for growing the reputation of the school,” Cann said.

Two faculty in robotics – Drs. Ravi Balasubramanian and Yiğit Mengüç – won an NSF CAREER Investigator and a DoD Office of Naval Research Young Investigators award, respectively, and Dr. David Blunck, in the thermal-fluid sciences group, earned MIME’s second DoD Young Investigators award.

All three are currently assistant professors, which is a prerequisite for these particular award competitions that seek to recognize and support inspiring leaders early in their research careers.

The CAREER award is the NSF's most prestigious honor in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through research, education and the integration of research and education to forward the mission of their organization.

Selected from more than 400 competing projects in his research category, Dr. Balasubramanian, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, robotics, earns his NSF CAREER Investigator award for breakthroughs in using robotics to repair the human body.

Balasubramanian designs miniature implantable mechanisms for attaching muscles to tendons and bone in orthopedic surgery. The implants take the form of passive mechanisms that increase the range of motion over tradition attachment methods, such as suturing.

“The suture has been central -- and useful -- to surgery for 30,000 years. But in reconstructive orthopedic surgery when attaching muscle or tendon to bone, the suture is not sophisticated enough to replicate the range of motion of, for example, the human hand. My research on implanting pulley systems into a damaged hand allows a greater range of motion, and better grasping actions. We are learning that the human body’s mechanics can be seamlessly integrated with implanted mechanical devices,” Balasubramanian said.

His work, funded at $517,000 for five years, is expected to transform orthopedic surgery and improve quality of life, since the design methods developed will be applicable to a broad range of upper- and lower-extremity surgeries.

Young Investigators Awards for Cutting-Edge Research

Like the NSF program, the Defense Department’s Young Investigators Awards seek outstanding candidates from a pool of college and university faculty who have obtained tenure-track positions within the past five years. The Office of Naval Research selected 47 winners from 280 highly qualified applicants, judging based on past performance, technical merit, potential scientific breakthrough and long-term university commitment.

For awardees, the DoD funding supports laboratory equipment, graduate student stipends and scholarships, and other expenses critical to ongoing and planned research studies.

Dr. Yiğit Mengüc, who joined the MIME robotics faculty last year, conducts research into soft robotics, a cutting edge research area that brings together soft electronics, bioinspired robotics, and emerging developments in fast actuation, electroactive systems, and stretchable material systems. To date, there are few concrete examples of robotics research that explore these areas together, and his research vision, funded at $510,000 for three years, will create a bio-inspired prototype.

“Imagine a world where our robots and electronics are compliant and soft, more like an octopus than a machine, capable of incredible feats of shape shifting and interaction with marine environments,” Mengüc said.

Mengüc’s work will generate new knowledge and change the design framework for applications of soft robotics. He will concurrently pursue several innovations in soft robots inspired by the shape and behavior of octopus. His target innovations will leverage electrically-active fluids and custom 3D printing developed in his lab.

Initially, the prototype is targeted to function in the aquatic environments, but over the longer term, Mengüc foresees the potential to impact design for wearable soft robots and other terrestrial robots as well.

In the area of thermal-fluid sciences, Dr. David Blunck’s research takes a closer look at combustion science to generate new understandings on the sensitivities of ignition, turbulent combustion, and detonations to the presence of combustion products.

As a world leader in experimental studies of reacting flows, Blunck has accumulated numerous research honors for his approach to combustion, including the AIAA Pacific Northwest Section Young Engineer of the Year.

“If we can better predict combustion performance, we have the potential to save hundreds of millions of dollars in development and certification costs of new engines. Even minor concentrations of combustion products may significantly alter combustion processes, yet previous investigations of vitiation or exhaust gas recirculation have typically ignored such effects,” Blunck said.

The $600,000 award covers research and equipment costs will improving fundamental understanding needed for designing propulsion devices including two-stroke engines for UAVs, inter-turbine burners, augmentors, and pressure gain combustion devices.