Georgia Tech Researchers Receive Three NSF Emerging Frontiers Awards

Sep 29, 2011

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Abby Robinson
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The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $6 million to fund three projects involving researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Each four-year, $2 million grant was awarded through the NSF's Division of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI).

"The EFRI research teams will probe some profound aspects of the interface of biology and engineering," said Sohi Rastegar, director of EFRI. "If they are successful, the principles and theories uncovered in their investigations could unlock many technological opportunities."

This year, 14 transformative, fundamental research projects were awarded EFRI grants in two emerging areas: technologies that build on understanding of biological signaling, and machines that can interact and cooperate with humans.

The three Georgia Tech projects include:

  • Developing a "therapeutic robot" to help rehabilitate and improve motor skills in people with mobility problems;
  • Creating wearable sensors that allow blind people to "see" with their hands, bodies or faces;
  • Generating and rigorously testing quantitative models that describe spatial and temporal regulation of cell differentiation in tissues.

The therapeutic robot could enhance, assist and improve motor skills in humans with varying motor capabilities and deficits. The goal of the project is to program a humanoid rehabilitation robot to perform a "partnered box step," which is a defined pattern of weight shifts and directional changes, solely based on interpreting movement cues from subtle changes in forces between the hands and arms of the robot and the person.

To do this, researchers at Georgia Tech and Emory University will study how humans use their muscles to walk, balance and generate force signals with the hands for guidance when moving in cooperation with another person. They will also study "rehabilitative partnered dance," which has been specifically adapted to help improve gait and balance in individuals with motor impairments.

"Our vision is to develop robots that will interact with humans as both assistants and movement therapists," explained principal investigator Lena Ting, an associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. "We expect our project to have a long-term impact on quality of life of individuals with movement difficulties, such as those caused by Parkinson's disease, stroke and injury by improving fitness, motor skills and social engagement."

Working with Ting on the project are Emory University School of Medicine (geriatrics) assistant professor Madeleine Hackney, Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering assistant professor Charlie Kemp and Georgia Tech School of Interactive Computing assistant professor Karen Liu.

For the second project, researchers at Georgia Tech and The City College of New York will investigate devices for "alternative perception" and the principles underlying the human-machine interaction. Alternative perception combines electronics and the other senses to emulate vision. In addition to aiding the visually impaired, the findings are expected to have other applications, such as the development of intelligent robots.

The researchers plan to untangle how humans learn to coordinate input from their senses -- e.g. vision, touch -- with movements, like reaching for a glass or moving through a crowded room. They will then map out how machines, such as robots and computers, learn similar tasks, to model devices that can assist humans.

The team envisions a multifunctional array of sensors on the body and has already developed prototypes for some of the devices. The full complement of wearable sensors would help a sightless person navigate by conveying information about his or her surroundings.

The researchers hope their findings on perception, and the prototypes they develop, will spawn a raft of wearable electronic devices to help blind people "see" their environment at a distance through touch, hearing and other senses. The technology would also benefit sighted individuals who must navigate in poor visibility, such as firefighters and pilots.

Principal investigator Zhigang Zhu, professor of computer science and computer engineering in City College's Grove School of Engineering, will collaborate with City College professor of psychology and director of the Program in Cognitive Neuroscience Tony Ro, City College professor of electrical engineering Ying Li Tian, Georgia Tech Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering professor Kok-Meng Lee, and Georgia Tech School of Applied Physiology associate professor Boris Prilutsky.

The third project will address a fundamental question of developmental biology: what controls the spatial and temporal patterns of cell differentiation? Answering this question will lead to a better understanding of the basic principles of embryogenesis, explain origins of developmental disorders, and provide guidelines for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

The research will be conducted by principal investigator and Princeton University Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering associate professor Stanislav Shvartsman, Georgia Tech School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering associate professor Hang Lu, New York University Department of Biology professor Christine Rushlow, and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Department of Computer Science associate professor Saurabh Sinha.

Scientists know that among an embryo's first major developments is the establishment of its dorsoventral axis, which runs from its back to its belly. The researchers plan to study how this axis development unfolds -- specifically the presence and location of proteins during the process, which give rise to muscle, nerve and skin tissues.

To enable large-scale quantitative analyses of protein positional information along the dorsoventral axis, Lu and Shvartsman will further develop a microfluidic device they previously designed to reliably and robustly orient several hundred embryos in just a few minutes.

"By understanding this system at a deeper, quantitative level, we will elucidate general principles underlying the operation of genetic and multicellular networks that drive development," said Lu.

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