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UW Crest with engineering background
12/22/2021

A successful 2021: Looking back on the past year

Written By: Adam Malecek

For the UW-Madison College of Engineering, 2021 was a year full of extraordinary achievements.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, our faculty, staff and students adapted and persevered. We continued to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge on many fronts, improve the quality of people’s lives through our engineering expertise and leadership, and deliver meaningful hands-on educational experiences that prepare our students to excel in their careers, become leaders and make a difference.

A new piezoelectric, bioresorbable thin film is made from the amino acid gamma glycine and can be used in transient implantable electromechanical devices.

A new piezoelectric, bioresorbable thin film is made from the amino acid gamma glycine and can be used in transient implantable electromechanical devices.

Research breakthroughs

In 2021 our faculty led many advances in a wide range of fields. Some of their most significant accomplishments over the past year included:

Oliver Schmitz and grad students working in lab

Graduate students Kelly Garcia, Erik Flom, Aysia Demby and Professor Oliver Schmitz work on a plasma experiment in Schmitz’s lab.

Ambitious projects, far-reaching partnerships

Our research is relevant and well funded.

In 2021, the College of Engineering announced an innovative public-private collaboration with growth capital firm WISC Partners that will connect promising entrepreneurs with leading UW-Madison engineering experts. And the college is leading UW-Madison’s partnership with Canoo Inc., a company developing breakthrough electric vehicles, to accelerate advances in electric vehicle technologies.

Our faculty are leading a variety of research efforts aimed at benefiting human health. Our interdisciplinary research investigating traumatic brain injury continues to grow with $7.9 million in new funding from the U.S. Office of Naval Research. We’re developing a panoramic 3D visualization system that could significantly improve the efficiency of laparoscopic surgery. With a $2.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, we’re advancing a nanocapsule gene editing system that could enable precision treatments for neurodegenerative diseases. We’re creating a new kind of microfluidic system for studying fungal infections. And our engineers are collaborating on a project to develop a microscopic retinal patch to restore vision to United States military personnel blinded in combat.

UW-Madison’s Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies, based in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, will lead a national effort to support and strengthen the behavioral health workforce, with a particular focus on opioid-use disorder prevention, treatment, and recovery, thanks to a four-year, nearly $10 million grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.

Graduate students Kelly Garcia, Erik Flom, Aysia Demby and Professor Oliver Schmitz work on a plasma experiment in Schmitz’s lab.

To assist with NASA’s mission to search for ice on the moon, Dan Negrut, the Mead Witter Foundation Professor of Mechanical Engineering, is creating comprehensive simulations of how the VIPER rover will traverse the lunar surface.

UW-Madison engineers earned a total of $3.6 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Nuclear Energy University Program to lead five nuclear energy research and development projects. The College of Engineering has long been at the forefront of fusion energy research, and three new DOE grants will support our engineers as they lead research projects at Wendelstein 7-X, a major fusion energy facility located in Germany.

Brian Pfleger, the Jay and Cynthia Ihlenfeld Professor in chemical and biological engineering, is leading a $3.5 million DOE project to produce carbon-negative chemicals.

With grants from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), we’re conducting research that will pave the way toward the development of next-generation radio-frequency devices. And ECE faculty are studying a new type of antenna for the U.S. Navy’s mobile troposcatter communications systems. In addition, we’re investigating full-duplex, high-frequency antenna systems.

Businesses and institutions are increasingly using predictive algorithms to make decisions, but these algorithms can transmit historical prejudices or perpetuate existing gender and racial inequalities. To tackle this problem, ECE Assistant Professor Kangwook Lee is collaborating with a sociology professor to examine the reproduction of social inequality in big data-derived predictive algorithms.

Grants from the National Science Foundation are supporting our faculty members’ research to find sustainable ways to make cement, better understand explosive interactions that occur when air gets trapped with water in storm pipes, and investigate the mathematical underpinnings of deep learning.

UW-Madison engineers excel at translating their research discoveries into solutions to real-world problems, and they are frequently awarded patents for their inventions. In 2021, two College of Engineering teams won WARF Innovation Awards, which recognize some of the most promising technologies developed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin. MS&E Assistant Professor Jiamian Hu and graduate student Shihao Zhuang won an award for developing an improved narrowband terahertz emitter with the potential to safely and non-intrusively detect explosives and other dangerous materials in public places like subway stations and stadiums. The other winning team, which includes Shaoqin “Sarah” Gong, Vilas Distinguished Professor and Advancing Vision Science Professor of biomedical engineering, combined its novel nanoparticle, radiation therapy and a cellular division checkpoint inhibitor in an approach that could expand the number of tumors responsive to immunotherapy.We’re researching a metal additive manufacturing technology with the goal of enhancing U.S. manufacturers’ ability to create innovative and complex products.

Our engineers embrace the Wisconsin Idea, and their research projects reflect their commitment to benefiting people’s lives in Wisconsin and beyond with their work. For example, we’re helping the city of Rhinelander in northern Wisconsin understand how its water wells became contaminated with dangerous PFAS chemicals and working to identify potential solutions. We’re also investigating how herbicides used to combat the invasive Eurasian watermilfoil in Wisconsin lakes might also linger in the environment. And by developing cyber-physical systems to keep dairy cows cool, comfortable and productive, our engineers aim to give Wisconsin dairy farmers an economic boost.

Outstanding faculty

Our faculty are recognized leaders in their fields.

At all levels, they earn numerous honors for their research and teaching. The National Academy of Inventors has selected Bulent Sarlioglu, the Jean van Bladel associate professor in electrical and computer engineering, as part of its 2021 class of fellows. An NAI fellowship is considered the highest professional distinction given solely to academic inventors. Laura Albert, the David H. Gustafson Department Chair of Industrial and Systems Engineering, will lead the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) as the organization’s president.

The National Science Foundation named seven of our faculty members recipients of its Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Awards. These awards support early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education, as well as leaders within their institutions.

Our 2021 NSF CAREER Award recipients are:

  • BME Associate Professor Megan McClean: Exploring nongenetic heterogeneity in microbes
  • CBE Conway Assistant Professor Reid Van Lehn: Studying nanoparticle properties for efficient cell entry
  • Pavana Prabhakar, assistant professor and Charles G. Salmon Fellow of Structural Engineering: Studying moisture’s impact on polymer composites
  • Hiroki Sone, assistant professor of geological engineering: Studying the viscous fault rock properties
  • ECE Assistant Professor Joshua San Miguel: Building hardware and software tools to make the smart future a reality
  • ECE Assistant Professor Line Roald: Optimizing risk mitigation in electric distribution grids
  • ME Assistant Professor Dakotah Thompson: Building a better calorimeter

The college is growing with new faculty hires. Meet our new faculty members who started in 2021:

Close interaction with industry leaders is the driving spirit behind a new graduate-level course in biotechnology and innovation in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Close interaction with industry leaders is the driving spirit behind a new graduate-level course in biotechnology and innovation in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Photo courtesy Forward BIO Institute.

Education and student achievements

We are a top engineering college and our Badger engineering experience is unparalleled.

Some of the biggest questions around emerging technologies have more to do with topics like privacy, social responsibility and bias than technical requirements. That’s why the College of Engineering is committed to instilling a sense of ethics in all our Badger engineers.

We are offering a new major—the BS in environmental engineering degree—that will prepare students to design sustainable solutions for safeguarding water, managing waste, curbing air pollution and more. And in the Department of Engineering Physics, our new aerospace engineering option will prepare students for careers in aerospace industry.

In a new course, ISyE 210, Introduction to Industrial Statistics, undergrads are learning statistical fundamentals and applying them to solve tangible problems. In spring 2022, the course will be open to all engineering students.

Close interaction with industry leaders is the driving spirit behind a new graduate-level course in biotechnology and innovation in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Photo courtesy Forward BIO Institute.

We’re developing a new graduate-level course in biotechnology and innovation housed in the Department of Biomedical Engineering that will put students a step ahead in the fast-growing biotechnology industry, which includes cell and gene therapies, tissue manufacturing, biopharmaceuticals and more.

In her Steel Structures 1 class, Hannah Blum, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and the Alain H. Peyrot Fellow of Structural Engineering, is using a blend of augmented and virtual reality learning tools to help students visualize—in striking detail—the sorts of work they’ll do as structural engineers.

Our talented students embrace many opportunities to engage in hands-on learning and tackle real-world challenges. In November 2021, a team of UW-Madison students, led by CEE graduate student Keerthana Sreenivasan, was named one of the top winners in the Musk Foundation’s XPRIZE for Carbon Removal Student Competition. The UW-Madison team will receive $250,000—the largest available award in the student competition—to fund further work on their plan to take carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, out of the air and seal it away where it can’t contribute to rising global temperatures.

In spring 2021, students in InterEngr 170, a class that gives first-year Badger engineers valuable hands-on learning opportunities as they begin their UW-Madison education, took on projects for two clients. The students designed a prosthetic foot to restore mobility to a one-legged rooster, and they designed assistive devices for a person with muscular dystrophy.

In 2021, some of our students earned prestigious honors. Civil engineering senior Cheryl Mulor received a Knight-Hennessy Scholarship. Hawra Aljawad, a chemical engineering and biochemistry major, was a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship, one of the most prestigious and selective undergraduate academic honors in the world. And Matt Henningsen—starting defensive end for the Wisconsin Badgers football team—was selected as a National Football Foundation National Scholar-Athlete and was a finalist for the 2021 William V. Campbell Trophy, often referred to as the “Academic Heisman.” Henningsen graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering in 2020 and will complete a master’s degree in machine learning and signal processing.Ahead of the holiday season, a student club led by our Badger engineers held a toy tuning workshop at the college’s makerspace to adapt toys to work for children with disabilities.

College of Engineering in the news

Our faculty members routinely share their expertise with journalists and the public.

Among the hundreds of news outlets that featured us in 2021 were the following:

  • In early February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the use of mask fitters to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The recommendation garnered widespread attention for the Badger Seal, which was featured in publications including Newsweek and Yahoo News.
  • Following the mask fitter recommendation, ME Professor David Rothamer talked to Popular Mechanics and the Washington Post about how fitters improve mask efficacy.
  • An arctic blast battered Texas in February, and the Wisconsin State Journal—in a story that was picked up across the nation—turned to ECE Assistant Professor Line Roald and EP Professor Paul Wilson to explain how the state’s power system withstands the same conditions that crippled the Lone Star State’s grid.
  • BME Associate Professor Krishanu Saha penned an editorial for STAT in March about how the Biden Administration could bolster the rollout of vaccines and therapeutics to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • NASA’s Perseverance mission to Mars touched down on the Red Planet in February, carrying with it the Ingenuity, a helicopter with an engraving that honored late ECE alum Jim Willmore. When the Ingenuity took flight in April, the Wisconsin State Journal highlighted Willmore’s accomplishments and contributions to the project, as well as his mother’s fight to see the helicopter take flight.
  • In April, the Washington Post featured CEE Assistant Professor Dan Wright in a story about how the nation’s stormwater infrastructure is ill-prepared for the challenges of climate change-driven extreme weather events.
  • As international travel rebounded in the wake of falling COVID-19 cases, ISyE Professor Laura Albert spoke to the Washington Post in April about how the United States’ industry could assess risks to provide safe options for travelers.
  • CEE Professor Andrea Hicks is well-known for her expertise in assessing the lifeterm impacts of various products or processes, and Popular Science interviewed her in June to discuss if bidets are more environmentally friendly than toilet paper.
  • In June, PBS Newshour and BYU Radio featured professors George Huber’s and Tim Osswald’s efforts to find reliable methods for safely recycling plastic.
  • As a heat wave severe enough to buckle roads gripped the western United States during the summer, Wired talked to CEE professor Hussain Bahia about extreme heat’s impact on asphalt.
  • When the Surfside condominiums in Miami collapsed in June, grabbing national attention, CEE Professor Gustavo Parra-Montesinos spoke to Engineering News Record about concerns at another condominium prompted by an inspection report.
  • In July, MS&E Professor Xudong Wang published research—highlighted in publications including Medical Device Network and Plastics Today—on a resorbable, self-powered implant that can help bones heal.
  • As the COVID-19’s Delta variant tore through the South in August, ISyE Professor Oguzhan Alagoz talked to the Washington Examiner about how climate drives behavior changes that might make surges more likely — and clues what the Southern summer surge might offer about winter in the North.
  • Spectrum News in Washington, D.C. interviewed ME Professor Christian Franck in October about his work to determine what’s behind the source of the mysterious Havana Syndrome that’s plagued U.S. personnel around the world.
  • ISyE Professor Oguzhan Alagoz talked to Scientific American for a story published in the December issue about how data obtained throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the outlook on the disease’s impact on cancer mortality rates.
  • In December, USA Today featured CEE Professor Dan Wright as part of a major reporting effort on the expected impacts extreme rainfall, driven by climate change, may have across the country.