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first-year engineering students in InterEngr 170
December 30, 2020

A year of resilience: Looking back on 2020

Written By: Staff

In this unprecedented year, UW-Madison College of Engineering faculty, staff and students, like millions around the world, faced daunting challenges and profound disruptions to their lives due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. While 2020 has been a difficult year, we remained committed to our educational and research mission, finding new ways to teach, learn and drive scientific breakthroughs. Through it all, our faculty, staff and students displayed remarkable resilience, with many stepping up and devoting their expertise and ingenuity to help in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

From rapidly designing the Badger Shield, an open-source medical face shield that has now been used by thousands around the world, to helping Wisconsin ramp up its testing capacity and developing COVID-19 prediction models, UW-Madison engineers are making a real impact. Read more about how we’re helping our state, country and world combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research breakthroughs

In 2020 our faculty led many advances in a wide range of fields. Some of their most significant accomplishments over the past year included:

Image of blood flow MRI
A 4D flow MRI image from ME Assistant Professor Alejandro Roldán-Alzate’s research on blood flow characteristics in the heart. Credit: UW Cardiovascular Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.
  • Constructing a functional microwave amplifier circuit on a flexible wooden film
  • Finding significant differences in blood flow in the hearts of healthy men and women
  • Fabricating a rubbery nanomaterial that outperforms all other materials in blocking speeding projectiles
  • A platform that allows researchers to layer multiple complex oxide materials in any combination imaginable
  • Developing a more nuanced and accurate picture of informal caregiving work for individuals with dementia
  • A 3D-printed artificial blood vessel that can self-monitor blockages from the inside
  • Designing new materials structures that promise faster, smaller and more efficient spintronics
  • A COVID-19 data model that quantifies the region-specific impact of social distancing measures
  • Pioneering a solvent-based multi-layer plastic recycling process that could cut down on millions of tons of plastic waste
  • Creating a chiral material that reveals a new phenomenon, which has implications for a wide range of materials
  • An advance that could enable soft robots to be controlled remotely using magnetic fields
  • Demonstrating that electric stimulation of the vagus nerve affects the brain’s clearance systems, a finding that could open the door for a new way to treat neurodegenerative diseases
  • A discovery that could help engineers better understand the properties of ceramics
  • Harnessing fluid dynamics to better understand sickle cell disease
  • Developing a nanoparticle that could safely carry a variety of payloads into targeted cells, giving researchers a versatile, nonviral option for delivering drugs, gene-editing tools, DNA and more
  • A new control approach that can help large utility plants cope with uncertainty and minimize energy costs
  • An x-ray technique that unlocks the magnetic secrets of nanoscale spintronic devices
  • Discovering a new strategy for assembling block copolymers, which could lead to faster microchips
  • A tool for assessing the organization and alignment of internal structures in heart muscle cells
  • A technique that provides evidence for a century-old theory of turbulence
  • A new understanding of the vagus nerve, which could improve neuromodulation outcomes
  • Successfully layering two crystalline materials called perovskites and antiperovskites together, creating an interface with unique electrical properties and opening up a whole new class of quantum materials
  • New technology that tracks role of macrophages in cancer spread
  • Harnessing computational chemistry tools to advance emerging eco-friendly technologies
  • A novel imaging method that could help assess T cell involvement in immunotherapies for cancer treatment or autoimmune diseases
  • Developing mineral-coated microparticles that offer a safer and more efficient way to deliver a promising new gene therapy
  • A discovery that sheds new light on collective cell migration
  • An approach for assessing cellular diversity, which could help physicians could further hone personalized treatment strategies for cancer
  • Developing an innovative combination of gene-editing tools and computational simulations that could help treat rare genetic diseases
  • Ambitious projects, far-reaching partnerships

    In September 2020, The Grainger Foundation of Lake Forest, Illinois, made a $32 million commitment to the College of Engineering that will propel the college on a growth trajectory.

     Oliver Schmitz and grad students working in lab
    From left-right: Graduate students Kelly Garcia, Erik Flom, Aysia Demby and Professor Oliver Schmitz work on a plasma experiment in Schmitz’s lab.

    Recently, the college announced plans to increase its enrollment by 1,000 undergraduates, along with an initiative to create the physical infrastructure to support that growth. With $20 million, the pledge funds the Strategic Targeted Achievement Recognition (STAR) initiative for undergraduates. The scholarship program is aimed at recruiting the best students in the country and includes matching options for named scholarships to amplify the commitment’s impact. The pledge also fully endows or creates a total of seven Grainger professorships to support high-achieving faculty leaders, and establishes the Grainger Dean of the College of Engineering. Ian Robertson, who has led the college since 2013, will be first to hold the named deanship.

    Although the COVID-19 pandemic caused many disruptions and challenges in 2020, we forged ahead with major research projects thanks to the persistence and vision of our engineers.

    Grainger Institute for Engineering Associate Professor Christian Franck is leading a multi-institution team of researchers working on better ways to detect concussions and better protective equipment to prevent them. A new $10 million grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research is backing the research effort, called PANTHER.

    With $11.5 million in funding from the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory, Robert Lorenz Professor of Mechanical Engineering David Rothamer is leading a multi-institutional team conducting research that will pave the way for hybrid-electric engines capable of running effectively on a variety of fuels.

    Plastic pollution in the environment is a significant problem, and we’re working to address it by developing new solutions for plastic recycling and reducing waste. Richard L. Antoine Professor George Huber is directing a new Multi-University Center on Chemical Upcycling of Waste Plastics, which is being funded by $10 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office. The center brings together researchers who are investigating novel ways of breaking down and upcycling various types of plastic waste. In addition, Huber and Baldovin-DaPra Associate Professor Victor Zavala are investigators on a $2.5 million grant from the DOE to develop biodegradable polymers that can replace the polyethylene currently used in packaging applications.

    Investments in our renowned fusion experiments will aid in the quest to harness fusion, the process that powers our sun, as a commercially viable source of environmentally friendly energy. Our Pegasus fusion research program has received $7.9 million in new DOE funding, which will support a major reconfiguration of the decommissioned Pegasus toroidal experiment, converting it to a much more powerful facility with an expanded scientific program. And we’re embarking on a joint research project, called the Helmholtz International Lab for Optimized Advanced Divertors in Stellarators (HILOADS), with the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Germany and other collaborators. This international partnership will drive innovation in stellarator-type fusion devices.

     Bhuvana Krishnaswamy and Megan McClean
    ECE Assistant Professor Bhuvana Krishnaswamy and BME Assistant Professor Megan McClean were nominated for a WARF Innovation Award for their research on networking biosensors. Credit: Renee Meiller.

    Our faculty earned a total of $4.8 million in grants from the DOE’s Nuclear Energy University Program to lead several nuclear energy research and development projects.

    We’re partnering with RESPEC, an engineering firm in South Dakota, and the Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory to create a technology to help measure stress in the earth and reduce earthquake risk associated with enhanced geothermal systems.

    In addition to our efforts to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic, our faculty are leading a variety of other research efforts aimed at benefiting human health, including using machine learning to map nerves and restore bladder function and applying mathematical modeling to the overdiagnosis of thyroid cancer. We’re studying the specific mechanisms behind ovarian cancer metastasis. And we’re using simulation modeling to develop breast cancer screening guidelines for women with diabetes.

    Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Randolph Ashton and members of his lab are using stem cells to derive improved brain and spinal cord tissue models, which can better model disease and hone drug testing. The team’s research advance earned top honors in the 2020 Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) Innovation Award contest. In addition, ECE Assistant Professor Bhuvana Krishnaswamy and BME Assistant Professor Megan McClean were nominated for a WARF Innovation Award for their research project on networking biosensors with potential applications in healthcare, environmental monitoring and food safety.

    Grants from the National Science Foundation are supporting our faculty members’ research to optimize IT security, explore human-robot collaboration in manufacturing, investigate a novel magnetic drug delivery system, and better understand human coronaviruses.

    Our faculty are also participating in large research efforts that seek to advance quantum technologies, including Q-NEXT and the Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks (HQAN).

    Outstanding faculty

    College of Engineering faculty earn prestigious honors for their research and teaching. In 2020, ISyE Professor and Harvey D. Spangler Faculty Scholar Laura Albert was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. BME Assistant Professor Aviad Hai earned a National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award, which provides nearly $2.3 million over five years for his research. Chang-Beom Eom, Raymond R. Holton Chair for Engineering and Theodore H. Geballe Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, received a 2020 Vannevar Bush faculty fellowship, a five-year, single-investigator award that includes $3 million in funding to support basic research. In addition, Eom earned a Moore Materials Synthesis Investigator award. EP Assistant Professor Benedikt Geiger earned a U.S. Department of Energy Early Career Award.

    In 2020, we established an endowed chair position in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering in honor of Professor Emeritus Dave Gustafson with support from major gifts. Harvey D. Spangler Professor Jeffrey Linderoth is the inaugural holder of our college’s fourth endowed chair.

    The National Science Foundation named four 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 2020 NSF CAREER award recipients are: CEE Assistant Professor Andrea Hicks; ECE Assistant Professor Eric Severson; ECE Assistant Professor Varun Jog; and ECE Assistant Professor Kassem Fawaz.

    The college is growing with new faculty hires. Meet our new faculty members:

    Education and student achievements

    The College of Engineering rose to 13th nationally among undergraduate engineering programs—and seventh among public doctoral-granting institutions—in the latest U.S. News & World Report college rankings.

     Hannah Blum and Chris Kotrotsos
    CEE Assistant Professor Hannah Blum looks on as a student uses a virtual reality headset to inspect a building, in this photo taken before the COVID-19 pandemic impacted campus operations. Credit: Alex Holloway.

    In spring 2020, when UW-Madison announced plans to shift to remote instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our faculty quickly converted all their in-person classes to an online format and found new ways to teach and support students from afar. During this transition, faculty members such as CEE Professor Steve Loheide and Lynn H. Matthias Professor Barry Van Veen drew on previous experience teaching online, and helped their colleagues who were less experienced with virtual instruction. In addition, Loheide is helping lead an effort to increase access to infrastructure for distance education in the hydrologic sciences, building upon tools and practices for virtual instruction created during the pandemic.

    Faculty, academic staff and department administrators worked tirelessly to transition intensive laboratory courses, such as CBE 424, the capstone course for undergraduates in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering known to most as “summer lab, to a virtual format — and successfully provided students with a high-quality educational experience despite the unique circumstances.

    And an early commitment to providing robust learning experiences ensured that students in a civil and environmental engineering lab were able to safely gain vital hands-on practice using land surveying equipment like levels and total stations in the area around Camp Randall Stadium during the fall 2020 semester.

     Joel Baraka
    Once a refugee himself, undergraduate student Joel Baraka developed a board game that turns learning into fun for refugee kids.

    In fall 2020, students in InterEngr 170, a class that gives first-year Badger engineers valuable hands-on learning opportunities as they begin their UW-Madison education, worked on designing a magnetic shielding device for spaceships for interplanetary travel.

    Hannah Blum, the Alain H. Peyrot Fellow of Structural Engineering and CEE assistant professor, is using virtual reality to teach students the fundamentals of structural engineering. And working with VR technology will give the students an edge as they begin their engineering careers.

    The College of Engineering has joined the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Scholars Program, which will offer undergraduates enhanced educational opportunities. Students who participate will take courses or engage in initiatives that build talent, multicultural and multidisciplinary competency, social consciousness and viable business/entrepreneurship skills.

    Beyond their impressive academic achievements, our talented students distinguish themselves with their entrepreneurial endeavors. CEE senior Joel Baraka, who was once a refugee, created a board game with fellow engineering student Anson Liow to help children in refugee communities learn core subjects while having fun.

    In 2020, some of our students earned highly competitive national awards. Undergraduate students Mostafa Hassan (computer engineering) and Mitchell Wall (engineering physics) received Barry Goldwater Scholarships. And mechanical engineering graduate students Chloe Gunderson and Logan Kossel have received prestigious NASA fellowships to support their cryogenics research.

    College of Engineering in the news

    Faculty members in the College of Engineering routinely share their expertise with journalists and the public. Media coverage featuring UW-Madison engineers in 2020 included:

    • U.S. News & World Report featured a story on Jan. 11 about first-year engineering students who designed a cart for Louie, a dog born without legs, in the college’s interdisciplinary freshman design course.
    • BME Associate Professor Krishanu Saha penned an editorial, published in Scientific American on Jan. 15, arguing that the scientific community needs to take a democratic approach in determining how to best regulate CRISPR for editing the human genome.
    • As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold across the world, Wired published a story on March 26 about Grainger Engineering Design Innovation Lab Director Lennon Rodgers’ work to develop the Badger Shield—a DIY face shield that manufacturers across the country picked up and produced.
    • The Washington Post quoted ISyE Professor Vicki Bier in an article on March 26 about creating pandemic preparedness plans.
    • The Wall Street Journal highlighted the work Lennon Rodgers, ISyE Assistant Professor Justin Boutilier and graduate student Rebecca Alcock undertook to create a “pop up supply chain” to get face masks to hospitals in a story published on April 16.
    • ABC News quoted ISyE Professor Laura Albert on May 12 in a story about the role of coronavirus in helping airports find safe ways for people to travel.
    • ISyE Professor Oguzhan Alagoz was quoted on May 26 in a USA Today article about COVID-19’s spread in Wisconsin after the state Supreme Court overturned Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order.
    • ECE Professor Hongrui Jiang was quoted as an expert source on artificial eye research in a May 26 article published by Scientific American.
    • quoted ME Professor David Rothamer on June 8 in an article on a joint research project with the U.S. Army to develop hybrid-electric engines for aircraft.
    • A Slate story published on Aug. 11 references ME Professor Scott Sanders’ research into the safety of gaiter masks and their efficacy for preventing COVID spread.
    • On August 17, U.S. News & World Report featured a story on ME alum Chris Hummel, who designed a key part of the Mars rover NASA launched the previous month.
    • ECE Assistant Professor Line Roald was quoted in an Oct. 16 Washington Post story on the raging wildfires in California and preemptive power shutoffs as the state fought to bring them under control.
    • ISyE Professor Laura Albert wrote an editorial published in The Hill on Oct. 26 about how professional sports teams could help their communities conduct safe elections in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • As the COVID-19 pandemic’s fall surge raged across the United States, Yahoo! News quoted ISyE Professor Oguzhan Alagoz in two stories, published on Nov. 13 and Nov. 20, about how the virus spread out of control and the strain it placed on hospitals.