Tech Tour Day Two: Michigan Tech Delivers — Again

HOUGHTON — Someday, I will get sick of Tech Tours at Michigan Technological University.

Yeah, sure, and someday the Detroit Lions will win the Super Bowl.

Yes, I can report, Michigan Tech showed me amazing technology in another Tech Tour stop Wednesday, the second official day of the 2015 Engineering Society of Detroit Fall Tech Tour.

Michigan Tech is sponsoring this year’s tech tour, and it’s no wonder. The purpose of the Tech Tour is to showcase groundbreaking engineering and technology research taking place at Michigan universities, and Michigan Tech has tons.

My day started with Adrienne Minerick, associate dean for research and innovation at Michigan Tech’s College of Engineering, along with Jodi Lehman, assistant director of research development, and Jason Carter, professor and chair of the department of kinesiology and integrative physiology.

They described several research proposals now percolating at Michigan Tech that will seek funding from the National Science Foundation. Included is an expansion of an already-announced partnership in health technology with Houghton’s Portage Health Foundation; advanced energy technologies, including non-battery energy storage to piggyback with wind generation, and smart building systems; and advanced materials in challenging environments.

The medical partnership will include expanded research efforts in medical devices, medical informatics, and community medicine. (Minerick said Tech is also working on research to quantify the degree of “stemness” stem cells possess — how likely they are to differentiate into the cells that are desired in stem cell therapy. Her collaborator on that project is Feng Zhou, assistant professor in biomedical engineering.) The partnership will also include expanded bioengineering research opportunities for undergraduates.

Bioengineering is a rapidly growing field at Michigan Tech. Carter noted that in 2008, the university had 22 faculty doing human health research. Today, that number is 60. And Michigan Tech is in the early stages of planning for a new biotech building.

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My next tour stop was with an old friend, Guy Meadows, and a favorite spot, Michigan Tech’s Great Lakes Research Center.

Now three years old, the GLRC looks as if it’s always been there by the Portage Waterway on the north end of Michigan Tech’s main campus. (It’s not a river, it’s part of Lake Superior, but we’ll get to that later.)

Meadows said the big news at the GLRC is “continuing our work in the straits of Mackinac.”

The Canadian pipeline company Enbridge, much maligned for its handling of an oil spill in the Kalamazoo River and much feared for its pipeline on the bottom of the straits, has funded a new MTU monitoring buoy just west of the Mackinac Bridge that went into operation in August.

“It measures everything that moves, above and below the water,” Meadows said. And researchers have discovered that water moves back and forth in the Straits in complex, ever-changing patterns — sometimes in opposite directions, depending on the depth.

“That is really important in case there is a disaster in the Straits,” Meadows said. “But it’s also really important because Michigan Tech and NOAA are developing the next generation numerical predictive models for the Great Lakes. On Tech’s supercomputer, called Superior, we are running not just one lake at ultra high resolution but lakes Huron and Michigan connected. We now see one system. And the buoy is providing confirmation of these really sophisticated models. There’s an incredibly complex flow of water at different levels through the Straits.”

Meadows noted that Michigan Tech had long tried to get the government to fund such a research buoy, but funding was never approved. He said he’d like to see more research buoys in different locations in the Straits, and equipment that can stay on the bottom year-around (the buoys have to get hauled in before the water freezes in winter) and is connected to the mainland by cable to ensure constant data.

“Enbridge has asked us to price out something cabled on the bottom that can be left there year around,” Meadows said.

Overall, Meadows said, “what has surprised all of us is the magnitude of the changes that occur in the flows. In all dimensions. Vertically, with time, it’s just constantly in a state of flux. We’ve been doing the bottom imaging with advanced sonar for two years now across that region, and we always knew there were strong and variable currents, because our autonomous vehicles get blown off course frequently. But now, to know how strong and how variable, it has opened our eyes to how difficult it is to operate in currents like that.”

Overall, Meadows said the GLRC now has $3.7 million in external funding and its office and lab spaces are completely full.

“We’re looking at ways to make sure we have room to grow,” he said. “We’re trying to move away from everybody owning a laboratory to shared assets, maybe having labs by function rather than labs by person. So we’d have a contaminated sediment lab, a marine high end equipment lab, an invasive species lab, and maybe everybody could flow through those as they needed to.”

The GLRC now is home to 25 faculty from eight academic departments and three colleges of Michigan Tech.

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Next, it was a meeting in the GLRC’s beautiful second-floor atrium with Andrew Barnard, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Zhaohui Wang, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, both of whom are doing research in underwater acoustics.

Barnard has been at Tech just a year, coming from Penn State, where he was a research associate in a lab funded by the United States Navy. Wang is at the start of her third year after getting her Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut.

Barnard worked for the Navy trying to figure out what was happening underwater from sound carried in the water. Now, he’s working at ways to make things quieter underwater for the benefit of aquatic wildlife. What loud boats and motors do to Great Lakes fish isn’t well understood, he said.

Wang, meanwhile, is trying to use underwater sound for practical purposes — communication between submerged robots, for instance. Radio doesn’t work because radio waves don’t propagate underwater — it’s totally absorbed within a few yards — while sound waves can travel underwater worldwide. She’s received National Science Foundation and Office of Naval Research funding for her work in using acoustic waves to communicate underwater for long distances. An experiment last winter allowed strong communication at a distance of four kilometers in Keweenaw Bay. The only problem — the much longer wavelength of acoustic waves vs. radio waves limits data transmission rates to that of old-fashioned telephone modems, rather than modern computer networks. Nevertheless, the technique could be used for communication on the health of oil wells and other underwater infrastructure.

Barnard, meanwhile, is working on making better, cheaper underwater sound detectors, and research into “underwater noise pollution … it’s a huge problem in the ocean, but we really don’t have a handle on how much noise we have in the Great Lakes. Most underwater acoustics research is driven by the military, and there’s never been a military need for the research in the Great Lakes. But we know underwater noise is a problem for fishery health.” Barnard’s also researching making everything that operates underwater, from propellers to power plant cooling equipment, quieter.

Barnard has also received funding to create one of Michigan Tech’s Enterprise student businesses in naval and maritime engineering and science. Initially, it will focus on projects in marine acoustics, autonomous vehicles, and sensor packages.

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After lunch, where all we did was launch the Michigan Tech student chapter of The Engineering Society of Detroit (see separate story), I met with Dave House — Michigan native, Michigan Tech alumnus, wildly successful tech executive, entrepreneur, and major Michigan Tech supporter.

All House did was lead Intel’s microprocessor business for 23 years, growing it from $40 million a year and losing money to $4 billion a year and all of the company’s profit. Oh, and he led the group that created the “Intel Inside” slogan.

But before that, House grew up in Muskegon, and graduated from Muskegon High School and Muskegon Community College, and then came to Michigan Tech on a scholarship and graduated in 1965 with a degree in electrical engineering. He then went to Northeastern University in Boston for his electrical engineering Masters, and stayed in Massachusetts for seven years designing minicomputers and digital systems.

After Intel, he went on to a variety of ventures, including Bay Networks, an Ethernet products innovator, where he led a merger with Nortel, where he became president. He’s been chair of Brocade Communication Systems since 2005 and his business card lists nine other ventures where he’s owner, manager or board member.

House was in Houghton for one of his periodic campus visits with university leaders and students.

“I’ve been coming to campus two or three times a year for 16 years,” House said. “I formed an entrepreneur group that comes to campus twice a year … alumni who have started businesses and been leaders in businesses and who come back to advise and support.”

House said he does so because “the university gave me the training and skills to be what I am, and that’s why I’m back here. Part of what I am is Michigan Tech, and part of my success came from the training and transformation that happens here, to learn the skills that you need in industry.”

House is also a huge advocate of STEM education in the earliest part of childhood.

“We have a huge wealth gap in the United States, and at the basic root of the wealth gap is an education gap,” he said. “We have had a complete change in the kinds of jobs that provide a good living because of globalization. Our companies compete globally so they have to source globally. So a lot of the jobs for which a high school education was adequate no longer exist in this country. Yet there are more and more jobs available in higher-skilled areas. There’s a huge shortage of engineers and scientists. We have to import them from overseas in masses.”

Instead, House said, Americans need to learn STEM.

“STEM is going to become the basis of every job — retail, transportation, finance, hospitality, banking, finance,” he said. “Everything is just being invaded by technology and transformed by technology. Without a technical education it’s going to be almost impossible to be a productive member of society 30 or 40 years from now.”

Meanwhile, he said, “our education system is designed for the ’90s and not for 2040.” So, he said, “I’m spending an awful lot of my time working with programs to encourage middle school kids to fall in love with science and STEM. The highest correlation factor to graduating from college is passing Algebra II in ninth grade. No other single factor correlates better. You can’t pass Algebra II if you don’t take Algebra I in eighth grade. So we’re working with seventh graders to get their skills up.”

He added: “We’ve got to change the attitudes of teachers toward math. A lot of teachers went into education because they didn’t like math. And we’ve got to change the attitudes of kids, particularly girls, to let them feel like they belong in STEM, not like they’re invading a male world of geeks with no social skills … One of the ways we can get more STEM graduates is to get more girls into STEM.”

He also said he backs the recently introduced Common Core education standards.

“Nothing is ever perfect and change is always difficult, but the principle of Common Core is right on,” he said. “There was a time when it was very important to learn facts, methods, processes. What are the capitals of the 50 states? You don’t need to know that any more, you just need to know how to find it. And by the way, the kids who memorized state capitals didn’t retain it longer than two days. So, how to solve a nonlinear differential equation? It’s on YouTube, right next to the video on how to fix your dishwasher. No longer is it important to learn facts or figures or methods or processes. It’s important to learn how to find that stuff. How to find knowledge. It’s gone from the business of learning, to the business of learning how to learn.”

He added: “There’s a lot you can complain about. There’s a lot to pick apart. But the basic concept of Common Core is essential to the future, because the internet changed everything. Every piece of information that has ever been discovered is available to every individual, everywhere in the world, at any time. Think of what that means! It changes the basis of learning. This is like the wheel, the printing press, the industrial revolution. It’s one of the top things that has ever happened to civilization.”

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After that bracing conversation, it was off to the laboratory of Yun Hang Hu, in Michigan Tech’s Minerals and Materials Engineering Building, where the offices are high on a hill with a spectacular view of the blazing fall foliage across the Portage Waterway.

Hu joined Michigan Tech in 2007 from the State University of New York at Buffalo. The native of China previously worked for Exxon Mobil and says he’s always been interested in advanced materials for energy conversion.

The reason is simple, he said: “Society needs it. It solves the energy problem to get hydrogen from water inexpensively. The ultimate aim is the green conversion of water from hydrogen for fuel. It solves the energy problem, and it solves the environmental problem of hydrocarbons.”

Hu is working on the design and synthesis of nanomaterials for energy conversion, including a unique three-dimensional graphene that makes solar cells more efficient. They create higher conductivity and efficiency than present materials, he said.

Hu is also working on advanced nanoparticles that make solar cells more efficient by harvesting more of visible light into solar energy.

He’s received funding for his work from the state of Michigan, the federal Department of Energy, and the American Chemical Society. And he leads a busy lab where about 10 students were busy running equipment and conducting experiments, including several undergraduates.

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From there, it was off to the office of Caryn Heldt, associate professor of chemical engineering and adjunct associate professor of biological sciences. I’ve visited Dr. Heldt before, and her work in viruses has always been fascinating. It was again today — a new method of purifying vaccines that will greatly reduce costs for current manufacturers and make vaccines get to clinical trials faster.

Basically, the technique involves exposing the viruses that make up a vaccine to a wash of amino acids and sugars. This causes the viruses to clump up, so you can filter out all of the other material in a virus sample and be left with pure virus. Heldt said the technique was a combination of research she did both for her Ph.D. at North Carolina State University and in her post-doctoral research. That post-doctoral research was in breaking up the clumps of proteins that cause tiny plaques that are involved in diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. But the technique was also useful in making the viruses clump.

Heldt said the technique has been tried out on two test viruses, called “model viruses,” in the lab, and it’s worked. The next step? “Test more viruses,” Heldt said. “We want this to be a platform technology. Then we actually start testing it with real vaccine candidates.”

Heldt said she’s applying for funding for the research from the Gates Foundation, because it should make vaccines easier to make in the developing world. Her work on the technique so far has been funded by the National Science Foundation.

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My next stop was at Tech’s venerable Academic Office Building, one of the older buildings on campus, where I met with Russel Louks, professor of practice in the School of Business and Economics, and a Michigan Tech Enterprise group that wants to let your car talk to Target.

Said Keagan Rasmussen, a fifth-year computer science and computer engineering student from Grand Rapids: “We’re partnering with Target and Ford to run an Android app that keeps track of your car’s vitals, fluid levels, where you’ve been, how fast you’re going, how you’ve been driving, and matches that up against Target’s weekly ads and new products, to draw customers to Target’s doors by showing them things they may not know they need for their car.”

Louks said the idea came from Target and Ford representatives after a meeting on campus.

And the app? “It works,” said Alex Roberts, a third year computer networks and systems administration major from Carol Stream, Ill. “But it’s really a rough beta at this point. This year, we will work on polishing it.”

Still, Rasmussen said, “We can read Target’s database just fine, we read data from the car, and we can push notifications to a phone.”

The other member of this Enterprise team working on the app, called Smart Trips, is Mark Oversellie, a fourth year computer science major from Chesterfield Township.

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I ended my day with a group of young people I’m quite certain will one day take over the world — Magann Dykema, a civil engineering major from Norton Shores, Brad Turner, a software engineering major from Bay City, and Josh Krugh, a materials science and engineering major from Eau Claire.

They met me back at the beautiful Great Lakes Research Center with Mary Raber, assistant dean of MTU’s new Paavlis Honors College, and faculty mentor for these students, known as University Innovation Fellows.

The UIF program is national and funded through NSF, VentureWell (a nonprofit higher education entrepreneurship promoter) and Stanford University. According to Turner, Fellows go through six weeks of training, focusing on innovation, entrepreneurship, lean startup methodologies, business modeling and more. “You come out of it with a couple projects we really want to make happen on our campus,” he said.

Dykema said that after a February meeting in San Francisco with other Innovation Fellows, as well as innovators from a wide variety of Silicon Valley companies, the Michigan Tech Fellows designed a program for innovation and entrepreneurship at Michigan Tech. It came to fruition this fall for entering freshmen — who were asked to solve the problem of winter in the Upper Peninsula in a program called Chill Out with #UIFresh. The students came up with a wide variety of ideas, some fanciful, some serious, ranging from an Iron Man-like high-tech winter coat to a dome over the entire MTU campus to a service that would surround students with warm bodies on treks across campus.

The Fellows also created a new group on Michigan Tech’s campus called The Movement. It involves ongoing entrepreneurship promotion at Michigan Tech, including a speaker series and regular entrepreneurship meetups.

And speaking of which, that’s how I ended my day — at The Movement’s Michigan Tech Fall 2015 Entrepreneurial Meetup. The event featured pitches before a panel of entrepreneurial judges. The pitches included:

* Nano Innovations Inc., a developer of innovative thermal management technology for electronics
* Micro Device Engineering, a developer of a portable, more reliable blood typing and hematocrit (red blood cell measurement) device
* A concept to produce 3D printer filament from recycled plastic waste
* A concept for an athletic performance indicator device app that will include analysis of body fluids
* A concept called We Inspire, a service to bring inspiring professionals into high schools.

Dave House was one of the judges. Others were Tom Porter, a 1968 electrical engineering graduate who spent 25 years with IBM, followed by Western Digital and Seagate Technology, and who is now consulting with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.; Kanwal Rekhi, a 1969 Michigan Tech grad who founded an early Ethernet technology company, Exelan, which went public in 1987 and was bought by Novell in 1989, and who has been a full time angel investor since 1994; Patrick Moore, a veteran entrepreneur who said he was “employee No. 31” at LinkedIn; and Devyani Kamdar, a founder and executive of various startups and the Palo Alto Institute.

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Thus ended another in a long string of amazing Tech Tour stops at Michigan Tech. Every year I think it can’t get any better, and every year I leave thinking, they proved me wrong. There’s just so much intellectual ferment up here in the North Country it’s astounding. And that’s why I’m really happy Michigan Tech is the official sponsor of this year’s ESD Tech Tour.

Next week, it’s Saginaw Valley State University, Central Michigan University, Ferris State University, Grand Valley State University, Western Michigan University, and Michigan State University. It’s duly noted — game on. It’s going to be hard to top Tech, but I really look forward to seeing you try!

 

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