Four faculty win early-career awards

Early-career investigator award winners for 2022.

Four faculty in the Oregon State University College of Engineering have received prestigious early-career investigator awards from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. Houssam Abbas, Yue Cao, and Xiao Fu are the recipients of the Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, awards from the NSF. Kelsey Stoerzinger is the recipient of an award from DOE’s Early Career Research Program.

The grants cover a wide array of engineering projects: developing computational ethics for autonomous systems; incorporating currently overlooked “virtual” resources, such as HVAC systems or water heaters, into energy storage systems; advancing unsupervised deep representation learning, and designing and testing catalysts that facilitate the conversion of nitrate into ammonia more efficiently and sustainably than current methods.

“These early career awards demonstrate the importance of our research and how the College of Engineering continues to innovate and lead in so many fields,” said Scott Ashford, Kearney Dean of Engineering. “On a personal note, I couldn’t be happier for these faculty members.”

Increasingly, autonomous systems — such as self-driving cars, unpiloted aerial vehicles, and assistive robots in medical facilities — interact with people on a daily basis. Houssam Abbas, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, will use his five-year, nearly $500,000 NSF CAREER award to further develop computational ethics as an engineering and scientific discipline to be used in the design of such systems.

For example, a self-driving car may encounter a situation where it needs to make an ethically laden decision: Given no other choice, does it run into a wall and potentially injure its passengers, or run into a pedestrian? While this question cannot be resolved with purely technical solutions, there is an urgent need for an engineering process to model, verify, and analyze autonomous systems’ behaviors in such situations.

Abbas aims to develop engineering tools to allow system designers to formalize, program, and verify the implementation of ethical principles.

A picture of Houssam Abbas.
Houssam Abbas wants autonomous systems, like self-driving cars, to make ethical choices when faced with difficult decisions.

Traditional energy storage systems encompass what Yue Cao, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, calls “real” storage, which includes batteries, supercapacitors, and fuel cells. He plans to use his five-year, $500,000 NSF CAREER award to figure out ways to also incorporate currently overlooked “virtual” resources, such as HVAC systems or water heaters.

“I call those systems ‘virtual,’ because storing energy is not their primary purpose, but they consume electricity and are tied to the grid or other energy resources,” Cao said.

A picture of Yue Cao.
Yue Cao’s work could lead to widespread use of nontraditional, hybrid energy storage systems.

The purpose of Cao’s research will be to create a universal equivalent circuit for multiple energy storage systems that are controlled by connected power electronics. Cao will then develop a design approach to optimally size the hybrid energy storage systems and increase their life and reliability. By dynamically regulating virtual energy mass, this new approach aims to modulate energy usage from the grid.

“For example, if I have rooftop solar panels on my house, and it’s a sunny day and the air conditioner is on, and in the next minute a cloud blocks the sun, solar power will be reduced,” Cao said. “Current systems would use power from the grid to keep the air conditioner running. With an integrated energy system, however, the power used by the air conditioner, or the virtual resource, could be adjusted temporarily to match the reduced power of the solar panels, without my noticing a difference in temperature.”

Cao is already working on research projects that involve energy storage problems including fast charging stations for heavy-duty trucks on rural highways, electrification of locomotives, and wave energy.

Xiao Fu, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and artificial intelligence, will use his five-year, $500,000 NSF CAREER award to develop a suite of nonlinear factor analysis tools and contribute to a deeper understanding of unsupervised machine learning and sensing systems.

A picture of Xiao Fu.
Xiao Fu plans to gain a deeper understanding of unsupervised machine learning and sensing systems.

Factor analysis tools are cornerstones of many sensing and learning applications, such as document analytics, hyperspectral imaging, brain signal processing, and representation learning. They’re designed to detect meaningful information hidden in large data sets, such as prominent topics within a large collection of documents.

However, many classic factor analysis models can be thwarted by phenomena known as nonlinear distortions, which frequently cause inaccurate results. To address the problem, Fu must first establish a deeper theoretical understanding of the so-called nonlinear factor analysis models, which are not well understood.

One of his goals is to use nonlinear factor analysis to understand and advance unsupervised deep representation learning, which is considered a critical tool to alleviate the high demand for labeled data in modern AI systems.

Supervised machine learning algorithms learn through exposure to labeled inputs that correspond with specific outputs. But the training process can be costly and time intensive, because reliable data annotation must be done by experienced workers.

Fu hopes to “reverse engineer” the data generating/acquisition process, so that machine learning and sensing algorithms can recognize and categorize unlabeled data — images, for instance — without being trained, by identifying and interpreting essential factors hidden within the data.

Kelsey Stoerzinger, assistant professor of chemical engineering, plans to use her five-year, $750,000 early career award from the DOE to develop a deeper understanding of electrochemical processes used to convert nitrate into ammonia, and to design and test catalysts that target this reaction.

Kelsey Stoerzinger with some students.
Kelsey Stoerzinger with former students Prajwal Adiga and Cindy Wong. Her work could lead to sustainable production of ammonia, one of the world’s most important chemicals.

Ammonia is among the most widely used chemicals in the world. But industrial-scale ammonia production relies on the Haber-Bosch process, in which hydrogen and nitrogen are combined at high temperatures and pressures. The practice requires enormous amounts of energy and produces huge volumes of carbon dioxide.

Meanwhile, nitrate from untreated wastewater and agricultural runoff overwhelms streams, rivers, and groundwater in many areas of the country. Ingesting excessive nitrate has been linked to a number of serious health risks in humans, while an overabundance in aquatic ecosystems can devastate plant and animal life.

Stoerzinger, who won an early career award from the National Science Foundation in 2021, will investigate an electrochemical option for ammonia synthesis in which an electric current is passed through a device containing nitrate-contaminated water. “We want to take this waste nitrate and transform it into a usable form, ammonia, and we’ll do that by applying electricity from renewable energy sources,” she said.

However, widespread implementation of an electrochemical approach will be feasible only with catalysts that select for, or favor, the reaction that produces ammonia rather than a competing reaction that produces hydrogen from the water molecules. Competing reactions can occur when the same starting materials combine to create undesired products.

Stoerzinger’s goal is to identify effective catalytic materials that result in high yields of ammonia. She intends to focus on materials made from abundant elements, like nickel, iron, and cobalt, because precious metal catalysts, while potentially useful, are too expensive for large-scale production.

“We want to find sustainable solutions that allow us to recycle nitrate by upgrading it to something valuable,” Stoerzinger said. “Developing the most selective and efficient catalysts is the linchpin that will allow us to move the technology forward.”

Sept. 20, 2022

Four faculty win early-career investigator awards

Portrait of Erica Fischer, Rebecca Hutchinson, Kelsey Stoerzinger, Meagan Wengrove from left to right.

Four faculty in the Oregon State University College of Engineering have received prestigious early-career investigator awards from the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research. Erica Fischer, Kelsey Stoerzinger, and Rebecca Hutchinson are recipients of the Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, award from the NSF. Meagan Wengrove is the recipient of a Young Investigator Program award from the ONR.

The awards cover a wide array of engineering projects: studying the use of mass timber for building construction; researching the safe production of hydrogen gas from seawater; improving the species distribution models used by ecologists and natural resource managers; and using fiber optic cables on the ocean floor as early warning systems for communities in harm’s way from earthquakes, tsunamis, and dangerous waves.

This is the first year in the college’s history that all of the NSF and ONR early-career investigator awards have gone to women. In the 30 years prior, only 10 of the 59 College of Engineering faculty who received early-career awards were women.

“I’m delighted by the early career success of these faculty, but not surprised,” said Scott Ashford, Kearney Dean of Engineering. “Several years ago, the College of Engineering began creating a more inclusive environment in support of women in engineering — taking a deep look at the root causes of longstanding barriers and implementing changes in faculty recruitment, promotion and tenure, and professional development. And now we’re seeing the fruits of these changes.”

According to the American Society for Engineering Education, Oregon State’s College of Engineering ranks second nationally among land-grant universities for percentage of tenured or tenure-track engineering faculty who are women and third among the nation’s 94 public R1 universities. These rankings played a role in ASEE’s selection of the College of Engineering as an “exemplar” recipient of a Bronze Award in the first year of the ASEE Diversity Recognition Program, the highest recognition offered in the program’s inaugural year.

Portrait of Erica Fischer

Erica Fischer
Erica Fischer, an assistant professor of civil and construction engineering, was selected for her proposal to create new technologies for the mass timber modular construction of buildings. The building construction industry is primed for a major change to improve efficiency, she said, noting that construction has been done the same way for more than 100 years.

“Almost every major U.S. city is experiencing a housing crisis. Modular construction addresses these shortages while improving job site safety, increasing speed of construction, and lowering construction costs,” Fischer said. “Enabling mass timber to be used for modular building construction is also really beneficial to Oregon’s economy, which has made significant investments in mass timber production, manufacturing, and research.”

Fischer will use her $560,000 award to develop innovative technologies for changing how buildings are designed, manufactured, and assembled in regions with a high risk of earthquakes or strong winds — specifically, technologies that enable the construction of modular, mass timber buildings that incorporate a range of lateral force-resisting systems and can withstand the combined forces of gravity and lateral movement caused by seismic events and wind.

“We will study the connections of members within mass timber modular buildings and the relationship between the rigidity of these connections and overall structural behavior,” she said.

Kelsey Stoerzinger showing student lab tools.

Kelsey Stoerzinger, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, was chosen for her proposal to study how to split seawater into hydrogen and oxygen while avoiding undesirable chloride byproducts. Hydrogen has many scientific, industrial, and energy-related roles, such as in fuel cells for cars.

“Renewable electricity can drive chemical reactions, including the generation of hydrogen from water,” Stoerzinger said. “This stores electrical energy in a chemical fuel that can be transported and used on demand. Seawater is an abundant water resource, but electrochemical hydrogen generation can also generate harmful byproducts from seawater salts that pose environmental and safety concerns.”

Stoerzinger will use her $550,000 award to design and test materials and reaction conditions that split water without creating these byproducts.

“We’ll focus on designing materials called catalysts that selectively facilitate the generation of benign oxygen gas in systems containing chloride salts,” she said. “Our work will aid the development of improved energy storage and chemical manufacturing strategies that reduce our nation’s reliance on nonrenewable resources.”

Portrait of Rebecca Hutchinson in a forest environment.

Rebecca Hutchinson, an assistant professor with appointments in both engineering (computer science) and the College of Agricultural Sciences (fisheries, wildlife, conservation sciences), will use her $564,000 award to improve the machine learning methods used to develop species distribution models, or SDMs, that are built with data gathered through community science and used by ecologists and natural resource managers.

“You build an SDM by correlating observations of species — are they there or not? — with environmental features,” she said. “Then you can use the model to understand why species live where they do and how likely a species is to occur at a new site. But the spatial aspects of both species and environmental data can be problematic for the machine learning currently used in the models.”

To assess the model’s performance, some data are typically held out during model building. Then the model’s ability to predict the unseen data is used to measure its quality. With spatial data, however, randomly selecting data to hold out can lead to optimistic bias in quality estimates.

Hutchinson also intends to account for the inevitable underreporting of species during biodiversity surveys. Errors introduced by underreporting can be corrected by conducting multiple observations at the same site and estimating the probability of detecting the species, but community science programs usually aren’t set up that way, according to Hutchinson. “Our award will support research to create groups of multiple observations after the fact to better account for underreporting,” she said. “For science and management questions informed by SDMs, this will improve the ability to correct for observational errors and translate to better habitat models.”

In addition, Hutchinson aims to reduce errors that can creep into the quality of estimates generated by the models. For example, if temperature data is unavailable in mountainous regions, elevation may be used as a proxy for temperature when modeling the presence of bird species that are highly sensitive to cold or warmth. That substitution might work well in the Cascades but not along the coast or in the valley, leading to unexpectedly bad predictions in nonmountainous areas — the result of biased performance estimates. Her intent is to develop methods to estimate model performance that avoid this pitfall, giving scientists and managers a better idea of when to use their models with caution.

Hutchinson’s research could potentially enable scientists to build SDMs that more accurately provide climate model projections and obtain estimates of how species will fare under the influence of climate change.

Portrait of Meagan Wengrove in a farm.

With her $510,000 award, Meagan Wengrove, an assistant professor of civil engineering, will examine the possibility that a nascent technology called distributed acoustic sensing can serve as an early warning system for events such as tsunamis, sneaker waves, and internal waves — all potential threats to coastal communities and marine traffic.

To test the idea, she’ll send a sequence of short laser pulses, generated by a device called a laser interrogator, down one end of standard fiber optic cables that rest on the seabed and which stretch up to 20 kilometers from shore.

“Because the cables are made of glass, the light propagates quickly down each one,” Wengrove said. “Any disturbance — such as a wave or movement of the sea floor — that deforms the fibers, even just a tiny amount, will change the way the light signal returns to its origin. We can then detect precisely in time and space where that change occurred and how large it was.”

In theory, real-time alerts could be sent out automatically to warn communities or seagoing vessels about the potential hazard.

“The first thing I want to do is understand what we can reliably measure with this instrument in the ocean, and no one has done that before,” Wengrove said.

Testing will be conducted at two locations. One is the 20-kilometer Oregon State PacWave cable, used for wave energy research, which will be deployed off Newport. The second will be a shorter fiber installed at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Field Research Facility near Duck, North Carolina.

Distributed acoustic sensing can measure strain over distances up to 150 km with a spatial resolution as small as 1 meter and detect changes in fiber strain as small as 100 nanometers over 10 meters of the fiber. Each cable can provide thousands of measurements along its length, whereas current in-situ sensing techniques are limited to, at most, tens of sensors.

“There’s no other type of sensor out there that can sample as quickly and at so many locations simultaneously, and the technology is improving every day,” Wengrove said. “It’s conceivable that we could one day use fiber optic sensing with existing telecommunications cables that span entire oceans and monitor, in real time, events thousands of miles from shore.”

The NSF CAREER program supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization, according to the NSF website.

According to the ONR website, the Young Investigator Program seeks to identify and support academic scientists and engineers who are in their first or second full-time tenure-track or equivalent position, who have received their doctorate or equivalent degree in the past seven years, and who show exceptional promise for doing creative research.

Sept. 14, 2021
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