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ALERT Program

Student Spotlight Interview with Mihindra Dunuwille July 1, 2015

Congratulations to Mihindra Dunuwille, a spring 2015 Chemistry Ph.D. graduate at Washington State University (WSU), who has recently started working as a postdoc at the University of Utah! During her time at WSU, Mihindra worked on ALERT research under the guidance of Prof. Choong-Shik Yoo. Her thesis, “Pressure-induced Physical and Chemical Changes of Non-conventional Energetic Materials: Nitrate, Perchlorate and Peroxide Chemistries at High Pressures and High Temperatures,” focused on discerning the chemical properties of non-conventional materials that are widely used in terrorist activities in the hopes of developing techniques to mitigate explosives-related threats.

In order to understand how these chemicals are altered to become explosive, Mihindra performed experiments to determine the effects of physical and thermal conditions (e.g. pressure and temperature) on chemical properties on three types of oxidizers: nitrate, perchlorate and peroxide.

When asked about her experience working on this project, Mihindra describes her enthusiasm for the breadth of information that she was able to acquire just by tuning the physical variables (e.g. pressure) of these chemicals.  Regarding the project’s overall mission, she states, “I’m passionate about how this can be used in real life applications, and that it can change people’s lives for the better.”

Mihindra has been drawn to physical chemistry since high school, and received her B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka. She was originally introduced to Prof. Yoo’s research while at WSU on a prospective visit before accepting their offer to join the Ph.D. program in 2008. Of her experience working with Prof. Yoo, she remembers being encouraged to investigate the scientific basis of experimental observations on her own, instead of being handed the answers, and says, “It made me a better scientist.”

In her new role as a postdoc at the University of Utah, Mihindra has the opportunity to demonstrate her skills and experience from her previous project, while also getting the chance to explore new scientific techniques. Her current project, “Superconductivity of Lithium Rich Compounds,” will give her the chance to study the effects of high pressures and low temperatures on chemical properties, and will offer her the opportunity to get more experience with x-ray diffraction techniques. When asked about her career goals, she undoubtedly wants to continue doing research on explosives where she would like to have a positive impact on society, and would one day like to work for a national lab.

Mihindra’s enthusiasm for her work becomes quickly apparent when speaking with her, and is further reinforced by Prof. Yoo, who reflects, “She was smart, careful, responsible, and highly motivated both in her research and academic leadership roles… in short, she was an excellent graduate student with a high level of devotion and morale.”

Naval Academy Midshipmen Participate in ALERT Research July 1, 2015

Annapolis Naval Academy Midshipmen, Andrew Kelly and Gabe Lackey, are spending a month this summer doing ALERT research at the University of Rhode Island (URI), in Kingston, RI. Andrew and Gabe are Systems Engineering majors and have elected to use this time to work with the URI Energetic Materials Research Group. Their work includes hands-on experience with a myriad of aspects of explosives research at both the laboratory scale and in the field. Projects include using various instruments for physical characterization of both military explosives and homemade/improvised energetic materials.

Midshipman Lackey (pictured, middle) has said of his experiences,

“It has been very interesting to see the ‘behind the scenes’ process that takes an idea and eventually lets it reach the front lines, helping sailors, marines, and all military men and women.”

Midshipman Kelly (pictured, far right) says of his experiences working with ALERT scientists at URI,

“Working alongside the graduate students under Dr. Oxley has been informative in linking the numerous research areas to future military application, as well as what is currently being used.”

ALERT Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Begins July 1, 2015

This summer, ALERT is hosting 5 undergraduate students who are participating in the 10-week REU program. At Northeastern University, two students are working with Prof. Carey Rappaport, one student is working with Prof. Jose Martinez, and one student is working with John Beaty. ALERT is also hosting a student at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez who is doing research with Prof. Samuel Hernandez.

The ALERT REU program is partnering with other REU programs in the College of Engineering to build a cohort of students who jointly attend professional development meetings and program activities. At the end of the summer each student will give a final presentation on their research project.

ADSA12 Presentations Now Available June 10, 2015

We are pleased to announce that the ADSA12 Workshop presentations are now available for download at the following link:

https://myfiles.neu.edu/groups/ALERT/strategic_studies/ADSA12_Presentations/

If you have any questions regarding the topics and technologies discussed at the workshop, please contact Carl Crawford at crawford.carl@csuptwo.com.

Watch the Latest ALERT 101 January 30, 2015

ALERT is proud to present the third installment of ALERT 101. This chapter’s topic focuses on Methods of Chemical Characterization and Mitigation, and is part 1 of a 2 part series. ALERT Thrust Leaders Jimmie Oxley (Thrust 1) and Steve Beaudoin (Thrust 2) provide commentary about the crucial role of chemical characterization in the mitigation of explosives-related threats, and how ALERT research is helping first responders and security personnel to detect and eliminate threats before they can be used for malicious reasons.

Chemical characterization for the purpose of explosives detection requires ALERT researchers to classify what are explosive materials, and what are not. In the lab, researchers observe how chemicals uniquely react to stimuli, thus determining their chemical properties. For example, Differential Scanning Calorimetry subjects the chemical samples to heat, thus producing a specific reaction that can then be compared to the Explosives Database managed by the University of Rhode Island to determine if the chemical is a volatile substance.

Researchers then leverage these chemical characterizations to develop sensors that detect explosive threats. Trace analysis techniques are used to sense when chemical residues are present on surfaces of or in the air around materials by picking up small quantities of the chemicals when they are in the solid or vapor phases. One such trace method uses a polymer swab developed by Prof. Beaudoin, to sense chemicals in the solid phase on an object’s surface. This swab has individual fingers, similar in design to a toothbrush, with chemical head groups attached to the ends that attract and hold the residue to the finger. ALERT continues to advance the state-of-the-art in both solid and vapor trace technologies through their recently established Trace Explosives Sampling for Security Applications (TESSA) workshops.

As a supplement to this installment, stay tuned for ALERT 101: Basic Properties of Atoms and Molecules, coming this spring!

Inspired by the success of TED (www.ted.com) and other educational media forums, ALERT has developed the ALERT 101 video series. Each video short features different technologies and research areas that the ALERT Center engages in. We hope that these productions help educate and inform the global community on these topics in an accessible and enjoyable way.

Michael B. Silevitch and Simon Pitts awarded 2015 Gordon Prize January 9, 2015

ALERT Center Director, Michael B. Silevitch and Gordon Engineering Leadership Director, Simon Pitts have been awarded the 2015 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Engineering Education by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Prof. Silevitch, who is the founding director of the Gordon Engineering Leadership Program (GEL) at Northeastern University, is recognized alongside Simon Pitts “for developing an innovative method to provide graduate engineers with the necessary personal skills to become effective engineering leaders.”

The GEL Program is a graduate curriculum offered through NEU’s College of Engineering, with the mission of creating an elite cadre of engineering leaders “who stand out from their peers in their ability to invent, innovate, and implement engineering projects from concept to market success.” Each year, a select number of Candidates pursue the program, which is based in “three-way mentorship.” Students are assigned to one mentor from the program, one from an industry partner, and another mentor who has expertise in each student’s field of interest.

Prof. Silevitch created, acted as its initial director, and is now a lead mentor for the students participating in the GEL program. When asked what receiving the Gordon Prize means for GEL, he explains:

“It’s a validation of the importance of developing a program for engineering leadership that will help our country maintain its international competiveness, in terms of technological innovation.”

The Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education was initiated in 2001 by NAE with the intent of recognizing new modalities and experiments in education that develop the next generation of effective engineering leaders. The Gordon Prize focuses on education innovations including “curricular design, teaching methods, and technology enabling learning that strengthens students’ capabilities and desire to grow into leadership roles.” This prestigious prize is one of 5 NAE annual awards established to “recognize leaders in engineering for their lifetime dedication to their field and their commitment to advancing the human condition and to bring better understanding of the importance of engineering and engineering education to society”.

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2014 REU Program: One student’s experience as a researcher and woman in the sciences January 9, 2015

Every summer, the ALERT center selects science or engineering undergraduate students to participate in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program. These REU students have the opportunity to work for 10 weeks on research projects related to emerging technologies for explosives detection in one of the four ALERT research thrusts.

The 2014 summer program, which ran from June 3rd – August 7th, provided participating students with full-time work experience on ALERT research, and offered meetings and activities geared to enhance professional development.  A few of the students working at NEU began their involvement in ALERT research through the ALERT Scholars Program, which provides freshmen undergraduates an introduction and gateway to engineering research on campus during the spring semester.

I sat down with 2014 REU student Amanda Figueroa-Navedo, who worked this summer with Professor Samuel Hernandez-Rivera in his Standoff Detection laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, to discuss her experience as an REU. Amanda gave insight into the active role of undergraduates in research labs, the process of conducting a collaborative research project, beginning with basic research and culminating in the publication of state-of-the-art results, and her presence as a women in the STEM field.

Teri Incampo: What year are you? What is your major and what would you like to study?

Amanda Figueroa-Navedo: I am currently in my fifth year. I started out in Chemical Engineering and I am planning to switch to Chemistry.

TI: What prompted you to change to Chemistry?

AFN: First of all, I started working with Professor Hernandez about 2 years ago. I was still in Chemical Engineering and started to take one of his courses as an elective. I was involved in that course and then became involved in research and the lab. I didn’t visualize myself in the Pharm industry or the other industries that are involved with Chemical Engineering. I wanted to be more hands on. Chemistry was it for me.

“My experience has been great, as a woman, in this lab. I am glad that this interview might motivate other women in the STEM fields to do research and to get involved in the sciences.”

TI: So working in Prof. Hernandez’s lab really made that a clear choice for you.

AFN: Yes. I am very grateful to him for giving me the chance to join his group.

TI: What is your primary research interest within Chemistry?

AFN: My primary research is the crystallization of energetic materials, which is what we have been discovering this summer. When we started this project, we had other objectives, but through our research and experimentation, we found out that we could crystallize these energetic materials in different phases. It is essentially the same molecule but the position of the groups makes it more stable or more sensitive.

TI: That’s exciting! Are you currently working on a paper?

AFN: Yes. We are currently working on paper to publish in crystallography for the American Chemical Society (ACS) journals. We are almost finished. We are still figuring out chrystallagraphical and X-ray diffraction details. We are 95% done with this work.

TI: Does this fit into the big picture of what you want to study and research? You started with one idea and it evolved. Are you wanting to continue to see where this new direction might lead you or would you want to redirect to another topic?

AFN: I want to see what else we can get from this information because the energetic material we are studying is not the only material that has these polymorphs when they crystallize. We started with RDX and we are moving onto other materials, such as TNT and HMX, which exhibit this behavior.

TI: How did you learn about the REU program?

AFN: When I started working with Prof. Hernandez, he brings students from all over the country. When I started two years ago, we had a big group of REUs. I was interested because I started working on a voluntary basis and decided to apply to be an REU for this summer.

TI: Can you explain the broader significance of this research to someone who might not be familiar with Chemistry or Engineering?

AFN: The sensitivity of these crystals is significant. When you are working with energetic materials, the types of the crystals and their morphology influences the material’s sensitivity. When you want to study crystals that are more sensitive, you would apply this to detection of energetic materials, perhaps in military applications or in airports or forensic areas. When you have less sensitive crystals, it would be helpful to desensitize these energetic materials and be able to detect them; they each have their own unique signal to vibrational techniques, such as infrared and Raman Spectroscopy. We use the spin coating technique to manipulate the crystals to be more sensitive or less sensitive, which increases the library of signals that we have gathered. This will be helpful to existing libraries in the military and airport security domains.

TI: So you are not only able to expand what you are doing within the lab but catalog the results and share the information with others working in the field.

AFN: Exactly.

TI: What challenges did you encounter when conducting your research as an REU?

AFN: One main challenge was having so much information and so little time to explain it in the final REU presentation. Crystallography is a really broad subject and during our first weeks of research, were not expecting to study it. We had to learn a lot of it in so little time. We were really excited about his project and we still have a lot more to learn.

TI: What were some of the milestones of your research?

AFN: The breakthrough was when we were able to see the beta form crystals of RDX. Beta is not extensively reported, we only found 4 works of literature that reported it. They crystallized it by evaporating the solution. We employed a new technique and found these crystals. That is one of the first milestone. The second milestone was to incorporate two techniques to validate our results. The third milestone was to incorporate computer algorithms and Chemometrics to also validate that the behavior of the chemical signatures that we found is different. We were able to present it in a more organized and simple way. Of course, I could not explain Chemometrics in the presentation but in the paper we were able to do so.

TI: Did you work with other students, fellow undergraduates or graduate?

AFN: I worked with my mentor, a graduate student named Jose Ruiz-Caballero. He was a great influence and always had an organized calendar. He was very involved in this project, especially after our main focus changed. We had Dr. Hernandez meeting with us constantly. I also had my past mentor, Dr. Pacheco who was also a main part of past projects were they have found some beta crystals by other techniques. He was a big help in identifying these crystals.

TI: How did Dr. Hernandez help you overcome some of the difficulties, as well as achieve the goals you had during your REU experience?

AFN: The first thing he said when he met with us was to organize our ideas and take out the most important parts. My mentor and I were so motivated that we had found these startling results. We were focusing on everything. So, Dr. Hernandez gave us some perspective on the main aspects of what the publication should be.

TI: Do you think you were successful in describing this broad subject and your findings during the final REU presentation?

AFN: It think it helped me to understand better because I had to summarize especially when writing the paper [we want to publish.] When started with the introduction, we had so many ideas and so many things we need to get [across] about the main points so that we could write the first paper. We wanted to include as much relevant information as we could.

TI: For the REU presentation, you were able to work through how you were explaining it and that helped to clarify how you would approach the paper.

AFN: Definitely.

TI: What has been your experience as a woman conducting research in the STEM field?

AFN: This semester we only had two women in our group. My experience has been great, as a woman, in this lab. I am glad that this interview might motivate other women in the STEM fields to do research and to get involved in the sciences.

TI: What are your goals as you look towards this coming year?

AFN: This year, as far as goals, we want to control the growth of these crystals through spin coating, as well as the crystals of other energetic materials. One of the main authors that has contributed to this field is Ilana Goldberg. Through her work, I was able to understand a lot things about crystallization of this energetic material, specifically; it was part of her dissertation. I am looking forward to doing my own graduate research on this subject, as well as prepare my thesis with this new data.

TI: What are your plans, say in the next few years?

AFN: I am planning on going to graduate school. Dr. Hernandez has been encouraging me to pursue graduate studies. After that I would probably seek a doctorate degree or pursue a job that has to do with forensic information or forensic analysis.

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Amanda and her research group at UPRM have continued to make progress on this project. Throughout the fall they continued to reproduce this experiment and examine more aspects of the crystallization technique. After conducting a literature review, Amanda found that their technique has been compared to other methods without promising results in crystallography. Therefore, her research group is improving the impact of the technique by using Raman Spectroscopy to work with traces of RDX. In December 2014, the team submitted their paper for review.

[Photo (l-r): REU Student Amanda Figueroa-Navedo, Prof. Samuel Hernandez-Rivera, Graduate Student Jose Ruiz-Caballero]

 

 

 

 

Prof. Octavia Camps and Prof. Richard Radke, Presented at the Eighth ACM/IEEE International Conference on Distributed Smart Cameras December 4, 2014

ALERT researchers, Prof. Octavia Camps, Northeastern University, and Prof. Richard Radke, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, presented their team’s ALERT research at the 8th ACM/IEEE International Conference on Distributed Smart Cameras (ICDSC). Prof. Camps gave a keynote address, titled, “Structured Robust PCA and Dynamics-Based Invariants for Multi-Camera Video Understanding,” and Prof. Radke presented his talk, titled, “Real-World Re-Identification in an Airport Camera Network.” The conference was held on November 4th – 7th, in Venice, Italy.

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ALERT Hosted the Eleventh Workshop on Advanced Development for Security Applications (ADSA11) November 10, 2014

ALERT hosted it’s eleventh ADSA Workshop last week on November 4th and 5th, at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. This workshop, titled, “Explosives Detection in Air Cargo – Part II,” was a continuation of the previous ADSA10 workshop focus, and was attended by over 150 representatives from government, academia, and industry. Following the workshop, ALERT invited participants to attend the ATR Development for CT-Based EDS (Task Order 4) Program Review, on November 6th, 2014. The ADSA12 workshop is tentatively planned for the spring of 2015. For more information on these events, please contact alert-info@coe.neu.edu.

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ALERT Phase 2 Year 1 Annual Report Available Online! October 24, 2014

ALERT is proud to announce that the Phase 2 Year 1 Annual Report is now available for download online. This report captures the progression of the research conducted in our four thrusts: R1) Characterization & Elimination of Illicit Explosives; R2) Trace & Vapor Sensors; R3) Bulk Sensors & Sensor Systems; and R4) Video Analytics & Signature Analysis. A full bibliography of publications and presentations conducted under ALERT support follows the individual project reports. Detailed descriptions of the Year 1 activities that took place in our Research and Transition, Education, Strategic Studies, Safety, and Information Protection Programs, as well as the ALERT Phase 2 Overview and Year 1 Highlights, Infrastructure and Evaluation, and Industrial/Practitioner and Government Partnerships can also be accessed in the Annual Report.

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