News & Events
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.
ALERT Student Spotlight: Yolanda Rodriguez-Vaqueiro April 30, 2015
April 30, 2015
Some us are lucky enough to know what we want to do with our lives at an early age. For Yolanda Rodriguez-Vaqueiro, an ALERT Research Assistant and recent doctoral degree recipient in the Electrical and Computer Engineering program at Northeastern University, a career in STEM has been a lifelong dream.
“From the very beginning, my brain was a mathematical one. Instead of a left and right brain, I like to say that I have two left brains. For example, there is only one answer to 2 + 2. For me, that is perfection!” declares Rodriguez-Vaqueiro with good humor.
During her four-year involvement with ALERT, Rodriguez-Vaqueiro’s primary research focus has been developing compressive sensing for standoff detection of security threats at distances of 10 to 50 meters using millimeter wave radar. This research is highly relevant to the Homeland Security Enterprise, as it could be utilized by law enforcement and first responders to detect explosives and weapons from a safe distance. Rodriguez-Vaqueiro is credited with proposing a new geometric configuration for a multiple-bistatic, millimeter wave radar imaging system, which could potentially be used for threat detection in outdoor environments, such as sporting events and music festivals.
Under the guidance of advisors Professor Jose Martinez-Lorenzo and Professor Carey Rappaport, Rodriguez-Vaqueiro was given the freedom to test out new ideas and come into her own as a researcher. According to her, “My capacity to do research has improved significantly. I learned how to take an idea and apply it to the real world by creating simulations and collecting data from measurements done in the lab. Both Professor Martinez and Professor Rappaport were excellent mentors. I was able to give them my very best work thanks to their guidance. They allowed me a great deal of independence to try new things on my own, while pushing me to become a better researcher.”
Rodriguez-Vaqueiro points out that research does not come without difficulty. She states, “When you’re doing research, every project and every new day presents challenges. For example, every time we get data from the lab, it’s a challenge to decipher that data, and then take that data and turn it into an image for others to understand. I’m a person who enjoys challenges though.”
During her time with ALERT, Rodriguez-Vaqueiro was a prolific writer. She authored and collaborated on a total of 14 peer-reviewed publications, receiving the Best Paper Award (2012 IEEE Homeland Security Technology Conference), the Best Propagation Paper Award (2014 European Conference on Antennas and Propagation), and most recently, the Burke/Yannas Bioengineering Best Paper Award (47th Annual Meeting of the American Burn Association), which recognizes original research studies in the field of bioengineering. Additionally, Rodriguez-Vaqueiro is the 2015 recipient of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Research Impact Award at Northeastern University. Publishing her research is among her greatest achievements: “Every time I publish a paper, it’s a huge milestone for me, because you finally have the opportunity to share the results of your research with the public. You may have been working on a project for a long time—six months, or a year—and then you get to write it all down. It’s very exciting.”
Despite balancing her roles as an ALERT Research Assistant and doctoral candidate, Rodriguez-Vaqueiro made time to mentor other students, introducing approximately 15 high school and undergraduate students to STEM research. She especially enjoyed her experience mentoring high school students through Young Scholars, a program operated by the Northeastern University Center for STEM Education: “It was very rewarding for me to assist high school students, because although they have little research experience, they were able to obtain meaningful results from scratch. They also learned some basics in coding. It was good for them, and for me.”
“Without a doubt,” claims her advisor, Professor Martinez-Lorenzo, “She is one of the most talented students that I have ever had during my academic career. She was the Ph.D. student that every faculty member desires in a research group—a student who sets the example of true leadership. I believe Yolanda will have an outstanding academic career solving important and difficult engineering problems with her unique insight and her quick mind.”
Rodriguez-Vaqueiro plans to continue her research and mentoring efforts in a post-doctoral position at the University of Vigo in Pontevedra, Spain, where she will be exploring electromagnetic engineering in regard to checkpoint security applications, and will no doubt, inspire other STEM students to follow their dreams.
Borja Gonzalez and Prof. Carey Rappaport, win the Best Antenna Design and Application Paper Award at EuCAP 2015 April 29, 2015
Congratulations to our ALERT researchers, Borja Gonzalez (PostDoc) and Prof. Carey Rappaport, who won the Best Antenna Design and Application Paper Award at the EuCAP 2015 – the 9th European Conference on Antennas and Propagation. Their paper, “Multistatic Nearfield Imaging Radar for Portal Security Systems Using a High Gain Toroidal Reflector Antenna,” was presented by Prof. Rappaport at the conference, held this year in Lisbon, Portugal on April 12th – 17th. Selected from over 1,000+ papers presented throughout the conference, ALERT proudly congratulates Carey and Borja on this impressive achievement.
Congratulations to our ALERT and Gordon-CenSSIS Scholars! April 22, 2015
This year, ALERT and Gordon-CenSSIS had the honor of hosting 17 freshmen engineering students as participants in the ALERT and Gordon-CenSSIS Scholars Program.
After two semesters of active involvement in the program — which includes participation in an ALERT or Gordon-CenSSIS research project, K-12 STEM outreach, and Scholar meetings, seminars and activities — they completed the program on Wednesday, April 8th, 2015, when they presented their final research presentations to their faculty advisors and other members of the Scholars community. The final presentations consisted of 2-minute overviews of each Scholar’s research project, addressing their project’s overall mission and activities, their specific contributions to the project, as well as what knowledge and skills they gained.
The ALERT and Gordon-CenSSIS Scholars Program is designed to provide freshmen engineers with the opportunity to get involved in research and STEM outreach, but also focuses on building their professional development. Throughout the year, Scholars attended seminars on Leadership Skills, Research Ethics, Lab Safety, Power Point Presentation Skills, and Research Poster Building Skills.
The program also aims to provide Scholars with multiple resources for mentorship and guidance. In addition to their faculty advisor, the program coordinator, and the STEM Center team, each Scholar is assigned a specific Scholar Mentor, who regularly connects with them regarding program-related activities, as well as questions or concerns related to their overall experience at NU. Scholar Mentors are undergraduate engineering students who have previously completed the Scholars program, and who apply to participate in this supporting role. As part of their involvement this spring, the Mentors each gave a presentation to the Scholars on their research, outreach and co-op experiences.
All ALERT and Gordon-CenSSIS Scholars who successfully complete the program requirements receive an NU Bookstore Voucher of up to $1,000.
The program is hosted and sponsored by the Awareness and Localization of Explosives-Related Threats (ALERT) Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence, and the Bernard M. Gordon Center for Subsurface Sensing and Imaging Systems (Gordon-CenSSIS), a Graduated National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center.
ALERT leads Tutorial at IEEE Symposium on Technologies for Homeland Security April 16, 2015
ALERT led one of two tutorials given at the 2015 IEEE Symposium on Technologies for Homeland Security on April 14th, 2015. The tutorials launched a three day event which included a plenary talk by Dr. Reginald Brothers, the Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Science and Technology, and four research tracks focused on key homeland security topics:
- Cyber Security,
- Attack and Disaster Preparation, Recovery, and Response,
- Land and Maritime Border Security
- Biometrics & Forensics.
The tutorial provided an introduction to explosive threat sensing technologies to over 25 representatives from educational institutions, national labs, DHS, and members of the private security industry.
ALERT Director, Prof. Michael Silevitch began the session by providing an overview of ALERT’s mission, research areas, industrial partnerships, and current technology transition efforts. After a brief Q&A, Jim Smith from the University of Rhode Island discussed how chemicals are classified as explosives and methods of trace detection. Dr. Smith presented what explosives tend to be found in improvised explosive devices and URI’s work in improving the detection of these types of materials. ALERT’s work in vapor detection, explosive residue detection, and canine explosive detection were all discussed.
For the second half of the tutorial, Prof. Octavia Camps presented techniques used within the video analytics domain to detect features, descriptors and invariants (fixed components) in video. She then discussed the process of inference used to classify video data. All of these components are in play in ALERT’s video analytic work. Octavia reviewed the VAST project, a collaboration with Siemens, the TSA and Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, by discussing the project’s contraflow (in-the-exit) and tracking in a crowded scene (tag and track) components. Prof. Camps also discussed ALERT’s partnership with VACCINE and the GCRTA to improve detection of known criminals within the rail system through video re-identification.
Carl Crawford closed the session with a presentation on X-ray based and millimeter wave detection technologies. After discussing the history of threats to air travel and current scanning processes, Dr. Crawford covered how false alarm rates are a substantial barrier to current technologies and what ALERT and its partners are doing to lessen its impact. ALERT technologies including detection diffraction systems, real time tomography systems, and active millimeter wave systems were presented by Dr. Crawford. ALERT’s work with third parties such as national labs, DHS security vendors and other academic intuitions to improve scanning rates and generate non-SSI research datasets were also highlighted.
The diverse audience engaged with center representatives regarding current ALERT partnerships, available research datasets, and in the field research projects. The tutorial included a productive discussion on the barriers of transitioning technology and opportunities for future collaborations in the tutorial’s domain. ALERT looks forward to continuing to support the Homeland Security Enterprise through events such as the IEEE Symposium.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.