If you’re going to solve real-​​world prob­lems, you need to work in the real world,” said Pro­fessor Michael Sile­vitch, director of North­eastern University’s NSF-​​funded Gordon Center for Sub­sur­face Sensing and Imaging Sys­tems (CenSSIS), during a keynote address at the Fifth Inter­na­tional Work­shop on Advanced Smart Mate­rials and Smart Struc­tures Tech­nology (ANCRiSST) in the Egan Center July 30. “This means, if you’re going to work on breast-​​cancer imaging, you had better be working with med­ical doctors.”

The pres­ti­gious con­fer­ence, spon­sored by the NSF and held on Northeastern’s campus for the first time, aims to foster part­ner­ships between Asian and Amer­ican sci­en­tists engaged in trying to eval­uate and pre­serve civil infrastructure.

Sile­vitch addressed an audi­ence of scholars from Hong Kong, Korea, and sev­eral other Asian coun­tries, and out­lined how his center, through its mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary approach, is focused on solving a variety of real-​​world prob­lems, ranging from breast cancer detec­tion and embryo via­bility testing to bomb detec­tion and under­water coral-​​reef sur­veying. The answers to these prob­lems, he stressed, share a common thread: the solu­tions lay far beneath the surface.

He gave exam­ples of two such real-​​world, and seem­ingly dis­parate, issues: the via­bility of embryos implanted through in vitro fer­til­iza­tion, and the dev­as­ta­tion of ter­rorism through hidden explo­sive devices. The point was to show that there are other appli­ca­tions for sub­sur­face sensing and imaging techniques—ones that don’t have any­thing to do with civil infra­struc­ture, but that could spark interest across other disciplines.

When it comes to fer­tility research, Silevitch’s team is using the embryos of mice to per­fect ways of extracting infor­ma­tion from cells pre­vi­ously too far removed to examine. This new infor­ma­tion will help doc­tors better pre­dict the via­bility of those embryos, and even­tu­ally, Sile­vitch hopes, the via­bility of human embryos.

On the national secu­rity front, the center is using the same basic sub­sur­face detec­tion prin­ci­pals to find new ways of detecting hidden explo­sives. At the con­fer­ence, Sile­vitch, who co-​​directs the new center, Aware­ness and Local­iza­tion of Explosives-​​Related Threats (ALERT), a Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­rity (DHS) Center of Excel­lence, posed a simple ques­tion: If you can find a tumor in the body or deter­mine the via­bility of an embryo, can you find a bomb in a suitcase?

He then out­lined the research and tech­nology his center is employing to answer that ques­tion, including a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Home­land Secu­rity offi­cials focused on improving airport-​​screening systems.

When we have a problem in the world, we have to take off our aca­d­emic glasses and go to work with the real-​​world people who are focused on solving these prob­lems,” Sile­vitch said.

Sile­vitch also noted during his address that the center’s research team has pro­duced 400 schol­arly papers, but that teaching still remains a top pri­ority, with more than 150 stu­dents a year par­tic­i­pating in the cutting-​​edge research occur­ring at Gordon CenSSIS. He went on to describe the excite­ment stu­dents expe­ri­ence when training with the very latest equip­ment in the field, including the Keck 3D Microscope.

A lot of our stu­dents are inspired by the fact that we’re dealing with real prob­lems and real-​​world solu­tions,” he said.

Sile­vitch was among four keynoters at the three-​​day work­shop. Pro­fessor Ahmed Bus­naina, director of Northeastern’s NSF-​​backed Center for High-​​rate Nanoman­u­fac­turing also spoke. The con­fer­ence was spon­sored by North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois at Urbana-​​Champaign, and Asian-​​Pacific Net­work of Cen­ters for Research in Smart Struc­tures Technology.