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Four questions with four NSF CAREER award winners

Our four National Science Foundation CAREER award winners reflect on their fields, their research, and surprises they’ve found along the way.

It’s one of the most competitive recognitions granted by the National Science Foundation: the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award.

Junior faculty who excel at being both teachers and scholars are eligible for the award, which is given out once a year to around 350 researchers from a nationwide pool. Awardees are given a five-year federal grant to sponsor research and education activities.

This year, four faculty in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech received the CAREER award: two from the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, one from the Department of Computer Science, and one from the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.


Jonathan Boreyko

Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics

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Jonathan Boreyko stands in a lab with his arms crossed in front of a microscope.

Jonathan Boreyko sees nature as the ultimate inspiration for research. In his research, he often uses nature’s simple, elegant approach to address complex issues that people all over the world face daily.

Take the problem of fresh water, for example. By 2025, it’s estimated that roughly two-thirds of the world’s population won’t have access to enough clean water. Boreyko’s work to mimic the desalination techniques of the mangrove tree, which has a unique ability to filter the ocean water it grows in, is the focus of his recent NSF CAREER Award.

Jonathan Boreyko sitting in a chair in his office.

With the award, Boreyko will seek to engineer a system inspired by the iconic tree’s impressive ability to pull water through a filtration membrane. Man-made filtration techniques typically require an energy input to push water through a membrane, but the mangrove tree’s filtration is instead powered entirely by the evaporation of water from its leaves.

Boreyko hopes to construct scalable tree mimics for extracting and purifying large quantities of water that could be used for drinking, washing, and cooking — daily activities many of us take for granted. Theoretically, this synthetic mangrove could be placed in soil or a body of water not only to collect water, but also to filter it of salt and other minerals.

Jonathan Boreyko looking at an experiment with students.

What are some other outreach initiatives you will be conducting in conjunction with this grant? 

By the end of this grant period, we will finalize an artificial mangrove tree that will be featured in a museum exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. This exhibit will teach visitors how trees pump and filter water, and they can watch an artificial tree pump water up an array of tubes. We’re hoping this exhibit will make people realize how amazing nature is, and also inspire the next generation of engineers and biomimetic designers.

We also run a summer camp for female high school students every year, where we’ll be doing hands-on demonstrations of how to construct an artificial tree. I have also noticed that all sorts of people are interested in this idea of artificial mangroves, so we hope to disseminate our findings widely in mass media outlets.

Jonathan Boreyko working in his lab.

Where do you see your research taking you in the future?

There are so many future directions we are excited about. One thing we want to answer: How high can we lift water using artificial trees? If we can pump it high enough, there is the potential to use our trees for energy generation in addition to the water harvesting application. We would also love to eventually create a three-dimensional tree with lots of branches and leaves to maximize the evaporation rate. Conceptually, there are a lot of physics and thermodynamics to unpack, regarding how water behaves when it is under tension. For example, water under tension can easily boil, and nobody really knows how to design artificial trees to minimize cavitation events from disrupting the water flow.

When you are not researching nature-inspired fluids and interfaces, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

My wife and I have three kids, all under three, so most of my time is playing with my boys and changing lots of diapers! I also love hiking outdoors, playing piano, and being involved in my church.

What is the most surprising finding in your research?

It seems like my students are making a surprising discovery almost every week these days! One of our favorite recent findings is that we make anti-frosting surfaces by patterning microscopic ice features over the surface. Similar to salts or silica gels, ice is a low-pressure material that siphons nearby moisture in the air. By patterning an array of ice features on the surface, they attracted all the moisture from the air, keeping the rest of the surface completely dry from dew or frost. To adapt the expression to “fight fire with fire,” maybe we should “fight ice with ice!”


Kurt Luther

Department of  Computer Science

Kurt Luther sitting at a table with his laptop

In an era when legitimate media outlets compete with fake news and photoshopped digital memes for public mindshare, it’s good to know that there is a superhero of sorts out there committed to finding truth from among all those online voices in the crowd clamoring for attention.

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Kurt Luther studies crowdsourced data analysis and ways to improve the authenticity of crowdsourced investigations. Part of Luther’s CAREER award is focused on developing a software platform called CrowdSleuth to be used in collaborations between crowds and experts such as journalists, historians, law enforcement, and researchers, as they attempt to discover new information and verify details of investigations.

Kurt Luther talking with a student at a whiteboard.

More immediately, Luther taught a class this past semester as part of his CAREER award called Investigative Technologies in Society. In the class, his graduate students from fields including computer science, sociology, and religion and culture demoed a wide array of crowdsourcing technologies that fight crime, complete research-oriented online tasks using novices and expert guidance, verify the integrity of photos, and of course, uncover the truth behind all those shark memes. Perhaps most pertinent were the discussions about the ethics of the ease of access of this new technology and the damage one individual can inflict upon another with the push of a button in online platforms.

As another superhero once said, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and Luther is certainly helping citizens of the 21st century wield the power of crowds to more effective — and responsible — ends.

Kurt Luther with students in a classroom discussion.

Do you think the increased use of crowdsourcing information is good, bad, or somewhere in between?

I think, as is often the case, the technological landscape has evolved much faster than our laws and social norms have.

On the one hand, many of us have shared personal information with companies and on social media platforms without really understanding the consequences. On the other hand, the tools for finding information and coordinating efforts online have become very powerful and available to almost anyone. Taken together, these developments mean that it’s never been easier for a person or a group to dig up information about someone else using primarily online resources.

Whether or not that’s good or bad depends on the critical question, “good or bad for whom?” In my teaching, I ask my students to become familiar with these tools and their capabilities, and we discuss the ethical considerations of being an investigator versus a target in different contexts. My lab is building tools to help expert investigators, like journalists and detectives, work with crowds of enthusiastic novices to guide their efforts towards productive outcomes.

Kurt Luther posing for a portrait.

In the future where do you see your research taking you?

I’m excited to further explore the complementary relationship between experts and crowds. Experts have deep knowledge and experience, but their time and effort is a limited resource. Crowds are often composed of novices, but they can often scale up to dozens or hundreds of people who can work in parallel. These strike me as complementary strengths in many ways. Right now we’re focusing on how experts can lead crowds for different types of investigations, such as identifying the names of people and places in historical and modern photos and videos. In the future, I can see expert-led crowdsourcing as a powerful model for many other types of tasks, for example, those requiring creativity or design work.

When you are not a crowd-sleuthing superhero, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Most people who know me or follow me online quickly learn that I’m a history buff. I enjoy reading history books and visiting Virginia’s many historic sites, and I write for a history magazine called Military Images. I also love hiking and camping in National Parks. This past summer I was lucky to visit several beautiful parks in Utah and North and South Dakota. I’m hoping to visit them all eventually.

What is the most surprising crowd-sleuthing technology you have recently come across?

My students and I have been inspired by TraffickCam, a mobile app which asks users to take photos of the hotel rooms they’re staying in. Those photos are then compared with photos of potential human trafficking victims in hotel rooms, to help identify their locations. I think it’s a powerful example of how crowd-sleuthing can be a force for good.


Qiang Li

Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Qiang Li in front of his lab microscope

While the rest of us use our smartphones and small electronic devices daily, Qiang Li is busy trying to improve their battery lives. He’s tackling the complex issue by reinventing the voltage regulators that feed power into devices, specifically into microprocessors. Li's proposed voltage regulator can dramatically reduce microprocessor power consumption to increase battery life by 50 percent or more.

In addition to working with 3-D printing methods and working to increase the frequency tenfold, Li is also collaborating with the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity to provide opportunities for K-12 students and underrepresented groups to learn about technologies typically only worked on by people with advanced degrees in power electronics. He will also use the NSF CAREER award grant to incorporate high-frequency power converter design into the department’s curriculum and offer professional development opportunities for power electronics industry engineers via short courses.

Qiang Li portrait standing up in his lab

What do you like about the field of electrical and computer engineering?

Electricity is almost everywhere in today’s world. In electrical engineering, I am able to design and build something that is very closely related to our daily life. In this field, I not only can enjoy discovering new knowledge, but also am able to use the new knowledge to create and design better devices/equipment to help improve quality of life.

What are some other outreach initiatives you will be conducting in conjunction with this grant?

I will try to offer a summer short course on High-Frequency Converters to Industry. I will also collaborate with the Virginia Tech Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED) to engage in outreach to students in K-12 and underrepresented groups.

Where do you see your research taking you in the future?

I will develop an independent research team focused on high-frequency integrated power converters for various applications, such as smartphones, computing, telecommunication equipment, and wearable electronics; form a collective and complementary research partnership with industry; promote multidisciplinary research collaboration by combining traditional power electronics research with research in other disciplines, such as material science, integrated circuit design, additive manufacturing, and microprocessor power management; integrate high-frequency converter research with the curriculum to help maintain the competitiveness of the U.S. power electronics workforce; and increase the attractiveness of the discipline of power electronics to underrepresented groups such as women and ethnic minority students.

When you are not reinventing the voltage regulator, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I enjoy spending time with my family, playing soccer, reading and watching movies.


Scott Verbridge

Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics

Scott Verbridge posting in his lab

As a medical diagnosis, brain cancer is as serious as it gets, particularly for patients suffering from glioblastoma. Known to doctors and researchers as the most aggressive type of brain cancer, glioblastoma has thus far proven unresponsive to traditional routes of treatment, including chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

Scott Verbridge wants to change that. With his NSF CAREER Award, he’ll work to develop innovative cancer treatments using the physical properties of the tumors themselves as effective alternative targets for new therapies.

Specifically, Verbridge plans to investigate fundamental cellular responses to pulsed electric fields, which have been used successfully to destroy tumors. These isolated electric pulses can be applied in combination with other complementary treatments for maximum impact. He hopes to identify synergistic effects of this innovative combined treatment approach that will ultimately benefit patients afflicted with glioblastoma.

Scott Verbridge talking with a graduate student who is on her laptop.

How did you get interested in researching tumor engineering?

I did my Ph.D. work in nanobiotechnology with a strong focus on nanophysics. Towards the end of this period, I was spending a lot of time trying to gain some more depth in my biological understanding, having come to realize that the most exciting applications of nano/micro tools would be in the life sciences. I came across some really fascinating cancer research (for example, Mina Bissell’s pioneering work) demonstrating just how important the “non-tumor” cells and tissues could be in cancer.

It intrigued me that there could be more going on than simply the mutations within the tumor cells themselves. For example, the physical characteristics of a tissue could impact cancer risk or aggressiveness. As I learned more about this field I found that there were a handful of tissue engineers who were using their tools not to build replacement tissues or organs, but to model tumor tissues for these sorts of studies.

My particular idea was to apply my nano/microengineering skills to this tissue engineering approach to be able to gain access to processes at the cellular or subcellular scales. I made contact with two researchers at Cornell (Claudia Fischbach and Abe Stroock) who were really pushing the boundaries in this field, and who were patient enough to basically let me start my training from scratch as a postdoc in their labs.

Scott Verbridge posing with graduate students

What do you like about the field of biomedical engineering and mechanics?

What I think is really fantastic about biomedical engineering in general, and even more so in our biomedical engineering and mechanics department at Virginia Tech, is the breadth of interdisciplinary thinking that the department encourages. Complex biomedical questions do not respect field boundaries. We study incredibly difficult real-world problems, and it is really unlikely that solutions to these sorts of problems can be found in any one specialty. So our department does a fantastic job bringing together researchers from engineering, physics, biology, medicine, computer science, etc. to tackle these problems. As a physicist with a deep interest in biology, my feeling is biomedical engineering was really the most welcoming fit for me. I think other new emerging fields could learn a lot from the way biomedical engineering departments have organized themselves.

Scott Verbridge's graduate students working in a lab.

Where do you see your research taking you in the future?

In the hopefully not-too-distant future, I’m really excited to see some of the collaborative brain cancer work we do actually advance to the point of helping people. As a very wise cancer researcher once told me, “we don’t study cancer because it’s interesting.”

My CAREER work will help my lab to develop tools and approaches to better understand the mechanisms of action and potential applications of this new class of pulsed electric field tumor ablation therapies that we’ve been working on. On the more translational side, a larger team involved in this work at Virginia Tech and the Wake Forest Comprehensive Cancer Center (Rafael Davalos in my department is one of the leaders of this project) is working to combine these ideas with several other novel approaches to brain cancer treatment, and we really think we’re on the verge of moving some of these approaches to the clinic in a 5-year timeframe.

Over the past 70+ years, for the highly aggressive form of brain cancer (glioblastoma) we focus on, there has been an average increase in patient life expectancy of only about one month per decade of research, so these advancements are desperately needed.

When you are not researching integrative tumor ecology, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I enjoy any excuse to be outside and disconnected. During my graduate and postdoc work I managed to sneak off fairly regularly for outdoor adventures, and even worked part time as a climbing instructor for the local Outdoor Education program. Unfortunately it’s become a lot harder as faculty to find time for that sort of thing, and my adventures tend to be more of the at-home sort. More recently I get my exercise playing with my nearly 6-month old baby boy Leonardo. I think his favorite thing is to enjoy music together. He loves dancing, and definitely already has his personal musical tastes. Our newest adventure is getting to try out real food — so far his favorite is avocado.

Emily Roediger, Amy Loeffler, Kelly Izlar, and Erica Corder contributed to this story.