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The Great Intersection™: Systems

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Our most pressing problems involve vast amounts of information and multiple agents in a dizzying range of domains. Systems research offers a way to understand our world and the interactions that shape it.  

Rewiring nature’s building blocks to solve global challenges

rewiringThe goals are lofty: develop low-cost energy solutions, design new ways to fight cancer, and create advanced materials. Armed with a new approach to engineering biological systems, a growing cohort of early-career chemical and biological engineering professors at McCormick is using synthetic biology as a way to solve global challenges and inspire a new generation of engineers.

“We’ve each come to synthetic biology as an approach that enables us to take on big problems in new ways,” says Josh Leonard, assistant professor. “We each bring unique capabilities, and as our numbers grow, we’re building new collaborations and a new synergy here at Northwestern.”

Synthetic biology is a broad term for the design and construction of new types of biological systems that can be used in health care, energy, technology, and materials. For example, Leonard is developing cell-based devices that can be programmed to create customized therapeutics. In one project he engineers protein-based sensors to detect molecules produced by tumors; he then engineers cells to use these sensors to locate tumors and produce proteins that activate the body’s immune defense system against them. In related projects he is developing “smart” vaccines, treatments for chronic autoimmune diseases, and bacteria-based therapeutics.

Michael Jewett, assistant professor, takes a different approach. He uses cell-free systems (which activate complex biological processes without using intact, living cells) to achieve an unencumbered platform for activating, controlling, and modifying the infrastructure of biology. The work being done by Jewett—who has received the Young Faculty Award from DARPA, the Agilent Career Early Professor Award, and a Packard Foundation fellowship—could play a role in making lifesaving therapeutics, sustainable chemicals, and novel materials, both quickly and on demand.

Jewett and Leonard were joined last year by Keith Tyo, assistant professor, who studies cells’ metabolic networks to synthesize new materials (drugs, therapeutics, and fuels from cheap and renewable materials) and engineer new kinds of sensors (such as cell-based diagnostic devices for the developing world). Tyo recently received a synthetic biology grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He is also involved in a project with the Chicago Biomedical Consortium, working with neuroscientists and biologists at the University of Chicago and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to develop novel methods to measure how and when brain neurons fire.

Last winter assistant professor Neda Bagheri joined Jewett, Tyo, and Leonard . Bagheri uses control theory to understand complex regulatory networks governing cancer development, immune function, and circadian biology. Now, these faculty members are pushing each other to consider how their separate research areas can complement one other and spur on further discoveries.

In addition to pursuing research, the group aims to inspire a new generation of synthetic biologists. Members advise undergraduate teams in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, in which students are given a kit of biological parts and charged with building synthetic biology systems. This year’s team developed an E. coli biosensor to detect the presence of pathogens in hospitals and on medical equipment. Its project earned the Best Model Award at the Americas’ regional competition, allowing the team to advance to the world championships. 

“We get to work with undergraduate students and be part of their discovery process,” Jewett says. “The ideas are theirs, the project is theirs, and we get to help them choose good problems.”

These four young McCormick faculty members have growing reputations: they have won key fellowships, hosted conferences, and testified before Congress, and more and more graduate students are coming to the department to study synthetic biology with them. “The environment here at McCormick allows us to bring the right pieces together—not only to see what people do well but also to seek new connections along new interfaces,” Jewett says. “That really breaks down barriers and affords new opportunities for serving society in revolutionary ways.”  

Using analytics to deploy car charging stations

KlabjanAfter a few starts and stops, electric cars finally seem to be catching on: projections show that by 2015, a million electric vehicles will be on US roads. But drivers of electric vehicles often have a limited choice of charging stations, and as a result they experience what is called “range anxiety” when they get close to current batteries’ 100-mile limit. Finding the right spots to place charging stations is key to wider use of electric cars.

Diego Klabjan, associate professor of industrial engineering and management sciences, is using innovative analytical methodologies to solve this problem. Working with the Chicago Area Clean Cities Coalition and other partners, he looks at several factors to determine charging locations, including where and how people drive, where potential electric vehicle drivers might live, and where these drivers might want to spend their time while their cars charge. Klabjan analyzes the data using discrete-choice modeling to chart demand, create optimization techniques to find the best locations, and run simulations to assess system performance. Eventually his results will drive a web-based decision support software application so users can choose locations based on investment budget, electrical power-grid, geographic, and infrastructure constraints.

“My goal is to see this type of decision making adopted across the United States,” he says. “It’s data driven and will save a substantial amount of time deploying charging stations.”  

Teaching computers to think like humans

teaching computersArtificially intelligent computing isn’t as foreboding as some science fiction would have it. In fact, as Kenneth Forbus sees it, intelligent computers won’t be our enemies at all. “They’ll be like dogs,” he says. “They’ll love us.”

For Forbus, the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, now is a great time to be a computer scientist interested in artificial intelligence. As computing power increases radically, Forbus is at the leading edge of creating software that thinks like humans.

Forbus is armed with a secret weapon: his collaborator (and wife), Dedre Gentner, the Alice Gabrielle Twight Professor in Northwestern’s psychology department. Their partnership has led to cognitive simulations of analogical reasoning and learning that explain aspects of human cognition, including high-level vision, problem solving, and conceptual change. Their collaboration has enabled Forbus to create the educational software CogSketch, which understands and gives feedback based on students’ sketches. Forbus is also building a new model of minds called Companion Cognitive Systems. Companions are intended to act as collaborators, helping their human users work through complex arguments by gathering new information and adapting to and learning about their environment and users.

“Modeling how people think computationally is tremendously fun,” Forbus says.