McCormick Magazine

Tracing disease, assessing sensors, implementing design

These three new professors — all at the beginning of their careers — come to McCormick in hopes of teaching, researching, and collaborating their way to making a difference.


armbrusterTracing disease
When it comes to tracing the spread of infectious diseases like HIV, screening programs are by far the most common method of finding infected people. Benjamin Armbruster, assistant professor of industrial engineering and management sciences, wonders if another approach might be more effective. Contact tracing — interviewing infected people, learning who they might have infected, and then seeking out and testing those people — could be more beneficial, his research finds.

"I've looked at the costs and benefits and how it compares to a screening program and thought about how much effort you would want to put into tracing the disease," Armbruster says. "Though it has more costs, contact tracing could provide more benefits because it leads you right to the people who are most likely infected, as opposed to screening programs, which test everyone indiscriminately."

Armbruster comes to Northwestern from Stanford University, where he received his PhD and did his dissertation on contact tracing. "The benefit of contact tracing is that the people who have been in contact with the infected person are quite likely to be infected themselves," Armbruster said. "But there's definitely more cost involved. It takes time and resources to do the interviewing well, and infected people might be reluctant to tell you who they've been in contact with. It also might be difficult to find the people they've been in contact with, especially if you're looking at HIV, where you might want to go back a few months or years."

Nevertheless, Armbruster hopes to take his research even further and make the case for contact tracing of HIV cases in Africa. "Currently most people in Africa find out if they're infected through screening programs," he says. "As far as I know, nobody has done contact tracing or looked at whether this might be a worthwhile idea."

In addition, Armbruster hopes to look at other health care problems, such as gauging the effectiveness of antibiotic use in hospitals and mandatory tests for drug-resistant staph infections for ICU patients in Illinois (the result of a law that went into effect in 2008).

For now, however, Armbruster is focusing on teaching and getting to know Northwestern. "The IEMS department had a good reputation," he says, "and that reputation is absolutely true — everyone here is extremely nice. And I enjoy the students. It is extremely fun to teach."

oluwaseyiMeasuring materials
For Oluwaseyi Balogun, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering, McCormick was the place to be. "The excellent scholastic standards, research pedigree, and collaborative atmosphere are very attractive to me," says Balogun, whose research interests are in the areas of optical metrology and materials characterization. "I am truly excited to be in the midst of top-notch engineers and scientists."

Balogun first came to Northwestern as a postdoctoral fellow in 2007. When a position opened in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Balogun applied and found himself in a world where new ideas and interdepartmental collaborations abound. "It has really motivated me to expand my envelope of knowledge," he says. "Northwestern University has provided me with a unique opportunity to facilitate the continued development of reliable and sustainable engineering structures for high-performance applications through research."

Balogun and his graduate student are working to develop advanced optical tools to assess the structural integrity of engineering structures and predict their in-service reliability and performance.

He is currently developing an optical microscopy system that can be used for the noninvasive mapping of local mechanical and thermal properties in micro- and nanostructured materials used in microelectronic devices, high-temperature coating applications, sensors, and energy-storage devices. The microscopy system uses a laser source for the local generation and detection of thermoelastic waves. Through the measurement of the interaction of the thermoelastic waves with the surface and interior structure of a material, Balogun can determine the elastic and thermal properties with high precision, in addition to probing the internal structure of the material for various types of structural defects that may alter the expected physical behavior of the material.

Balogun is also interested in the application of the microscopy system for the mapping of deeply buried nanoscale defects in microelectronics devices. These defects may adversely affect the functional performance and reliability of these devices. At the moment, the characterization of deeply buried nanoscale structural defects in microelectronic devices remains a formidable challenge as the component density of these devices continues to increase.

While the optical microscopy system Balogun is developing is tailored for the characterization of small-scale structures, he is also interested in the development of optical sensors for monitoring the structural health of large-scale civil infrastructures including bridges, dams, and levies.

In the meantime, Balogun is collaborating with a faculty member at McCormick to develop optical fiber and ultrasonic sensors for monitoring the dynamic mechanical response of civil bridges. "The goal of this undertaking is to develop diagnostic and predictive tools for estimating the functional lifetime of aging civil infrastructures," he says. "This is a new and exciting area of research that directly impacts society."

liz gerberDesigning life
Liz Gerber's plan wasn't to be a professor — she wanted to be a designer. In fact, she worked as a designer for a toy company before going back to school to get a master's degree in product design at Stanford University.

But while at Stanford — the moment actually came while designing a laparoscopic suturing device — she found herself more interested in the psychology of the design process than the design itself.

"I had this 'Aha!' moment," she says. "As user-centered designers, we go and observe people and design a solution to their problem, but some individuals and teams are more effective at this process than others. I was more interested in how individuals and teams routinely innovate and the organizational context that supports practices leading to great designs. I went from, 'What's the human reaction to designed products?' to 'What's the human interaction in design processes?'"

So Gerber, now an assistant professor of mechanical engineering affiliated with the Segal Design Institute, spent the next several years studying the psychological experience of enacting design and innovative practices and researching how firms adopted design practices as a means to innovation — all while helping Stanford start up a new design school.

"The Stanford Institute of Design aimed to expand the design process to organizational issues and systems-level design. That's part of what drew me to Northwestern — to be part of an institution that's building something like the Segal Design Institute. Northwestern's proximity to Chicago, a center for improvisational theater and innovation, was also a draw," she says.

A young Gerber had also discovered Don Norman's books on everyday design and found his vision compelling, so the opportunity to work with him — which she will do when she coteaches a Service Design course with him this spring — was too good to pass up. She also saw McCormick as a place where she could apply her theoretical work. "Everybody designs in an engineering school," she says. "So it's a good place to develop theory informed by practice and practice informed by theory."

So far, Gerber has worked with other faculty on big-picture engineering ideas — like teaching freshmen sustainable design practices or exploring the idea that design engineers could engage in civic services like teachers do through the Teach for America program.

"I feel a moral imperative to give students an awareness of issues surrounding green design," she says. "Along the same lines, we're brainstorming with students about what a program would look like if designers and engineers worked in service to their community through participatory design. We're calling the program Design for America."

As a young female faculty member in an engineering school, Gerber also hopes to be a role model for female students. But most of all, Gerber hopes to find a way to inspire good design in all areas. "My vision is to create tools and practices so that everybody has a sense of creative confidence and the ability to design the world around them," she says.

—Emily Ayshford