McCormick Magazine

New faculty bring decades of experience, cross-disciplinary efforts


To remain at the top of its game, the McCormick School continues to pour resources into seeking out and recruiting top faculty from all areas of engineering. Over the past two years, 24 new faculty members have joined McCormick.

"New faculty invigorate the school and bring a new perspective on teaching and research," says Julio M. Ottino, dean of McCormick. "We know that they will provide valuable leadership and inspiration to the entire school."

The three recent hires featured here are senior faculty with distinguished careers already under their belts, and all three come to McCormick with the knowledge that innovation requires efforts that cross the boundaries of schools and departments.

Jack LinehanJack Linehan
While some professors seek connections across the University, Jack Linehan, professor of biomedical engineering and director of Northwestern's Center for Translational Innovation, is the connector.

Linehan, who was previously a consulting professor at Stanford University and was the founding chairman of the biomedical engineering department at Marquette University, says his experience with research, education, and administration make him well-suited to bring together researchers across disciplines.

While working for the Whitaker Foundation, Linehan was responsible for implementing and managing major biomedical engineering educational grant programs. There he realized that the most fascinating problems that biomedical engineers attempted to solve were at the interface of medicine and engineering. "Translational science is basic science but it's use-driven science," he says. "I recognized that if innovation was a process, it could be intellectualized and taught."

His interest in education, innovation, and motivation has allowed him to bring people with technical knowledge together, help them understand clinical needs, and go from idea to prototype to market. He will continue in that role as director of the Center for Translational Innovation.

"Coming to Northwestern was a unique opportunity: All the stars were in alignment to carry out such a program," Linehan says. "There was a great opportunity for me to come and build intellectual bridges between McCormick and the Feinberg School of Medicine."

The challenge in getting teams together isn't only a matter of money or resources, he says. "The main problem is time. Everybody is so busy that no one has time to go outside their labs and make the connections that will result in new collaborations to address unmet clinical needs in an innovative way."

One way Linehan hopes to get faculty members together is by creating experiential and cross-disciplinary courses that bring innovation into the classroom. "Faculty members are really interested in students," he says. "If you start talking about building a new course, they say, how can we bring it all together so it's exciting and enabling for the students?"

Chang LiuChang Liu
Chang Liu, who has a joint appointment as professor in both mechanical engineering and electrical engineering and computer science, says his goal is to build a research group that will produce cross-disciplinary researchers, products, and knowledge that benefit both the scientific community and the market. "I want to join different areas together," he says. "I believe that gives people a more diverse training and research experience, and today's complex problems require solutions across disciplines."

Liu comes to Northwestern from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and here he will continue to research his passion: sensors. Everyone is familiar with sensors that allow cameras to take pictures or recorders to record sound. But Liu wants to use sensors to create intelligent design systems. "What we envision is beyond today's knowledge and accomplishments," he says.

Liu studies biology for inspiration for both touch and flow sensors — areas that currently lack good sensors for recording and communicating the senses. For example, Liu is studying how fish use their lateral line of sensors to sense the flow of water around them.

"How do they know when there's a fish nearby to eat?" he asks. "How do they maneuver in a very tight space? How do they do this elegant maneuvering in a school?"

Every fish in the world has these sensors — but so far no manmade vehicle does. If a submarine had sensors that work as a fish's does, it could record much more information on water movement. Such flow sensors could also lead to better airplanes.

"I'm very interested in learning from biology," he says. "Biology has wonderful sensors."

Liu's research group is also developing artificial hair-cell sensors. Hair cells provide a variety of sensing abilities for different animals: They help humans hear, and they help insects detect vibration. By creating these hairs using microfabrication technology, Liu's group is increasing sensor performance while deepening the understanding of how different creatures use these sensors.

"I don't see my research as solving all the problems, but I think there is a very critical link that can unlock many engineering endeavors," he says.

Hani MahmassaniHani Mahmassani
Hani Mahmassani, recently appointed the William A. Patterson Distinguished Chair in Transportation, knows that modeling traffic and logistics networks doesn't just involve engineers — it requires economists, sociologists, computer scientists, and psychologists, as well.

That's one reason he took an appointment with civil and environmental engineering that included an affiliation with Northwestern's Transportation Center, an interdisciplinary research center, and a courtesy appointment in Kellogg's managerial economics and decision sciences department. "Northwestern has a very distinguished tradition in cross-disciplinary study of transportation," Mahmassani says. "It was one of the first to take that approach and has maintained it over the years."

Mahmassani comes to McCormick from the University of Maryland, where he was the founding director of the Maryland Transportation Initiative and first holder of the Charles Irish Sr. Chair in Transportation Engineering. He spent the first 20 years of his career on the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin.

His specialty is modeling traffic and logistics networks and using real-time information — through wireless location and communication devices, vehicle sensors, and variable displays — to give drivers information about traffic in the area and enable system managers to optimally operate their networks and distribution systems. Most people deal with traffic and transit networks on a daily basis, often confronting a problem Mahmassani would like to solve — the "breakdown phenomenon," or a traffic jam.

It's not as simple as telling people there's traffic up ahead. Rather than telling drivers current information, which could change by the time the driver gets there and which drivers often ignore, Mahmassani says the best models predict what sort of traffic to expect down the road. "What makes transportation systems unique is that everything having to do with transportation ultimately goes back to people," he says. "Human decision making is a central element in what I do."

Mahmassani has developed algorithms that help route the flow of traffic and optimize performance in a traffic system. He has developed an evacuation model currently used by the Federal Highway Administration and is currently working on a project funded by the National Science Foundation looking at how traffic patterns work under extreme conditions. Mahmassani and his PhD students are also developing advanced methodologies to evaluate and enable "congestion pricing," which charges drivers for using certain lanes, and how that pricing can be used in conjunction with other network management tools. In addition, he is actively engaged in developing tools for more efficient intermodal freight transportation and logistics to support decision making at both strategic and operational levels.

So when Mahmassani comes to a traffic jam himself, what does he do? "I try to behave as a driver in ways that are efficient," he says — in other words, not needlessly slowing down to rubberneck. "But I get frustrated like everybody else."

—Emily Ayshford