Engineering a new Ph.D. program

A. Sue Weisler

The first class of students in the new Ph.D. program came to RIT from all over the world. Pictured above seated left to right are: Shitij Kumar, India; Chaitanya Mahajan, India; Pruthvik Raghupathi, India; and Bret Minnehan, New Hampshire. Standing left to right are: Mariela Rodriguez Adames, Dominican Republic; Behzad Bahrami, Iran; and Fatemeh Shah Mohammadi, Iran.

Mariela Rodriguez Adames is improving electrophotography, a core technology for 3D printing, paving the way for better systems to produce wearable sensors or even human tissue engineering.

Bret Minnehan is trying to get computers to “see” the world through object tracking, and his work could give rescue workers an advantage as they search through debris in disaster areas.

Pruthvik Raghupathi is studying bubbles—the serious work behind fluid dynamics associated with fuel cells. Managing this means higher performance in electronic devices well beyond the automotive industry.

All three are in the first class of RIT’s seventh and newest doctoral program, a Ph.D. in engineering. Approved by the New York State Department of Education last spring, the Ph.D. was one of the first new degree programs green-lighted after the university completed its semester conversion process. The Kate Gleason College of Engineering launched its newest doctoral program this fall with three women and seven men, a group of researcher-entrepreneurs who will focus on solving problems of national and global significance, specifically in the crucial areas of health care, communications, energy and transportation.

“What else can you think of that is a big picture, societal problem that doesn’t fall into one of those areas?” said Harvey Palmer, dean of the Kate Gleason College of Engineering. “More and more often now the areas of greatest significance are crossing boundaries of the traditional disciplines.

“When it comes to research, you are looking at areas that are the greatest interest, that require perspectives coming from a variety of disciplines. We want our students to recognize that whatever they are choosing to do, it cannot be thought of in a narrowly-defined way,” he said.

The global problems the doctoral students will tackle are as varied and multi-dimensional as developing alternative energy resources, improving transportation and communications infrastructure and advancing medicine. The latter includes advances from an equipment or systems perspective to biomedical breakthroughs like tissue for replacement organs “engineered” with an individual’s own cells, cultured in a lab, then “built” using a 3D printer—breakthroughs that could be seen in this lifetime.

“We have a unique opportunity to redefine doctoral education in engineering in the U.S. and globally,” said Edward Hensel, the college’s associate dean of research and graduate studies and program director for the Ph.D. “We can’t solve all the world’s problems, but if we can solve problems in these four domains, we are going to have an impact. We talked to many of our industry partners. Just like we have strong industrial partnerships at the undergraduate and master’s levels, we’re maintaining that at the doctoral level.”

Big picture

One of the things Hensel and the degree development team learned from industrial partners is even though companies are hiring promising Ph.D. graduates with a remarkable depth of knowledge, these experts in their narrow field of research often fail to effectively communicate what they are doing with either other members of their research group or corporate management. They also can’t adequately explain the importance of their work to other people, such as policymakers.

Core courses in the program will start to address those needs. Initial course work in interdisciplinary research methods will guide students in managing their research scope and provide this new breed of doctoral student with insights into some of the big- picture questions they will encounter as they begin their research.

This is the foundation of what the American Academy of Arts and Sciences calls “transdisciplinary” work: The intersection of engineering disciplines—electrical, mechanical or industrial engineering, for example—with comprehensive subject matter such as business and public policy.

“We’ll be partnering with the College of Liberal Arts and the public policy program to explore how public policy impacts what engineers do, and how do engineers influence public policy,” Hensel said.

Students in the application domains will be translating discovery into practice in energy, transportation, communications and health care and looking at these practices through the lens of national and global perspectives of what’s important to that domain.

Part of the coursework includes reviews of the strategic plans for the U. S. departments of transportation, energy and health and human services.

“These are the greatest minds at the top of our nation’s government that are saying, this is the future of where the nation needs to go,” Hensel explained. “Our students are going to understand those documents are what set the agenda in the future for the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Our students are going to understand, as government evolves, that’s where policy comes from.”

Throughout their studies, the students also will consider how their solutions and information could be turned into products or services.

They’ll have access to the National Science Foundation’s I-Corp program, an entrepreneurial initiative to support faculty in bridging research to product development.

RIT’s program, led by Richard DiMartino, director of the Simone Center for Student Innovation and Entrepreneurship, will be just one of the many ways the students will wrap traditional research around innovation.

In a world where daunting problems will not be solved in one-dimensional silos or departments, unparalleled technical strength in one’s discipline will be enhanced by being familiar with the contributing roles of other disciplines, understanding how to solve those problems in the context of public policy and having a clear commitment to professional ethics.

“Policy is what informs research, so if as engineers we want to influence what’s happening in 2040, we better make sure our voices are heard by those policymakers today,” said Hensel. “Engineers influence policy in the very long term, and in the short term, policy influences engineers and what we do today.”

Solving problems

Rodriguez Adames ’08, ’10, who is from the Dominican Republic, has master’s degrees from RIT in industrial engineering and print media.

When she is not juggling family responsibilities, including raising a 4-year-old and 2-year-old twins, Rodriguez Adames is in the Printing Research and Imaging Systems Modeling Laboratory in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, working on the intricacies of electrophotography.

She sees the degree program as a way to expand her knowledge of this evolving industry and her opportunities for a career in it after graduation.

“This degree has a broader scope. It also means I can be interdisciplinary, more creative and more me in terms of what I am interested in,” said Rodriguez Adames. “This will get me more into the R&D area that I like.”

Her current work is in 3D printing by electrophotography, the underlying technology used in laser printers and copiers. Her work on improving the processing capabilities and system configurations in print technologies could impact and further the growth of these systems in the field of 3D printing, also referred to as additive manufacturing.

In traditional printing, ink particles are fused onto paper. But with 3D printing, new materials are being sought to print wearable sensors, consumer products, medical devices and in tissue engineering, for example.

“It’s interesting how your skills, your knowledge and your research and interests can be applied to different industries,” said Rodriguez Adames. “Trying to explain research to people about 3D printing is hard. What I explain to people is, I want to make a difference, and right now this is the place that is offering me that opportunity. My research could be the basis for tissue engineering, things like that. And those are things that can make a difference.”

Minnehan also wants to make a difference, but with unmanned aircraft, or drones. His work, which he started as an undergraduate, involves using unmanned aircraft to build a map in disaster areas to enable turn-by-turn directions for people on the ground trying to get through debris.

Eventually, Minnehan would like to teach at a university, but he expects to go into industry for several years and participate in a company’s research and development department.

“One of the exciting things about this degree program is that there are all sorts of different engineering majors in the program that we can work with,” he said. “It’s not a competitive atmosphere.”

All of the doctoral students are working with the engineering college’s most prominent faculty. Raghupathi’s work with Satish Kandlikar, professor of mechanical engineering and a top researcher in the field of fuel cell technology, involves developing a fundamental understanding of boiling mechanisms to help create surface enhancements, which improve heat transfer.

This has applications in many fields, including power generation, cooling of high heat flux devices used in space, cryogenic heat exchangers and water desalination.

He said he chose the engineering Ph.D. program for its focus on application-based, collaborative research.

“Developing sustainable, environmentally-friendly energy sources is one of the biggest challenges of the current generation,” he said, “and I hope to contribute toward the solution in the future.”

Meet the faculty

Several engineering faculty will coordinate the student work being done and act as advisers in the four application domains:

Andres Kwasinski will lead the communications domain. The associate professor of computer engineering is an expert in the area of electrical power generation, distribution systems, wireless networks and signal processing. His current research project is in alternative energy resources for wireless base stations, primarily on how to adapt the cellular traffic going through a base station and increase the use of renewable energy to power the base station. Students in the communications (telecommunications) track will leverage and expand ongoing research in wireless communications, signal processing and control, high performance and reliable architecture, resilient and secure systems and global networks, and emerging multi-media systems.

Brian Landi ’02, ’06 (chemistry, microsystems), associate professor of chemical engineering, will lead the energy domain. He also is group leader in the Nano Power Research Lab, and his work focuses on lithium ion batteries, particularly energy conversion, transmission and storage capacity for this next-generation technology. Students in the energy track will be engaged in both basic and applied research to realize sustainable solutions to society’s energy needs, including technology challenges in the area of energy collection, conversion, storage, distribution, control and consumption.

Iris Asllani, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, heads the Integrated Neuro-Imaging Lab and focuses on the development of multi-modal fMRI methods for applications in neuroscience and clinical research. She also has a focus on incorporating biomedical engineering applications to improve health-care delivery in the developing world. Students in the health-care track will apply fundamental knowledge of their respective engineering disciplines to advance technological boundaries essential to improve care for the aging, develop enhanced imaging systems and create assistive technologies and new methodologies to diagnose and treat diseases and to optimize the delivery and quality of health-care processes and services.

Agamemnon Crassidis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering. His experience is in aeronautic navigation and sensor systems. He is also RIT’s representative on NUAIR, a consortium of universities and companies recently selected as one of six test sites for unmanned aircraft systems in the U.S. Students in the transportation track will address issues including next- generation vehicle systems, transportation infrastructure, innovative distribution systems for goods and people, safety and security and optimal strategies for vehicle routing and logistics.

Becoming a research university

The creation of the doctoral program in engineering marks the seventh Ph.D. program at RIT. This past spring, 29 graduates earned their doctorates— the most in RIT’s history. This increase will soon elevate RIT from a “master’s university” to a “national research university” by the Carnegie Foundation. The other Ph.D. programs are:

  • Imaging science (1990). Imaging science uses fundamental physics and mathematics to address questions about every aspect of systems and techniques that are used to create, perceive, analyze, optimize and learn from images.
  • Microsystems engineering (2002). The program provides a foundation to explore future technology through research in nano-engineering, design methods and technologies and their integration into micro- and nano-scaled systems.
  • Computing and information sciences (2006). The program is designed to produce independent scholars, educators and researchers in computing and interdisciplinary academic, industrial or government environments.
  • Color science (2007). Color science research at RIT encompasses fields such as medical data visualization, computer graphics and animation, art conservation, spectral and spatial measurements of materials and color printing.
  • Astrophysical sciences and technology (2008). The program focuses on the underlying physics of phenomena beyond the Earth and in the development of the technologies, instruments and data analysis that will enable the next strides in the field.
  • Sustainability (2008). The program focuses on sustainable production systems—systems that create goods and services using processes that are non-polluting, conserving of energy and natural resources.

The engine of new ideas

Businesses need new ideas for products or services to remain competitive. Universities and their research facilities, faculty and students remain businesses’ chief resources for new ideas. Obtaining funding for these new products often comes from a variety of sources, including research grants and corporate research and development support.

Prior to the launch of its Ph.D. in microsystems in 2002, the engineering college had less than $500,000 per year in external grant support. By comparison, from 2009-2012 the college averaged more than $6 million per year in external grant support. Today, the Kate Gleason College of Engineering is responsible for more than 15 percent of RIT’s total external funding, compared to only 4 percent in 2001. The Ph.D. program in microsystems marked a shift in the mission of the engineering college to better integrate research and knowledge creation as a key component of its academic portfolio. A similar shift is expected with this newest Ph. D. program.