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UC Office of Research Launches Sensor Grant Program With Two Awards

Of bats and (hu)mans: New seed grants bolster lab efforts to build life and world-changing technologies.

Date: 4/18/2017 12:00:00 AM
By: Elissa Yancey
Phone: (513) 556-4350
Photos By: Creative Commons

UC ingot  
A breath-test that sends warning signs of lung cancer. A robot-bat that improves the performance of drones and other unmanned aircrafts. At the University of Cincinnati, hundreds of researchers are developing and using sensor technology in unexpected and creative ways to tackle a world of human and logistical challenges.

That’s why this spring, for the first time ever, the university's Office of Research offered a new seed-funding opportunity for inspired and inspiring use of sensors. More than 100 researchers across all colleges at the university were eligible to apply for the $15,000 grants, which were specifically designed to support collaborations that stretched across colleges and disciplines. 

Two grant proposals that include faculty from four colleges were selected for the one-year program that is geared to help researchers prepare to apply for major external funding in the future.

“Sensor research is a great example of the kind of forward-focused investigations underway at the University of Cincinnati,” said Pat Limbach, vice president for research, Ohio Eminent Scholar and professor of chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences. “By its very nature, sensor research requires collaboration. We are proud to support both our faculty who are at the early stages of ground-breaking discoveries as well as their impressive cross-disciplinary team approaches.”

The two grants selected for first-round sensor seed grant funding are:

1. A new approach to lung-cancer diagnosis
What’s the problem? Lung cancer is the second-most common cancer and remains the most common cause of cancer death, according to National Cancer Institute. Early detection has the potential to save thousands of lives, but up until now, lung-cancer screenings have primarily been though CT scans, which themselves carry radiation risk.

Why sensors? Researchers know that lung cancer alters the chemicals exhaled in regular breathing, so a non-invasive breath-test that identifies cancer-influenced chemical combinations would offer a great advance toward early detection. Creating a sensor that can measure the kind and amount of specific chemicals in exhaled breaths could go a long way toward detecting early-stage lung cancer.

What’s so special? This research project is based both in a sensor lab and a clinical practice, which allows “bench” researchers to work with real patients (some diagnosed with lung cancer already, some at high-risk for developing it) to measure in real-time the chemicals that they exhale. This, in turn, gives clinical researchers an edge in developing guides for future lung cancer screening that is both non-invasive and accurate. 

Adding a clinical team to the project creates a dynamic collaboration through which research and action connect at the earliest stages of developing a system for effective screening.

The team
Anastasios P. Angelopoulos, PhD, associate professor, Department of Biomedical, Chemical and Environmental Engineering, College of Engineering and Applied Science

Jonathan Bernstein, MD, professor of clinical medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, Immunology and Allergy, College of Medicine

Saulius Kazimieras Girnius, MD, assistant professor of medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology, College of Medicine

2. How robo-bats could help shape the future of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)
What’s the problem? Currently, most research to help improve the performance of UAVs comes from simulations in labs, which are limited because they can’t predict the real-world challenges UAVs inevitably face. As UAVs are becoming more and more integral to both military and social systems, they are being pushed to do more and do more accurately, all while maintaining safety standards.

Why sensors? Biomedical sensor research on bats (and their incredible sonar capacities) offers extensive insights into how the mammals navigate treacherous terrains, operate in complete darkness and target prey in both those conditions. By partnering with biomedical researchers who focus on bat sonar, engineers can work to design and build sensors that are smarter, and smaller, to use as part of next-generation UAVs.
Bat sonar
Researchers look for answers in bats' sensory expertise

What’s so special? This grant connects researchers who specialize in bat echolocation (how they locate objects based on reflected sound) with researchers in mechanical, materials and electrical engineering, who work to build better UAVs. The resulting collaborative team combines vastly different approaches to research questions. That diversity of thought and expertise paves the way for innovative solutions to longstanding challenges in UAV development and success. 

The team
Fred R. Beyette, professor, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computing Systems, College of Engineering and Applied Science

Manish Kumar, associate professor, Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, College of Engineering and Applied Science

Dieter Vanderelst, assistant professor, Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, College of Engineering and Applied Science, with a joint appointment in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Biological Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences

“Collaborative research has been happening at UC for a very long time, but we have only more recently started to highlight and reward it on a regular basis,” said Philip H. Taylor, assistant vice president of strategic initiatives in UC’s Office of Research. “These seed grants help us bring together researchers who might not otherwise have the time or resources they need to develop world-changing projects. It’s our hope that with these starter funds, the researchers can get a jump-start on carrying their theories into practice.”