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Two UMBC Professors Win NSF CAREER Awards


Theodosia Gougousi (left) and Haijun Su, who uses virtual reality in his research, are UMBC's latest NSF CAREER award winners.

Two UMBC scientists were recently recognized as among the nation’s top young faculty in their fields by the National Science Foundation (NSF), receiving the NSF’s CAREER award, an honor that comes with five years of research funding and support.

Theodosia Gougousi, assistant professor of physics, is helping to find the next-generation hearts of consumer electronics. Haijun Su, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, uses 3-D virtual reality to make design innovations faster and cheaper for manufacturers.

Nano-scale Paving Stones

Without the expertise of physicists like Gougousi, beloved consumer electronics like iPhones, Blackberries and iPods would drain their batteries in half an hour. “Silicon-based technology has reached its limit,” Gougousi said. “Gallium Arsenide is a possible next-generation material." 

The Thessaloniki, Greece native studies the properties of nano-scale insulating materials suitable to integrate in Gallium-Arsenide-based transistors, a small but vital part of computer chips. The materials must be in the form of very thin films – 1,000 to 10,000 times thinner than human hair - and are made with a process she compares to building a patio at the atomic level.

“It’s somewhat like putting down paving stones to make a patio; we stack layers of atoms one on top of the other. Our stones and glue are organic molecules and water. Our goal is to understand the interactions of these materials at the atomic level and develop techniques to produce a dependable, good quality film.”

For Gougousi, the CAREER award is justification for years of effort, but more importantly, it provides an opportunity to focus more time in the lab, the classroom and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students.

“Show Me the Motion”
Su uses virtual reality to save companies real money. His particular passion is on the early design stages of small, precise machine parts that need almost human levels of flexibility and movement.

 “We use virtual reality, or VR, as a tool to design machine systems, especially those with flexible parts,” Su said. Su’s toolkit, known as the VR design environment, adds a crucial third dimension to early-stage design and prototyping.

“You need a lot of freedom to explore for the designer. Typical computer-aided design (CAD) software is bounded on a two dimensional screen and operated with a two dimensional mouse. So I say, okay, show me the motion.”

Su and his students use a virtual reality helmet, interactive glove and a pen-like gizmo known as a haptic device, which lets users feel a virtual prototype. Their goal is designing machine parts capable of precise - sometimes delicate - motions at the different scales.

His lab helps design complex and crucial parts for vehicles, robotics, precision or medical instruments, and even power tools.

“An example is the tip of a robot’s grasper arm in a factory assembly line,” said Su. “It has to be able to be flexible in order to accommodate errors. If it’s too rigid, it doesn’t work correctly.”

The key for Su’s lab is using VR to cut overall product development costs in the early, concept-design stage which itself costs little but is responsible for 75 percent of product development expenses. “The earlier you make changes, the more money you save,” Su said.

Su is honored by the CAREER award, and hopes it will enable him to spend time on another passion: educating the next generation of engineers. Hosting and teaching a two-week summer course for high school students was part of his award proposal.

Gougousi and Su are the latest in a growing number of UMBC faculty members to receive the prestigious NSF CAREER award. Half of the chemical and biochemical engineering faculty have received the honor, and since 2001, the university has had 12 honorees. 

Posted: April 3, 2009, 12:00 PM