Research and Innovation
Discovery at Northeastern transcends traditional academic boundaries, energized by global partnerships that accelerate the development of solutions with the broadest reach.
Model of influence
Alessandro Vespignani, the Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor of physics, computer sciences, and health sciences, has been leading a global consortium of 60 academic centers that is forecasting the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in real time for policymakers around the world. Vespignani and his team at the Laboratory for the Modeling of Biological and Socio-technical Systems were among a group of researchers who advised the White House in the spring to adopt strict mitigation measures to slow the pandemic in the United States. Among several breakthrough findings, Vespignani, director of Northeastern’s Network Science Institute, estimated that the virus was circulating in major U.S. cities in January, long before Americans perceived it as a threat.
A breathalyzer for coronavirus
Gas-sensing technology created by Nian Sun, professor of electrical and computer engineering, can analyze the chemistry of airborne particles, including SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Much like an alcohol breathalyzer test, it gives results in seconds. Sun has previously devised sensors to detect explosives, illegal drugs, and biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease and lung cancer. His prototype is as effective in detecting the coronavirus as the gold-standard polymerase chain reaction test, he says. He and a collaborator are now conducting more tests in people and applying for emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Pandemic takes mental health toll
The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a heavy toll on our mental health, according to a national survey led by Northeastern and three collaborating universities. In the survey, which polled more than 18,000 U.S. residents in May, more than 27 percent describe symptoms suggesting depression ranging from moderate to severe. That figure is more than three times higher than what is normally observed in large nationwide surveys, says University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer Sciences David Lazer, a study co-author. Concerns about health, financial stability, job loss, and education all ranked higher among nonwhite respondents.
Gauging a person’s emotional state from their facial movements without any additional context is futile, reports University Distinguished Professor of Psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett. She and four colleagues spent two years reviewing hundreds of past experiments and studies to test the commonly held belief that facial expressions of emotion are universal. The fact that a face does not speak for itself when it comes to emotion is not new, she says. “What’s new here is that we’re showing that the evidence has never suggested facial expressions were universal, despite claims by many companies—and even some scientists.”
In the largest study linking gun ownership and suicide to date, a team of researchers including senior author Matt Miller, professor of health sciences, found that handgun owners were nearly four times more likely to die by suicide than those who did not own handguns. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, was based on 12 years of data from California, where gun licensing is mandatory. The findings held true even when controlling for demographics such as gender, age, and race. Citing a robust body of research along with the California study, Miller warned in a June 11 New York Times op-ed that Americans’ easy access to guns—mixed with COVID-related stress, isolation, and unemployment—could form “a deadly brew.”
in research expenditures in 2019–2020, nearly triple the 2006 total
research funding awards of $1M+ since 2006
When Jessica Davis joined Northeastern’s Network Science Institute in 2017, she never dreamed she’d be working with NetSI director Alessandro Vespignani and his world-class team to model the course of a pandemic for global policymakers. Ratcheting up her computational and data analysis skills, she studied the impact of various factors—travel bans, transit patterns, school closings—on the spread of SARS-CoV-2. By June, Davis had co-published four papers, explained her findings to public health experts and journalists, and uncovered a potential focus for her dissertation. “My parents worry: Will this delay my PhD?” she says with a smile. “But these experiences are invaluable.”
Xuezhu Cai came to Northeastern in 2015 to earn a research doctorate in bioengineering in Boston, the heart of the biotech industry—and it’s paid off. Fascinated by neurodegenerative diseases, she published research linking Parkinson’s disease to brain injury, circadian rhythms, and damage to the brain’s waste-draining glymphatic system. In 2018, on an internship at Sanofi Genzyme, Cai studied diseases using data-rich imaging techniques. Through a Northeastern certificate program called LEADERs—short for Leadership Education Advancing Discovery through Embedded Research—she led a project at Merck focused on digitized, “high content” tissue imaging. With certificates in programming, machine learning, and AI also under her belt, she’ll join Merck in 2021, using computational tools to cast light on biological processes.
Jose Zamora Orellana finds beauty in uncertainty. He’s fascinated by quantum science: How things behave unpredictably at a micro level. “As electrons flow through computer chips, they seem to teleport,” says this PhD student in mathematics. “We need to crack the code of this randomness and exploit it.” Orellana, born to Ecuadorian immigrants, has another goal of which he’s sure: expanding the universe of mentors for students from underrepresented groups, like himself, entering STEM fields. Having come to Northeastern on an National Science Foundation STARS Fellowship, which funds doctoral studies for these groups, he sees his future in nurturing their talent. “Too many see math as an elite, secret language,” he says. “I want to change that.”
increase since 2010 in the percentage of applicants admitted to PhD programs who then enroll
increase in competitive NSF Graduate Fellowships awarded to our PhD students since 2016
A deeper pool for discovery
The Institute for Experiential AI, launched by Northeastern in 2019, is designed to harness the power of human-AI collaboration to achieve breakthroughs that neither people nor intelligent machines can accomplish alone. The institute will focus this human-centered approach to solve problems in health, security, and sustainability. Faculty will work across disciplines, from computing and materials science to design, law, and ethics. And they will partner with industry, government, and nongovernmental organizations to develop new AI technologies.
Professor of Chemical Engineering
Fellow, American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering
Auguste pursues the development of new biomaterials that can make drug delivery and targeting more precise to advance the fight against diseases such as breast cancer. Her election as a Fellow is among the highest professional distinctions in her field.
Thomas P. O’Neill Chair of Public Life
Fellow, American Society of Criminology
Brunson is a renowned expert in criminal justice and policing whose research focus includes police-community relations and youth violence. He is recognized for his scholarly contributions to the field, which have informed criminal justice policy and crime control practices.
University Distinguished Professor and William Lincoln Smith Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Distinguished Fellow, International Electronics and Technical Institute
Harris, an engineer, scientist, inventor, and entrepreneur, is recognized for his distinguished accomplishments in electrical and computer engineering and global leadership in the field of microwave materials and device technologies.
Levendis engineers solutions for protecting the environment, from developing new energy products to devising ways to make cleaner fuels. He is honored for the societal and economic impact of his inventions and recognized for his standing in the chemical sciences.
Sun develops novel magnetoelectric sensors, antennas, and devices. He has designed gas sensors to help spot illegal drugs and explosives, and, most recently, to detect the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The prestigious Humboldt Research Award will enable Sun to study new materials for magnetic field sensors at Kiel University and several other universities in Germany.
Thai is a historian of modern China whose interdisciplinary studies focus on understanding the interplay between law, economics, and diplomacy. His fellowship will support research at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study while he’s working on a new book exploring underground economies in Greater China during the Cold War.
Van Pelt’s research and scholarship focuses on helping healthcare providers cope with the effects of a catastrophic surgical event—during anesthesia, surgery, or recovery. She is recognized among an esteemed group of nursing leaders in education, management, practice, and research.
faculty earned awards for early career achievement, including five National Science Foundation CAREER Awards
nationally for undergraduate and graduate entrepreneurship programs in Entrepreneur Magazine and Princeton Review
Understanding what we eat
In 2019, Albert-László Barabási, the Robert Gray Dodge Professor of Network Science at the Khoury College of Computer Sciences, co-founded Foodome, a company that harnesses data and network science to study food and help commercial brands and consumers prioritize healthier dietary choices. Foodome will study nutritional components beyond the 150 regulated by the USDA, a minute fraction of an estimated 20,000. Barabási and his collaborators aim to better understand what they call the “dark matter of nutrition.” His team of health and food industry professionals includes Peter Ruppert, Foodome’s co-founder and interim CEO; chief food scientist Megan Fisklements; and advisor Joseph Loscalzo, physician-in-chief at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Promoting urban mobility
In fifth grade, Madison Rifkin created a retracting bike lock through her school’s invention program and won two patents. At the D’Amore–McKim School of Business, she’s the founder and CEO of Mount, an Internet of Things company that helps scooter- and bike-sharing companies manage their fleets—and avoid pileups and theft—by coupling a smart locking system to a data collection platform. Tapping student-led venture accelerator IDEA and product-development studio Generate for help, Rifkin further developed Mount on a co-op at the College of Engineering’s Michael J. and Ann Sherman Center for Engineering Entrepreneurship Education. Rifkin, who will graduate in 2021, envisions capturing data from small electric vehicles that use Mount locks to help cities identify high-volume areas, and to inform infrastructure, insurance policies, and regulations that support micro-mobility.
Recycling mining waste
Mining generates 172 billion tons of waste per year worldwide. To extract value from this toxic sludge, Nick Myers, MBA’17, has founded Phoenix Tailings. The company has developed a proprietary technology to sustainably “re-mine” aluminum, iron, and the rare earth metals essential for making cellphones, radar systems, and other devices. With their zero-carbon emissions solution, CEO Myers and team—including Elizabeth Cline, E’20, Richard Salvucci, E’13, and Riddhi Samtani, SSH’19—also aim to reduce U.S. dependence on metals imported from Asia.