Columbia Engineering Announces Blavatnik Awardees

The First Three Research Acceleration Fund Winners and Five Inaugural Doctoral Fellows are Named

Jun 05 2018 | By Joanne Hvala | Photo Credits: Blavatnik, Juchem: Timothy Lee Photographers | Vaughan, Vunjak-Novakovic: Jeffrey Schifman | Hielscher, Kymissis: Eileen Barroso

Columbia Engineering has announced the three winning research proposals that are the first to receive support from the Blavatnik Acceleration Funds to providing funding to interdisciplinary research aimed at accelerating the transition of early stage ideas and later stage research to the marketplace.  In addition, five inaugural Blavatnik Doctoral Fellows, whose research is at the intersection of engineering and health, were announced.  Both initiatives are funded by $10 million gift to the School from The Blavatnik Family Foundation. An active philanthropist, Len Blavatnik and The Blavatnik Family Foundation have been generous supporters of many cultural, educational, and charitable institutions.

Len Blavatnik, head of The Blavatnik Family Foundation.

“We had a very strong pool of proposals for the Blavatnik Acceleration Funds and a similarly robust group of contenders for the Blavatnik Doctoral Fellows,” said Mary C. Boyce, Dean of Columbia Engineering. “We are deeply grateful to The Blavatinik Family Foundation, and to alumnus Len Blavatnik, for their support of interdisciplinary research that furthers our vision of Engineering for Humanity.”

The three winning teams are Professors Christoph Juchem and J. Thomas Vaughan, who will use magnetic resonance spectroscopy to explore multiple schlerosis (MS); Professors Andreas Hielscher and Ioannis Kymissis, who, along with Dr. Dawn Hershman and Prof. Theanne Spiros, are developing an innovative wearable monitor for breast cancer chemotherapy; and Professor Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, whose late-stage research in regenerating acutely injured lungs for transplantation has the potential to substantially increase the donor pool.  

The Blavatnik Acceleration Funds focus on providing seed funding to foster interdisciplinary research at the critical early stage where many breakthrough ideas are found at the intersection of different engineering fields and at the nexus of engineering and medicine

The winning projects are:    

  • Christoph Juchem, associate professor in biomedical engineering and radiology, and J. Thomas Vaughan, director of Magnetic Resonance Research, were selected for their proposal, “Integrated Multi-Coil B0 and Radio-Frequency Technology for 1H Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy of Cervical Spine Pathology in Multiple Sclerosis.”  With their new collaboration, they aim to establish the biomedical analysis of the human spinal cord with in vivo magnetic resonance spectroscopy in order to investigate the pathological processes early in the development of MS disability and find diagnostic biomarkers for early identification and guided treatment.
  • Andreas Hielscher, professor with joint appointments in electrical engineering and radiology, and Ioannis Kymissis, associate professor of electrical engineering, were chosen for their proposal: “Wearable Optical Brassiere for Breast Cancer Therapy Monitoring.” The overall goal of this proposal is to develop a brassiere that contains source and detectors for monitoring the effects of breast cancer treatment during neoadjuvant chemotherapy (NACT). The project builds on expertise and previous efforts in the Hielscher and Kymissis laboratories. In addition, their team also includes Dr. Dawn Hershman from Columbia’s Departments of Medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology and Theanne Spiros, assistant professor at New York Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, University Professor and Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Professor of Medical Sciences, was selected for her translational research proposal: “Regeneration of Acutely Injured Human Lungs for Transplantation.” Vunjak-Novakovic described her project, “Our goal is to increase the pool of donor lungs for transplantation, which is the only definitive treatment for patients with end-stage lung disease, by recovering the acutely injured lungs. We learned that the gas exchange in these rejected lungs needs to be improved by just 10 to 20%, and that the injury is largely located in the airway, and that blood supply is critical for lung survival and function. We went on to develop a highly innovative, imaging-based technology for targeted cell therapy of the injured regions of the lung, while preserving intact lung vasculature and surrounding lung tissue. To allow time for cell therapy, we also developed a cross-circulation technology that extends the support of lungs ex vivo from hours to days. The project will allow us to start translating this technology, and to develop a protocol for clinical studies, in collaboration with our colleagues at Columbia Medical Center.”

Left: Christoph Juchem. Right: J. Thomas Vaughan.

Left: Andreas Hielscher. Right: Ioannis Kymissis

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic.

These doctoral students represent the next generation of Columbia Engineering talent...We look forward to seeing where their research leads and to how their discoveries will benefit humanity.

Shih-Fu Chang
Senior Executive Vice Dean, Columbia Engineering

Blavatnik Doctoral Fellows

The five first-year PhD students who form the first cohort of Blavatnik Doctoral Fellows represent the fields of biomedical engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.

Ethan Bendau, graduate physics major from City College of New York, completed his honors thesis, “Early Detection of Triple Negative Breast Cancer Using Multiphoton Spectroscopy and Raman Spectroscopy.”  He will continue his research in biomedical optics as a graduate student in biomedical engineering.

John Durel, a University of Virginia graduate, will also join the doctoral program in biomedical engineering. He is interested in research that seeks to characterize diseased and healthy tissue environments in order to design and deploy novel interventions that harness natural tissues’ own inherent behaviors and properties.

First-year doctoral student Sitara Persad will join the computer science department this fall. She was awarded a national scholarship from Trinidad and Tobago to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), from which she graduated with a double major in mathematics and computer science, and where she conducted research in RNA structure biology. Her research interests lie at the intersection of computational biology and machine learning, particularly in Bayesian inference.

Caleb Tullass will join Electrical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering Professor Ken Shepard’s Bioelectronic Systems Lab as an electrical engineering PhD student.  A graduate of Brown University, he completed a BS in electrical engineering and an honors thesis on a prototype for untethered primate eye orientation tracking. His research interests include mixed-signal circuit design, implantable devices, and neuroengineering.  

Erin Louwagie will enroll in the mechanical engineering doctoral program.  A graduate of the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, she has worked on several research projects, including a device to improve lateral flow assay diagnosis and an assistive robot to aid individuals with upper extremity disabilities.

 “These doctoral students represent the next generation of Columbia Engineering talent,” said Shih-Fu Chang, Senior Executive Vice Dean of Columbia Engineering.  “We look forward to seeing where their research leads and to how their discoveries will benefit humanity.”