University Faculty Team Up Again to Design Tech Innovations for NYC

For second year in a row, faculty win Urban Tech Awards to develop technology innovations to improve urban living in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, superstorms, and other extreme events 

Feb 14 2022 | By Allison Chen
New York skyline with icons representing technology

Nine Columbia University faculty teams have each won an $85,000 Urban Tech Award for projects to develop technology applications to improve urban living in the face of superstorms like Sandy and Ida and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Each proposal focuses on designing technological solutions to protect from and prevent future pandemics, attacks, and disasters in New York City and other major cities in the world. To encourage impactful collaborations across the University, each team includes at least one Engineering and Applied Sciences faculty member and at least one faculty member from either a different school or a different department.

The award’s inaugural round last year, funded by a gift from a generous Columbia Engineering alumni donor, was highly successful, and the same donor is supporting the program’s second year.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly exposed weaknesses in the design and infrastructure of modern cities like New York, as have the onslaught of natural disasters over the past few years,” said Shih-Fu Chang, Columbia Engineering interim dean. “It’s clear we need a broad range of innovations as we emerge from an extraordinarily difficult time, and bringing together the best minds in New York City and at Columbia can only lead to exciting, innovative solutions. We’re very grateful to our donor for being so generous in continuing this visionary program.”

It’s clear we need a broad range of innovations as we emerge from an extraordinarily difficult time, and bringing together the best minds in New York City and at Columbia can only lead to exciting, innovative solutions.

Shih-Fu Chang
Interim Dean, Columbia Engineering

The themes for this year’s round are smart cities and logistics, sustainable building design and sensors, safe work and public spaces, enhanced learning technologies, and improved diagnostics. The proposals came from faculty across the University, including from Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), Columbia Climate School, the Dental School, Mailman School of Public Health, and Teachers College. Six of the nine winning teams are renewals for a second year of funding.

These are the nine projects that won awards.

Testing the Efficacy of Far-UVC Light to Safely Inactivate Airborne Viruses at the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine (Renewal)

David J. Brenner, Director, Center for Radiological Research (CUIMC)
Steven Matthew Erde, Assistant Professor, Dental Medicine (CUIMC)
Gordana Vunjak Novakovic, Mikati Foundation Professor, Bioengineering (Engineering)

Far-UVC light is an exciting new modality that has been shown to safely and very efficiently kill airborne viruses in occupied rooms. We plan to install these far-UVC lights at the Columbia College of Dental Medicine, and measure changes in airborne pathogens when the lamps are turned on.

An Integrated Radiative Cooling/Solar Cell System for Sustainable Buildings

Yuan Yang, Associate Professor, Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics (Engineering)
Vijay Modi, Professor, Mechanical Engineering (Engineering)

The project will develop an integrated and sustainable system on building roofs to harvest energy from both sunlight as electricity generation and cold outer space as cooling water. It will reduce energy consumption in buildings.

Optimizing Emergency Response During a Pandemic in Urban Environments (Renewal)

Andrew Smyth, Professor, Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics (Engineering)
Henry Lam, Professor, Industrial Engineering and Operations Research (Engineering)
Jay Sethuraman, Professor, Industrial Engineering and Operations Research (Engineering)
Kat Thomson, Assistant Commissioner, Fire Department of New York Data Analytics Team

The collaboration between Columbia and the FDNY seeks to enhance efficiency and fairness in ambulance dispatch operations through machine learning based optimization.

Monitoring and Protecting Community Health Through Real-time Environmental Surveillance and Detection of Multiple Pathogens

Kartik Chandran, Professor, Earth and Environmental Engineering (Engineering)
Wafaa El-Sadr, Professor, Epidemiology (CUIMC)
Melanie Bernitz, Associate Professor, Family and Community Medicine (CUIMC)

This project aims to develop a flexible platform assay to facilitate the rapid detection and potential quantification of multiple pathogens. By integrating expertise from within environmental engineering, medicine and public health, we expect that this project could contribute impactfully towards informing key decisions aimed at protecting human health.

Urban Living in the Face of COVID-19: Preparing for the Next Pandemic and Super-Storm (Renewal)

Kyle Mandli, Associate Professor, Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics (Engineering)
George Deodatis, Professor, Civil Engineering (Engineering)
Daniel Bienstock, Professor, Industrial Engineering and Operations Research (Engineering)
Jonathan Surry, Project Director, Disaster Preparedness (Columbia Climate School/Earth Institute)

The combined threat of a pandemic occurring alongside a hurricane or other major storm is not theoretical, it has happened and will occur again. This project focuses on how to slow the spread of the disease while keeping people safe from the storm.

Development and Field-Testing a Mobile App for Tracking Home-Based COVID-19 Rapid Test Results (Renewal)

Samuel Sia, Professor, Biomedical Engineering (Engineering)
Wafaa El-Sadr, Professor, Epidemiology (ICAP)
Jessica Justman, Associate Professor, Epidemiology (CUIMC)
Guangxin Han, Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Electrical Engineering (Engineering)

We are conducting a field study in Upper Manhattan to study whether a mobile app can improve the adherence of the public to perform COVID-19 self-testing according to recommended public health guidelines.

Worldwide Flu and Emerging Vision Surveillance System

Andrew Rundle, Professor, Epidemiology (MSPH)
Xiaofan Jiang, Associate Professor, Electrical Engineering (Engineering)

Drs. Jiang and Rundle are developing a video and thermal camera system that will act as a low cost, high through-put public health surveillance tool for detecting emerging infectious diseases and flu. The system will continuously monitor the number of people who are out in public spaces while experiencing a fever and when the system detects that the prevalence of people with fever has risen above a low background normal rate, public health authorities will be alerted to launch more in depth infectious disease surveillance and detection protocols.

Inquiry-Based STEM Learning Via Enhanced Text Message (Renewal)

Paulo Blikstein, Associate Professor, Communications, Media, and Learning Technologies Design (Teachers College)
Lydia Chilton, Assistant Professor, Computer Science (Engineering)

We will continue the development of SMS+, a platform for low-cost, low-infrastructure inquiry-based learning in STEM, which uses only the family's cell phone with minimal broadband use. To better support teachers, we will develop teacher-facing management and feedback tools, as well as pedagogical/curricular support to make SMS+ usage sustainable in real settings -- especially in underserved communities -- and more useful for educators in their virtual or in-person classrooms.

Ultra-low Cost UV Sensor for Sterilization and Disinfection Monitoring (Renewal)

Ioannis Kymissis, Professor, Electrical Engineering (Engineering)
Elizabeth Hillman, Professor, Biomedical Engineering (Engineering)

UV sterilization has emerged as a leading strategy for disinfection of spaces, air, and objects in the environment; but advanced sensors are required to measure the dose in a spectrally selective manner to ensure both safety and adequate sterilization. In this project, we will develop a new generation of low cost UV sensors with spectral selectivity for integration with UV sterilization lamps, systems, and monitors.

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