Georgia Tech Researchers Receive Three NSF Emerging Frontiers Awards

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By Abby Robinson
Sept. 29, 2011 | Atlanta

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $6 million to fund
three projects involving researchers from the Georgia Institute of
Technology. Each four-year, $2 million grant was awarded through the
NSF's Division of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI).

"The EFRI research teams will probe some profound aspects of the
interface of biology and engineering," said Sohi Rastegar, director of
EFRI. "If they are successful, the principles and theories uncovered in
their investigations could unlock many technological opportunities."

This year, 14 transformative, fundamental research projects were
awarded EFRI grants in two emerging areas: technologies that build on
understanding of biological signaling, and machines that can interact
and cooperate with humans.

The three Georgia Tech projects include:

  • Developing a "therapeutic robot" to help rehabilitate and improve motor skills in people with mobility problems;
  • Creating wearable sensors that allow blind people to "see" with their hands, bodies or faces;
  • Generating
    and rigorously testing quantitative models that describe spatial and
    temporal regulation of cell differentiation in tissues.

The therapeutic robot could enhance, assist and improve motor skills
in humans with varying motor capabilities and deficits. The goal of the
project is to program a humanoid rehabilitation robot to perform a
"partnered box step," which is a defined pattern of weight shifts and
directional changes, solely based on interpreting movement cues from
subtle changes in forces between the hands and arms of the robot and the

To do this, researchers at Georgia Tech and Emory University will
study how humans use their muscles to walk, balance and generate force
signals with the hands for guidance when moving in cooperation with
another person. They will also study "rehabilitative partnered dance,"
which has been specifically adapted to help improve gait and balance in
individuals with motor impairments.

"Our vision is to develop robots that will interact with humans as
both assistants and movement therapists," explained principal
investigator Lena Ting, an associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter
Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory
University. "We expect our project to have a long-term impact on quality
of life of individuals with movement difficulties, such as those caused
by Parkinson's disease, stroke and injury by improving fitness, motor
skills and social engagement."

Working with Ting on the project are Emory University School of
Medicine (geriatrics) assistant professor Madeleine Hackney, Coulter
Department of Biomedical Engineering assistant professor Charlie Kemp
and Georgia Tech School of Interactive Computing assistant professor
Karen Liu.

For the second project, researchers at Georgia Tech and The City
College of New York will investigate devices for "alternative
perception" and the principles underlying the human-machine interaction.
Alternative perception combines electronics and the other senses to
emulate vision. In addition to aiding the visually impaired, the
findings are expected to have other applications, such as the
development of intelligent robots.

The researchers plan to untangle how humans learn to coordinate input
from their senses -- e.g. vision, touch -- with movements, like
reaching for a glass or moving through a crowded room. They will then
map out how machines, such as robots and computers, learn similar tasks,
to model devices that can assist humans.

The team envisions a multifunctional array of sensors on the body and
has already developed prototypes for some of the devices. The full
complement of wearable sensors would help a sightless person navigate by
conveying information about his or her surroundings.

The researchers hope their findings on perception, and the prototypes
they develop, will spawn a raft of wearable electronic devices to help
blind people "see" their environment at a distance through touch,
hearing and other senses. The technology would also benefit sighted
individuals who must navigate in poor visibility, such as firefighters
and pilots.

Boris Prilutsky, Associate Professor, Center for Human Movement Studies,
School of Applied Physiology at Georgia Tech

Principal investigator Zhigang Zhu, professor of computer science and
computer engineering in City College's Grove School of Engineering,
will collaborate with City College professor of psychology and director
of the Program in Cognitive Neuroscience Tony Ro, City College professor
of electrical engineering Ying Li Tian, Georgia Tech Woodruff School of
Mechanical Engineering professor Kok-Meng Lee, and Georgia Tech School
of Applied Physiology associate professor Boris Prilutsky

The third project will address a fundamental question of
developmental biology: what controls the spatial and temporal patterns
of cell differentiation? Answering this question will lead to a better
understanding of the basic principles of embryogenesis, explain origins
of developmental disorders, and provide guidelines for tissue
engineering and regenerative medicine.

The research will be conducted by principal investigator and
Princeton University Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering
associate professor Stanislav Shvartsman, Georgia Tech School of
Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering associate professor Hang Lu, New
York University Department of Biology professor Christine Rushlow, and
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Department of Computer
Science associate professor Saurabh Sinha.

Scientists know that among an embryo's first major developments is
the establishment of its dorsoventral axis, which runs from its back to
its belly. The researchers plan to study how this axis development
unfolds -- specifically the presence and location of proteins during the
process, which give rise to muscle, nerve and skin tissues.

To enable large-scale quantitative analyses of protein positional
information along the dorsoventral axis, Lu and Shvartsman will further
develop a microfluidic device they previously designed to reliably and
robustly orient several hundred embryos in just a few minutes.

"By understanding this system at a deeper, quantitative level, we
will elucidate general principles underlying the operation of genetic
and multicellular networks that drive development," said Lu.

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Media Relations Contacts: Abby Robinson (; 404-385-3364) or John Toon (; 404-894-6986)

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