Herman Featured in Engineering News

Photo (left-right): Georg Flynn and Irving Herman

At the Center of Centers
Original published by Columbia Engineering News

The Fu Foundation School has had remarkable success in obtaining research funding this year, garnering four multi-million-dollar interdisciplinary centers in environmental chemistry, materials science research, medical digital libraries, and digital government. "We have $16.5 million in NSF funding for these interdisciplinary efforts," said Dean Zvi Galil, "and our School is the hub."

Two centers, Environmental Molecular Sciences Institute (EMSI) and Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC), were funded during the last academic year. This summer, two others received grants: a medical digital library project (PERSIVAL) and the Center for Applied Research in Digital Government Information Systems (CARDGIS).

The alphabet-soup quality of the Centers' names tends to trivialize the complex and important interdisciplinary nature of the research that is taking place in each of these projects, and the stiff competition that each faced to be successful. Each grant was one of only three or four given nationwide for new initiatives in each area.

EMSI (pronounced em-zee) has been given almost $5 million by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE) to study how chemical pollutants and heavy metals move through soil and water and to develop new ways of predicting the behavior of pollutants through high level theoretical calculations. This Institute brings together seven senior faculty investigators, whose expertise in the fields of chemistry, physics, applied physics, geological sciences and electrical engineering is housed in departments at The Fu Foundation School, Columbia College, Barnard College and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. These scientists, headed by George Flynn, Higgins Professor of Chemistry and co-chair of Chemical Engineering, will work closely through Columbia's Earth Institute with the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and industrial partners.

"No other university has tried to tackle environmental issues with such a broad brush," Dr. Flynn said. EMSI is under the aegis of the Columbia Earth Institute, which includes the Earth Engineering Center of the Henry Krumb School of Mines; Biosphere 2; Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; and the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC). Dr. Flynn noted that summer research seminars at Biosphere 2 produced discussion with scientists from industry and the National Laboratories. EMSI research ultimately will be used to address local New York City environmental issues such as landfill and sewage treatment, in addition to the wider applicability of waste management for chemical, automotive and electronics industries.

"We are researching these concerns on three levels: atomic, microscopic, and macroscopic," he said, "to address the fundamental chemical questions associated with subsurface contaminants. We will focus on the role of microscopic chemical sinks and sources in contaminant migration and reaction." The second center, MRSEC (pronounced mer-seck), was funded for $4.3 million over four years. Irving Herman, professor of applied physics, is the Center's director, coordinating research by the Departments of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Materials Science, Physics, and Electrical Engineering. "This Center gives us the opportunity to create an infrastructure to allow all disciplines doing research in materials science to have access to both equipment and ideas for collaborative use," said Dr. Herman. Dr. Louis Brus, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering, heads the interdisciplinary research group investigating structured thin films of polymers containing arrays of nanocrystals and other types of nanostructures. "We are talking about a new generation of nanoparticles, how to form interesting complex films by mixing organic and inorganic materials. This research will have sensor, optical, and catalytic applications, and will help find the building blocks for materials for the 21st century," said Dr. Herman. "When you are looking at competition for NSF funding, having one of these centers funded was a miracle," said Dr. Herman, "and having both EMSI and MRSEC funded was a major miracle."

While these two centers have been funded for almost a year, two digital proposals only recently received NSF approval. One grant, the project to create a patient care digital library or PERSIVAL (PErsonalized Retrieval and Summarization of Image, Video and Language resources), brings to the School $5 million over five years. It is spearheaded by computer science department chair Kathleen McKeown. The other grant, for $1.5 million over three years, creates CARDGIS, the Center for Applied Research in Digital Government Information Systems, headed by computer science professor Salvatore J. Stolfo. The digital library grant was one of 8 funded out of a field of 240, while CARDGIS was one of only three successful applicants nationwide.

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