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Mason team joins with Virginia Tech on Concrete Research for Infrastructure Security


While modern weapon makers churn out more powerful artillery creating concern about infrastructure security, civil engineers are working to construct safer and more durably designed buildings to protect society. To that end, one such development is a new form of concrete known as high-performance fiber reinforced concrete (HP-FRC). It is believed that this adaptation of concrete could be critical in the field of protective design specifically regarding ballistic impact.  However, as this material is still new to the industry there is little understanding about just how it can withstand high impact blast loads.

Girum Urgessa

The lack of data regarding how HP-FRC stands up to blasts got Mason’s Associate Professor Girum Urgessa thinking.  Urgessa, teaching in the Sid and Reva Dewberry Department of Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering (CEIE) explains, “Here at Mason, we’ve studied the modeling aspect of the penetration mechanics, but our verification capability is limited because of the scarcity of experimental data.”  However, Urgessa saw a perfect match for research collaboration with Eric Jacques, Assistant Professor in the Structural Engineering & Materials Group at Virginia Tech.  There, Jacques can access the Thomas Murray Structures Laboratory, equipped with a large-scale gas-detonation blast simulator.

The collaboration came to fruition via Urgessa’s 4-VA@Mason grant Scaled-testing of Projectile Penetration in Conventional and High-Strength Concrete Targets. In addition to Urgessa and Jacques on the project, Mason faculty member Dhafer Marzougui and graduate student Geoffrey Dilg volunteered their time assisting with post-test computational modeling. Undergraduate student Shima Abdel Monem Awwad also worked on the project. The project team got started, building 15 small-scale fiber-reinforced concrete targets of varying thicknesses. These were built at Tech for ballistic experiments using a light gas gun.

Eric Jacques

Four HP-FRC specimens were subjected to ballistic projectile impact loading, which provided the ability to model/predict projectile penetration depths across a variety of concrete strengths and types. Says Urgessa, “Three out of four initial trials provided us with complete projectile perforation, while the third trial resulted in spalling, penetration, and radial cracking.”  Although they were able to conclude that the Cem-FIL glass fibers helped reduce the effects of the cracking by holding the sections together, they did not stop the projectile from perforating. In the cases where the projectile perforated through the specimen, the fibers had either pulled out of the concrete or ruptured at most crack locations.

“Overall, this experiment proved to be very successful and has given us the opportunity to shed light on a relatively new material and that has a variety of real-world applications,” concluded Urgessa.

Dhafer Marzougui
Shimaa Abdel Monem Awwad
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Mason’s Rosenthal Earns Acclaim for New Book


Dr. Aharona Rosenthal, an adjunct professor teaching Hebrew for 4-VA@Mason Shared Courses has recently released her third book and first historical fiction novel to much acclaim.  Where the Lilacs Bloom Once Again has been lauded by the Literary Titans for Best Memoir, earned the Penn Craft Best Historical Fiction Award, was recognized by the International Firebird as the best book on the Holocaust, awarded five stars by The Readers Favorite, and nominated for an Outstanding Creator Award. Rosenthal’s recent interview by Romanian radio show Universul la feminin with Serena Adler generated listener praise for the book detailing her Jewish Romanian family and their lives prior to World War II.

Researched and written over a 12-year period by Rosenthal, Where the Lilacs Bloom Once Again is based on her family’s genealogical papers as well as exhaustive document examination from around the world. It follows the story of Rosenthal’s grandmother’s cousin Friddie Stoleru, who was falsely charged with treason and spent the 1930s in prison and forced labor camps. The book recounts the lives of her family members during a time in Europe when discrimination and the persecution of Jewish people was at its peak.

For Rosenthal, the book was a response to her father’s hand-penned request for his daughter to ‘tell the truth’ about the lives of their ancestors. “The response to the book has been tremendous — it has opened a floodgate of people sharing their own family stories,” says Rosenthal.  “For years, these narratives were buried deep.  It was not uncommon that families did not speak of the abuse for generations due to listening devices which were monitored by the Communist Party. Many atrocities have remained a secret.  Where the Lilacs Bloom Once Again has prompted so many to reach out and tell their truth.  I’m honored to have given a voice to so many that were silenced.” Rosenthal expects that sentiment to be heightened following the upcoming publication of her interview with reporter Livius Denis Grigorescu in the leading Romanian newspaper Adevarul.


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Mason and UVA Collaborate to Create Successful Energy-Efficient Desalination Technique


With 97% of the world’s water held by oceans, the effort to develop effective saltwater desalination is a high priority amongst the world’s scientists. Of the current water desalination methods, capacitive deionization (CDI) is the most prevalent, where ions and chemicals are energy-efficiently removed from water by applying a low electrical charge.  It is acknowledged, though, that there is much more to understand about the kinetics of the process which could improve the salt absorption capacity of CDI.

It was this challenge that caught the interest of Assistant Professor Pei Dong in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Mason’s College of Engineering and Computing. However, she recognized that tackling this topic would be substantially boosted by a 4-VA collaboration incorporating research underway in the lab of Baoxing Xu, in UVA’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department.  Xu’s group investigates multiscale/multiphysics modeling and simulations of solid-liquid interactions, especially systems in response to external stimuli such as temperature, electrical, and mechanical fields.  Dong believed that by working together, they could investigate the adsorption process to further identify, design, and synthesize more effective carbon materials for use in the CDI process.

Fast forward through the research (complete with a pandemic and the resulting lab closures) — Dong and her team report that they have indeed synthesized different carbon materials which show a much higher salt adsorption capacity. Dong anticipates that this technique could dramatically lower desalination costs and contribute to the sustainable development goals in Virginia, the US, and beyond.

Along with this successful research outcome, Dong explains that the 4-VA project produced several other beneficial consequences, especially a new collaboration among Mason and UVA faculty and students.  She also notes the journey provided a rich educational experience for students — with a combination of experimental and computational skills allowing them to contribute to future engineering innovation in this emerging field.

That experience was especially true for PhD candidate, Rui He. He oversaw the project in Dong’s lab, administering the tests — including surface area, water contact angle, electrical property, and water desalination.  He also prepared the wood converted carbon and the potassium hydroxide activation. In addition, the team worked together to print a 3D CDI cell and assembled the experimental setup, installing the wood converted carbon into the cell.

“I learned a lot about teamwork,” He explains. “I needed to teach the undergraduates how to run the lab experiments and data analysis as a team, and make sure every step is what we wanted.” He also learned about problem solving, “Sometimes we didn’t get the results we expected, and we needed to find out where things went wrong and fix the problem. For example, the 3D printed CDI cell was a challenge at the beginning because it can’t prevent the leakage of water.  We tried a lot of different designs, and finally got one to work.”

Several of the other Mason students involved in the research were undergraduate Crystal Bowers and PhD candidate Xiaozhou Huang. Pictured in the photo are (left to right): Rui He, Crystal Bowers and Xiaozhou Huang.

Thanks to the project’s success, the research has received wide recognition. The work entitled “Binder-Free Wood Converted Carbon for Enhanced Water Desalination Performance” has been published in the high impact journal Advanced Functional Materials. Rui He won the “Excellent Student Presentation Award” in the 242nd Electrochemical Society Meeting for both his oral presentation and poster. This work has also been presented at Virginia Clean Energy and Catalysis Club 2022 Summit (poster) and the International Mechanical Engineering Congress & Exposition 2022 (oral presentation).

The good work continues, thanks to the initial spark lit by 4-VA@Mason.

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It’s a Dirty Job. But Someone has to do it. Team Van Aken Did.

Environmental engineers, local governments, and public policy leaders confront numerous challenges commonly faced at wastewater treatment facilities – increased usage, managing ebbs and flows (known as feast and famine in the industry) and often older, less effective sedimentation tanks — usually set near a watershed which limits space for additional construction.  Facing these constraints, molecular biologist and Mason Associate Professor Benoit Van Aken wanted to create a team to look carefully at how the use of a newer procedure, the use of aerobic granulation to speed sedimentation, might increase the effectiveness of these plants. When Van Aken learned about the 4-VA Collaborative Research Grants, it spurred him to seek funding which could bring his plan to fruition.

The grant could, Van Aken posited, build a connection between the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center (PEREC) in Woodbridge, where Van Aken’s lab is located, and the Occoquan Watershed Monitoring Laboratory (OWML) in Manassas where the lab of Dr. Zhiwu (Drew) Wang, of Virginia Tech, is located.  Wang’s research focuses on biological engineering for wastewater treatment and the two centers could create a partnership as the OWML is responsible for management of water quality in the Occoquan watershed and the PEREC, located a few miles from the Occoquan Reservoir, is engaged in restoration of Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Wang’s lab is equipped with pilot reactors and could generate bacterial material for the molecular analyses. Van Aken’s lab is equipped for DNA/RNA extraction and analysis, and sequencing library preparation, which could provide the tools to help understand the microbiology and functions of microbial communities developing in wastewater treatment systems.

Importantly, the two labs are located within an easy distance of the Prince William County wastewater treatment facility in Centreville, making it easy for the team to access sludge samples to for the research.

With the 4-VA@Mason grant secured, Van Aken got to work with his team.  Trips were made to the Centreville plant to obtain batches of aerobic granules.  Van Aken initially gave some of the sequencing studies to undergraduate students, but then hired Alison Gomeiz, a chemistry student studying for her master’s degree.  Van Aken met (via Zoom during the pandemic) with Gomeiz regularly to review her tests and consulted with partner Wang frequently to get his input on the testing.  Their goal was to assess what changes in the microbial community composition in aerobic granules compared to conventional microbial flocs.

Van Aken explains, “For more than a century, wastewater treatment has been based on bacterial cells or small cell aggregates dispersed in wastewater — activated sludge. Aerobic granulation exploits the capability of bacterial cells to co-aggregate into large, dense, spherical granules, which present remarkable advantages over dispersed cells for wastewater treatment, which can speed sedimentation and the removal of the biomass from the bottom of the tank.”

Because aerobic granulation has been successfully applied only in sequential batch reactors (SBRs), while most wastewater treatment plants operate in continuous flow reactors (CFRs), it was important to assess what changes happened in both the feast and famine conditions. Aerobic granulation is estimated to have to potential to reduce energy consumption in wastewater treatment by more than 60%.

Essentially, the team identified the changes associated with aerobic granulation.  This provided the ability to predict the functionality of bacteria in the new reactor system that facilitated the aerobic granulation process.  “There is a time where the bacteria received the hard water, that’s the feast conditions, where it receives a lot of nutrients. And we also studied the water when there is not much nutrient available — the famine phase,” says Van Aken.  “We were able to predict when we can reduce the retention time, that means the time it needs for the particle to settle down at the bottom of the tank. That’s a big advantage.”

Their work has already been disseminated in an article for Science Direct however, Van Aken says there is more work to be done. Thanks to the new relationship with the Wang lab, there many more opportunities ahead for this collaborative work.

Benoit Van Aken, Mason
Zhiwu (Drew) Wang, Virginia Tech





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Calls for Proposals: 4-VA@Mason 2023-24 Collaborative Research Grants


Mason faculty interested in piloting a novel research project in conjunction with colleagues at one of the seven other 4-VA schools in Virginia are encouraged to respond to the annual 4-VA@Mason Collaborative Research Grants (CRG) calls for proposals.  These grants, of up to $20,000, are designed to facilitate and support alliances which leverage the strengths of each partner university to improve efficiencies in research and higher education, reduce working in silos, and provide hands-on experiential opportunities for students. The grants encourage the development of baseline research projects in the sciences and humanities which could help fuel future research and funding.

The application link for the proposals is posted on the 4-VA@Mason grants page, which includes associated policies and procedures, as well as examples previous successful proposals.  Applications will be accepted through February 28, 2023, with funding available July 1, 2023.

“Although the 4-VA mission to identify and boost efficiencies in educational design and research was launched in 2010, it is our Collaborative Research Grants — introduced in 2013 — that have really made a difference for Mason and our partner schools,” explains Janette Kenner Muir, Vice Provost, Academic Affairs and Campus Coordinator of 4-VA@Mason. “So many of our awarded pilot research projects have provided a springboard for subsequent, major federal and private grants and boosted research competitiveness at Mason and throughout the collaborative.” Those schools are the College of William and Mary, James Madison University, Old Dominion University, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Military Institute and Virginia Tech.  In some cases, additional modest funding is available to co-PIs at the partner schools.

“Through the hundreds of 4-VA Collaborative Research Grants awarded throughout the state in the last ten years, 4-VA has truly made a difference for faculty, students and citizens statewide and beyond,” adds Muir.


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New Lab for Writing and Communication Launched with 4-VA@Mason Catalyst Funds

Even before Mason’s new, bright, and spacious Lab for Writing and Communications held its formal grand opening recently in the Johnson Center, the Lab was already a success.  Writing Center Director Susan Lawrence explained that soon after they finished the last coat of paint on their 20 individual consulting and training rooms, the Lab has been essentially booked solid with students looking for help with myriad writing and communication projects.  “We are busy every hour we’re open,” says Lawrence.

The Lab has been six years in the making — built with the thought of combining what was the previously separate Comm Center and Writing Center. The Communication Center primarily focuses on helping students with speeches and oral presentations and the Writing Center focuses on written projects.

While the result is a winner, the path to its completion included a series of important steps forward, helped in part by 4-VA@Mason.  As Melissa Broeckelman-Post, professor and basic course director of the Communication Department explained to 4-VA@Mason Campus Coordinator and Vice Provost Academic Affairs Janette Muir at the grand opening, “Without a doubt, 4-VA@Mason can and should take credit for helping get this to the finish line.”

The first step in support of the effort started in 2017-2018 when 4-VA@Mason awarded Broeckelman-Post with a Collaborative Research Grant to undertake a complete redesign of Mason’s COMM 100 and 101 courses, which were facing three challenges: increasing enrollment warranting a cadre of new instructors, reductions in teaching space, and needed revisions in course structure.  The grant provided funds for a serious critical analysis of this important Mason Core course and produced an efficient and effective course redesign.  Moreover, the redesign created cost savings which helped introduce individualized coaching sessions in the then “new” Communication Center where students could meet with student communication coaches to get feedback on outlines, video record and practice presentations, practice interviews, and work on developing group presentations.

The second 4-VA@Mason contribution came in the 2019-2020 academic year, when Brockelman-Post received a second grant for her proposal entitled “Communication Across the Curriculum: Creating Faculty Resources for Building Communication Skills in the Discipline.”  This project resulted in the creation of a robust set of resources to support faculty and student learning, including online tools, individual and small group faculty curriculum consultations, and in-class workshop resources to encourage faculty to embed communication skills development within their disciplinary courses.

Photo: John Boal

The most recent 4-VA@Mason assist, currently underway, is to support a thorough, multi-faceted research study across communication centers at three 4-VA universities – Mason, JMU, and Virginia Tech – to determine best practices for tutor training.  Assessment data will be collected via qualitative interviews with tutors at each of the participating institutions and a nationwide survey of communication center administrators, administrative assistants, and tutors.  The findings will be used to create open-access communication center online training modules for training future communication center tutors at participating institutions.

Jordan Wilkins (Communication Center consultant), Kathleen Rossell (Learning Resource Center Coordinator, INTO Mason) Photo:  John Boal

“Mason’s Lab for Writing and Communication is leading the way nationally in student communication support , and we’re proud that 4-VA@Mason has been a part of this success story,” concluded Muir.


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4-VA@Mason Funds Development of Higher Education Community of Practice for Robotic Process Automation

Although Robotic Process Automation (RPA), a relatively new software technology used to automate tasks and business processes, has been implemented predominantly in government and the private sector, it is relatively untapped in higher education.  Thanks to a 4-VA@Mason grant, that will soon change for Virginia colleges and universities. The RPA Initiative at Mason’s Schar School will be leading the charge with the development of a Community of Practice (CoP) for higher education institutions throughout the state.

Through this software automation, colleges can reduce mundane and tedious work of administrative staff and increase quality assurance.  The VA Academic RPA CoP will help institutions of higher learning become familiar with the software automation and provide opportunities to collaborate across the commonwealth to enhance student experiences. The CoP will be a collaborative effort among all Virginia schools of higher education to also overcome the technical, management, and operational challenges that arise in designing and deploying effective RPA programs and initiatives. This includes important initiatives like designing common standards for credentialing, ensuring privacy and security, and designing common performance metrics to gauge RPA’s institutional impact to increase effectiveness and efficiency.

“Bringing innovative thinking to our academic partners across the commonwealth is the hallmark of 4-VA. We believe that the Academic RPA CoP will deliver important resources which will not only save money for participating institutions, but also create a higher level of quality control,” says Janette Muir, Vice Provost, Academic Affairs, and 4-VA@Mason Campus Coordinator.

The technology is already employed at three 4-VA schools — at George Mason for Vendor Management, at William and Mary for Student Engagement and at Virginia Commonwealth University for Grant Management — with great success. At Mason, RPA technology reduced the vendor management process from 15-20 hours per week to just minutes, saving employees valuable time and increasing productivity. Additionally, the software digital automation reduced human error rates to zero and increased data entry accuracy to 100%.

The RPA Initiative envisions that the technology could be employed in a wide variety of departments, including Admissions, Student Services and Athletics. “We are eager to launch this pioneering project and look forward to helping determine how RPA can aid the academic sector through knowledge sharing, webinars, speakers, “best practices,” and updates on programs which could be automated to reduce repetitive work done today by academic personnel,” said Dr. David Rehr, Co-founder of the RPA Initiative.

For more information and to get involved, visit

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Effective Communication During Disaster Response: Managing the Minutia

Wenying Ji

While Wenying Ji, Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering at George Mason University, has previously collaborated with Xinghua Gao (Virginia Tech) and Jundong Li (University of Virginia), he saw a new opportunity to take their research deeper through a 4-VA Collaborative Research Grant.  Through a 4-VA grant, Ji hoped, he and his fellow researchers could delve into an analysis of stakeholder communications during disaster response, an important addition to his ongoing research integrating advanced data analytics and complex system modeling to improve the performance of infrastructure systems.

Through the 4-VA program, Ji could receive funding from 4-VA@Mason, while his collaborators at Virginia Tech and UVA could also receive modest financial support from their universities through 4-VA.  Ji’s hopes came true as the 4-VA@Mason Advisory Board saw the potential in the research; thus, all collaborators obtained support from 4-VA.  Ji’s research aimed to model, analyze, and identify effective communication and collaboration patterns that stakeholders utilize in response to disasters.

As Ji explains it, during disaster response, the communication process among agencies is complex due to the involvement of a great number of agencies at different hierarchical levels and sectors–the federal, state, and local level agencies; non-governmental agencies; and private contractors. Ji’s goal was to extract effective communication and collaboration patterns through an analysis of historical disaster response documents and evaluate various possible communication and collaboration patterns that may affect stakeholder response.

Xinghua Gao

Their work began with Gao at Virginia Tech who was able to collect a range of valuable data sources (e.g., situational reports and government-issued guidelines) that document stakeholder interaction processes. The team considered situational reports from natural disasters, including Hurricane Irma in Florida and Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and studied the reports documenting a 10-day period.

Jundong Li

That information was sent to Li, who is an expert in graph modeling. From there, the data went to Ji and graduate student Yitong Li. Li performed much of the analysis and gained valuable, practical experience from the research.

The result of their research has produced a quantitative model which evaluates the impact of information flow on the effectiveness of disaster response. Based on the model, a metric was then designed to evaluate the probability of community satisfaction. The designed model and the metric provide governmental stakeholders interpretable insights for evaluating the impact of information flow on their disaster response effectiveness, so that proactive actions can be targeted for enhanced disaster response. The team’s approach promotes inter-organizational collaboration in emergency management by helping stakeholders easily identify effective communication and collaboration patterns.

Yitong Li

Following their successful research, the group produced a journal paper entitled “Robustness of Stakeholder Response Networks for Infrastructure System Protection” for the American Society of Civil Engineers Journal of Management in Engineering, a conference paper and a presentation entitled “Understanding the Dynamics of Information Flow During Disaster Response Using Absorbing Markov Chains” were produced for the Winter Simulation Conference.

Next steps for the team? They plan to submit the proposal to the Humans, Disasters, and the Built Environment (HDBE) program, which is an NSF funded grant.  “Thanks to this grant, we hope to take our project to the next level,” says Ji.

Grant Stories

Team Vibe Vision and Team Spider Sense Connecting Technology and Societal Good

Building a good team is often cited as the key to success in a variety of spheres — from business to the arts, from sports to science. For Mason Mechanical Engineering professor Jeffrey Moran, however, the ability to hand-pick a team for the second phase of the 4-VA Collaborative Research project “Toward T-Shaped Graduates: A Joint Capstone Program at the Nexus of Mechanical Engineering and Science and Technology Policy”, was completely out of his hands. Fortunately, though, the eight students who signed up for the Capstone project last summer — indicating an interest in building on the continuing project — turned out to be Moran’s Dream Team.

As luck would have it for Moran, when surveys went out to rising mechanical engineering seniors outlining opportunities for capstone projects last summer, the ‘just right’ eight students chose the option of working on the vehicle alert system.

The project, which tackles barriers to operating a vehicle for the hard of hearing and deaf communities by building assistive technologies to alert drivers and passengers to sounds around the vehicle, was launched by Moran’s capstone students in collaboration with a counterpart team at James Madison University, in the 2020-21 academic year. Yet, in part because of pandemic-related restrictions that kept the teams from working together, the tools and technologies that were developed on the project needed some advancements to improve the final product. Refinements and enhancements were necessary.

The reasons the eight students selected the project were as diverse as their backgrounds. A sampling:

  • Javeria Jawad, who acted as one of the two team leads, was drawn to the hands-on aspect of the task, explained, “I liked the practical implications of the project, it wasn’t just theory, it actually built something.”
  • Wadeed Fakhoury felt that the project fulfilled two of his interests, “I like to work on cars, and I love to help people. This opportunity to benefit the hard of hearing operating a vehicle was just what I wanted.”
  • Michael Mullins enjoys developing electronic games and has a computer science background. He saw the project as an opportunity to add to his coding skills. In fact, he led the coding efforts on the project, making crucial improvements to the machine learning-based sound detection platform developed by last year’s team.
  • Faiza Al-Bahrani had perhaps the most compelling interest in joining the mechanical engineering team with its sights set on helping hard of hearing communities. Al-Bahrani has a cochlear implant, without which she is clinically deaf. Removing her implant during work sessions, Al-Bahrani served as the team’s resident Chief of Quality Assurance.

Moving Forward.

This second-year team met Moran’s hopes and expectations for the phase two of the project, combining their skills and interests to build on the existing project.

That initial effort began in 2019 when Moran reached out to 4-VA@Mason with an interest in creating an interdisciplinary capstone program in collaboration with colleagues in the School of Integrated Sciences at James Madison University. The faculty members’ backgrounds ranged from mechanical engineering to political science, Moran wanted to tackle problems that do not fall neatly into one disciplinary category, including the development of renewable energy technologies, autonomous vehicles (often called self-driving cars), the use of robotics in medicine, and more. Moran sought to task students with the goal of addressing public needs; undertaking problems that straddle boundaries between disciplines. “The overarching goal is to create T-shaped graduates who have a general level of knowledge about a broad span of subjects, forming the horizontal part of the T, while cultivating deep knowledge in their own specific area, representing the vertical part,” Moran says.

The first cohort of students, working in the pandemic-affected 2020-21 capstone year, sought to focus on making automobiles easier to use by deaf and hard of hearing populations, with an eye toward self-driving cars, which are expected to number in the hundreds of millions by 2030 and will be used by individuals with varying needs. Armed with data indicating the challenges that deaf and hard of hearing populations face when driving, the students set about outfitting a golf cart with a microphone to detect noises near the vehicle, using machine learning to identify the sound, and creating a seat cushion outfitted with a haptic sensor which vibrates to let the driver know that a hazard is nearby. The driver is then prompted to read a tablet screen mounted on the dashboard that identifies the noise.

Although the 2020 students got a good start, Moran knew there could be more to the project. Much of the in-person work was not possible because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited lab work. However, with funding still left in the budget, Moran opted to create a phase two of the effort and asked the next group of students to take up the project.

Take it up, they did. As Hoa “Andy” Huynh, another member of the team leads exclaimed, “We improved on it in every way!”

When the two team leads, Huynh and Jawad, got the project last September, they discussed a plan of activity and started preparing schedules. Jawad explains that the teams did theoretical work over Zoom meetings in the fall. Jawad’s team was tasked with input — working on microphone processing sounds to the laptop, while Huynh’s team focused on output — from the battery to the haptic feedback system. Huynh notes that the two teams initially worked separately on their efforts from September to December of 2021, and then they worked as a group every Tuesday and Thursday in a lab on the Sci Tech campus from January through May 2022. Huynh adds, “Professor Moran attended the Tuesday meetings to check in on our progress, give us feedback, and help us with questions.”

Hamzeh Amin plays an audio siren to prompt the system to identify the sound which is displayed on the laptop.

The teams did all the work in-house except for the original code which was written at James Madison University. Mullen accessed that code and built on it. He then went on to convert Spectron graph images to recognize sounds – a dog bark, gun shot, car horn, and siren — through machine learning.

Indeed, the new teams examined every element of the system and made improvements. Huynh says, “First, their system wasn’t integrated, there was only one microphone, the existing Raspberry Pi was not strong enough, we upgraded to a Windows laptop which is much more powerful.” Huynh adds that while the original cart had only one microphone, the new team installed four. “Based on the feedback from the deaf community surveys, we understood that it was important to indicate which direction the sound was coming from,” he says. “Michael was able to develop a system that identifies the sounds in 2.5 seconds and then it appears on the laptop monitor and also indicates the direction from which the sound is emanating.” Jawad adds that the seat cushion was also expanded to include four vibrating haptics which reveals to the driver the direction of the sound.

Mounted laptop identifying sound and the direction of the sound.

With the newly enhanced golf cart, the 2021-22 group was ready to share the results on the lawn in front of the Nguyen Engineering Building on the Mason Fairfax campus on May 5 for Capstone Day. Nathan M. Kathir, Associate Professor & Director of Senior Projects, says it was an opportunity to, “See their creativity in-person.”

Cars of the Future.

Moran reflects on the progress made by the second phase team and indicates that, with funding still left in the budget, he’d like to return to another collaboration with Integrated Science and Technology group at JMU next year. “Tremendous possibilities remain with this project; we can take this to the next level by making the sound detection system even faster, training it to recognize a wider array of sounds, or filtering the input noise to pick out the hazard from a noisy background,” says Moran. “We’re also interested in making the intensity of the haptic feedback depend on the distance between the sound source and the vehicle.”

Because it is expected that the coding requirements for the project will be expanded, Moran anticipates adding at least one Computer Science major in the team to take ownership of the increasing demands. Moran also hopes to continue to address the policy-related issues associated with the use of conventional and autonomous vehicles by deaf and hard of hearing communities, explaining, “In keeping with the original vision of this project, I would also like to see next year’s students look at the policy implications of this work, particularly the updates that are needed to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 to enable individuals with various needs to use autonomous vehicles more effectively, since AVs are only going to become more numerous on our roads.”

Kyung Min (left) reviews the project with attendees at the Capstone Day project presentations.

“After the Capstone Day event, we had several people say to us, ‘I want this for my car’ – even people who have full use of both ears!” Moran adds. “We’re grateful for 4-VA’s continued support and flexibility as we’ve steered this project through two — and soon to be three — academic years, not to mention a global pandemic. We’re excited to see where it goes next.”

Team Vibe Vision: Hoa “Andy” Huynh (team lead), Michael Mullins, Wadeed Fakhoury, Faiza Al-Bahrani
Team Spider Sense: Javeria Jawad (team lead), Jimmy Torrico, Hamzeh Amin, Kyung Min

The Dream Team (Featured photo) Left to right: Wadeed Fakhoury, Kyung Min, Jimmy Torrico, Professor Moran (in cart), Hamzeh Amin, Faiza Al-Bahrani, Javeria Jawad, Hoa “Andy” Huynh, Michael Mullins (kneeling).

Grant Stories

Alexa, Are You Listening?

4-VA@Mason Team Leads Consumer Privacy Analysis of Personal Assistant Devices  

Today, smart home devices are ubiquitous, and increasingly, are playing a more prominent role in the lives of millions of Americans.  The question is, however, how big of a role?  And is it one that most of us are comfortable with?

Vivian Motti

These were the topics attracting the attention of Vivian Motti, Assistant Professor in Mason’s College of Engineering and Computing, Department of Information Sciences and Technology, along with two other Virginia professors — Ahmad Salman at James Madison University and Carol Fung (previously at Virginia Commonwealth University), now at Concordia University, Montreal.  Although Motti was aware of the similar paths of work being conducted by Salman and Fung, she saw an opportunity to intersect with them and combine their work via a grant from 4-VA.

Ahmad Salman
Carol Fung

Now — two years, dozens of interviews, hundreds of reviews, thousands of hours of analysis, and one pandemic later — “Human-Centric Privacy-Preserving Controls for Smart Home Devices” has delivered a concrete set of privacy controls for smart home devices that are effective and easy for consumers to adopt, and relevant and useful for practitioners to incorporate in the implementation of next-generation smart home devices.  In fact, the research team has already provided these controls for future implementation by community members from academia, industry, and standardization bodies including the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Motti began her journey by considering how smart home devices were being used – by both tech savvy and not so tech savvy — consumers.  “What we learned is that the people who are very tech savvy were able to keep their data more private because they know how to configure their network. Consequently, the devices they use only have access to information inside the house and it does not get out,” says Motti.  The trouble began, however, with consumers that were not able to get control of their Amazon Alexa, Echo or Dot, or Google Home products.  “These consumers didn’t know how to access the log, or how to delete it, were in danger of losing their personal information.”  Further, Motti explains, the first versions of the device did not even provide access to these logs to the users.  Consequently, says Motti, consumers started to complain.

But just as Motti’s team’s pencils were sharpened, the pandemic hit.  Labs were shuttered and students were sent home. The plan to conduct individual consumer interviews needed to be scuttled.  The group continued, undaunted. “We could not meet with participants in person, so we modified and amended the protocol of the user studies,” says Motti. “Specifically, we relied more on the analysis of online reviews. Then, we conducted user studies using Zoom and Miro (for the co-design sessions). Lastly, we collected data through Amazon MTurk, reaching a larger number of users and analyzed publicly available online reviews.”

With the data (finally) in hand, the team began parsing out the work.  Salman handled the experimental design and data analysis while Fung evaluated physical prototypes to test controls, collaborating with data collection and analysis from user studies.  Motti’s students got involved remotely, with Chola Chhetri, a Mason Graduate Research Assistant leading the way with experimental design and data collection and analysis.  Chhetri also assisted with papers preparation, submission, and presentations. Graduate students Huining Feng and Haoran Lee helped with the analysis of online reviews, experimental design, and data collection while undergrads Jacob Cox and Joseph Aversa looked at graphic user interfaces for privacy controls.

The next hurdle was to aggregate the information and data collected and present it to stakeholders who could impact how the information is implemented within the industry.  “Chola led the meeting with advisory board members from academia, industry, and NIST, sharing the major findings as well as the recommendations and suggestions that we developed to improve current devices,” says Motti.  “It was great because he received very positive feedback about the validity of the work, and what the industry must first recognize to better understand the needs of consumers and end users, and second, to recommend what should be implemented and deployed in the next generation devices.”

While the pace of both compliance and legislation has been slow and reactive in the personal assistant environment, Motti says that a pathway forward is now in the hands of a breath of consumers, industry, and regulators thanks to the 4-VA grant.  In fact, their findings have been widely distributed at the National Cyber Summit, Human Factors in Cybersecurity, Human Aspects of Information Security & Assurance, and the International Conference on Information. Additionally, the study will appear in the Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, and at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting.

But Motti sees a longer road ahead, “This grant allowed me to start with an exploratory approach — we looked at the online polls, looked at the literature, interviewed and surveyed participants. But it also sparked new research questions, new areas we would like to test and to go into more depth. Once we saw the results, we know that there is still more work to be done. So, we plan to apply for larger grants from the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative and the National Science Foundation to have more validation for future work related to the project.”

Alexa will be listening…