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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 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.

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…




Grant Stories

“Mapping the University” Using Archives and Digital Tools to Explore Virginia Campus Histories

With the expertise and resources of Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) and Executive Director Mills Kelly to support her, Postdoctoral Research Fellow Jessica Mack considered this possibility: Could digital media and mapping tools be utilized to illustrate the growth of Virginia university campuses, analyzing histories using university archives, digital mapping, and aerial photographs?

This approach, Mack thought, is particularly important as universities across the U.S. reckon with their institutional backstories—including difficult histories of slavery, exclusion, segregation, and bias in higher education. Mack believed it would be revealing to examine how these records left traces on the physical structures of the campus. The project, she determined, would necessitate blending a group of scholars including university archivists, historians, digital specialists, as well as graduate and undergraduate student researchers.

Mack received an enthusiastic response when she contacted other 4-VA

Steve Bookman

schools to get their input on the proposal. However, one institution stood out as the perfect partner – Old Dominion University. ODU was a good fit for two reasons: Like Mason, which broke from UVA 50 years ago to stand on its own, ODU moved out from under the wings of William and Mary. What’s more, when Mack connected with ODU’s University Archivist Steven Bookman, she found the perfect co-PI with the ideal skillset for the project.

After receiving the 4-VA@Mason approval for her proposal, Mack set out on a year-long discovery trail, with she and her team connecting at various points on Mason’s Fairfax campus and throughout the state.

(L to R) Jessica Mack, Laura Brannan Fretwell and Catalina Mayer on Mason’s campus

Mack and graduate research assistant and PhD candidate Laura Brannan Fretwell began archival research trips in Fall 2021 — to Old Dominion University, the University of Virginia, the Fairfax County Courthouse Historic Archives, and the Virginia Room at the Fairfax Public Library, as well as several visits to Mason’s own Special Collections and Research Center at Fenwick Library. “During these visits, we took digital photographs of large quantities of archival material about the founding and early construction of Mason and ODU,” Mack explains. “Vanessa Baez and Professor Matthew Rice of Mason’s Geography and Geoinformation Science Department assessed the aerial imagery that is available of Fairfax and Norfolk around the time these campuses were built, and we created a digital repository of documents, images, and maps.”

“The partnership with ODU has been generative and interesting,” says Mack. “We were able to meet with our 4-VA partner, Steve Bookman, in person last fall at ODU and learn quite a bit about ODU’s history.” Mack’s team held an ongoing series of Zoom meetings with Bookman throughout the year. “As a digital humanities enthusiast, I enjoyed bringing the history of ODU online as well as introducing archival research to my history student,” says Bookman.

The project team also included Greta Swain, another RRCHNM GRA and history PhD student, who created campus maps using a geographic information system during the fall semester.

Joseph Moore

During this time, Mack hired two undergraduate student researchers, Catalina Mayer and Joseph Moore, who worked on the project during both the fall and spring semesters. The project team spent the fall semester gathering archival material and processing and carefully labeling each item using Tropy (, a research photo management software developed at RRCHNM. Mack explains, “This was a great opportunity for the students to gain firsthand experience with archival research as well as valuable experience with software, database management, and metadata.” Mayer and Moore made several trips to Special Collections Research Center at Mason’s Fenwick Library to listen to oral history interviews of key Mason administrators and community members to identify audio clips to be used on the site.

The team spent the spring semester analyzing documents, selecting sources, and drafting narrative essays for the site. With the information collected and documentation researched, the team launched into the second phase of the project, which opens their research to the public via a lively and interactive website.

Jason Heppler, senior web developer at RRCHNM, built the website and designed an interface that presents narrative essays alongside dynamic, interactive campus maps. The maps are essential elements on the site as they provide visualizations of the campuses of George Mason University and Old Dominion University developed over time.

“Thanks to a 4-VA Collaborative Research Grant, we have learned more about the parallel histories of these two Virginia institutions and been able to teach students about archival research, digital methods, and writing for broader publics in the process,” says Mack. “Throughout this collaborative project, everyone involved learned new digital and archival skills, and I see that as the greatest success of the project.”

Grant Stories

Researching Polar Thermoelectrics: Mason, UVA, JMU Effort Nets Promising Results

Xiaoyan Tan

There’s a lot of energy in the field of energy these days.  One specific area that attracts much attention is in thermoelectric materials, which transforms heat into electricity or converts electricity into cooling technology for power generators or refrigeration. There’s also another appeal in thermoelectric materials — their ability to generate electricity from waste heat released by spacecraft, motor vehicles, and industrial plants — a positive checkmark in the environmentally friendly ‘green’ movement.  Drilling down this issue even further is the area of polar thermoelectrics. The reality in this field, is that fundamental mechanisms which govern the thermoelectric properties in this class of materials are not fully understood.

Gaining a greater awareness of polar thermoelectrics has long intrigued Xiaoyan Tan, Assistant Professor in Mason’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department. Tan’s research focus is the discovery of functional and multifunctional inorganic solid-state materials, ranging from intermetallics to oxides, with applications in technology and energy conversion.  Tan foresaw the benefits of using density functional theory (DFT) calculations to understand these polar thermoelectric materials better and predict novel polar thermoelectrics. She also saw possible options to expand her research in the field with two other 4-VA schools – UVA and JMU. Tan recognized these routes after reading several of Dr. Prasanna Balachandran’s (UVA) papers and meeting Dr. Masoud Kaveh-Baghbadorani (JMU) at the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program.

Prasanna Balachandran
Masoud Kaveh-Baghbadorani

Tan also saw a valuable opportunity for Mason students to learn DFT calculations from Balachandran and to learn how to characterize materials using the second harmonic generation technique from Kaveh-Baghbadorani, which were not available to Mason students.  Tan envisioned that a collaborative research grant from 4-VA@Mason and 4-VA Complementary Grants, available at UVA and JMU, could provide the opening to engage in the shared research.

With the grants awarded and in hand, Tan initialized her plan: Mason students would first synthesize thermoelectric materials, determine the crystal structure, and measure the low-temperature thermoelectric properties. The prepared samples would then be sent to JMU to measure the second harmonic generation properties. Faculty and students from UVA would undertake the majority of theoretical DFT calculations of electronic structure and thermoelectric properties, providing the theoretical understanding of the measured ultra-low thermal conductivity data. Based on knowledge learned from UVA, Mason students compare the experimental results with theoretical results. In addition to the collaboration with UVA and JMU, the team also collaborated with Prof. Susan Kauzlarich at UC-Davis, who assisted with high temperature thermoelectric properties.

With limited access due to pandemic shutdowns, Tan found it initially challenging to manage this research plan. However, the group made do and got to work. Mason PhD candidate Callista Skaggs (pictured in featured image with her poster) was responsible for synthesizing the pure compounds, the characterization of thermoelectric properties at low temperature, and data analysis of obtained results. “I met with the UVA team over Zoom to discuss the project,” says Skaggs. “Each meeting would increase our overall understanding of the compound, allowing each group to discuss what they were doing in data analysis. These meetings allowed the groups to have a better understanding of the project as a whole and to keep the project on track.”

Zachary Messegee

Mason PhD graduate student Zachary Messegee says that working on the project provided an invaluable education. “I learned new instrumentation techniques and got the understanding behind the measurements,” Messegee adds, “During the project, we tried a couple of novel techniques in our lab, and now these experiences and understandings can be replicated for future research activities and passed along to other new members of the group.”

Messegee further explains, “I was responsible for measuring the optical properties of the compounds that Callista prepared and performed data analysis and corresponding figures for publication.” Messegee also benefited from an additional perk on the project, students completing their degrees at Mason were able to attend the “Introduction to Materials Informatics” class taught by Balachandran at UVA. Students learned about machine learning and DFT calculations, which equally expanded knowledge and skills.

The collaboration was appreciated by both students and faculty. As Kaveh-Baghbadorani notes, “First and foremost, this project was a great collaboration with an enthusiastic researcher like Dr. Tan. I found the project an enthralling topic with great potential. In addition, through this project, an undergraduate researcher here at JMU found an opportunity to start learning about a cutting-edge topic.”

And the research has paid off.  Says Tan, “We have successfully identified two promising thermoelectric materials Ag2GeS3 and Ag10Ge3S11. A phase-pure polycrystalline Ag2GeS3 sample has been prepared, and the polar crystal structure and low thermoelectric has been confirmed.”  The results were enthusiastically received at the American Physical Society Spring 2022 meeting, the American Chemical Society (ACS) Spring 2021 meeting, and the North American Solid State Chemistry Conference (Summer 2021), where Skaggs won third place in the poster presentation. The results of this project have been published in a high impact ACS Journal, Chemistry of Materials (

Skagg’s Third Place Poster

“This was a great experience!” says Skaggs. “I was able to meet professionals in my field and discuss my research with them. They were able to give suggestions on different analysis techniques and characterization methods, that I was unfamiliar with, that could improve my understanding of the material.  Winning third place was a shock – it was gratifying to see that the research I and others had done was valued so highly.”

Balachandran’s take on the project echoed the benefits of the exchange of ideas, “Our group enjoyed the interactions with PI Prof. Tan’s group at GMU. I believe that we understood the strengths and weaknesses of our research capabilities better, which is crucial as we transition to writing collaborative grants. Without this funding, we would not have had a clear path to have generated sufficient preliminary data for a publication and demonstrate that our groups collaborate well.”

Kaveh-Baghbadorani concludes, “There might have been a day, hundreds to thousands of years ago, that scientists and philosophers would sit in a corner and write about their thoughts. That model is destined to fail these days. Great scientific discoveries happen through diverse collaborations. Collaboration with other schools is an inseparable part of conducting any kind of research, that leverages the strength of each partner university and improves efficiencies in higher education. We are thankful for 4-VA at JMU and GMU for promoting this partnership.”


Grant Stories

Applying AI in Complex Macromolecular Modeling: A Difficult Challenge Realizing Beneficial Gains

AI is a hot topic these days, with engineers and scientists looking to adapt artificial intelligence (AI) technology into a variety of chemical, physical and materials applications.  However, its use in predictions of kinetics and dynamics has not been studied as closely.  This subject came to the fore at Mason’s Center for Simulation and Modeling in the form of a question, “Is AI capable of identifying meaningful patterns in the temporal behavior of solvated macromolecules?”  This question is important because it is understood that chemical sciences combined with engineering the associated data will be critical for finding solutions for environmental pollution, healthcare, sustainable energy resources, and global warming.  Learning how these processes occur at the molecular, nanometer, and mesoscopic scales — inspected through computational simulation — and analyzing how associated big datasets can play a fundamental role in tackling complex systems could prove valuable. This question prompted Professors Olga Gkountouna (then in the Department of Computational and Data Sciences at Mason) and Estela Blaisten-Barojas, the Director of Center for Simulation and Modeling sought a 4-VA@Mason grant to look more closely into the possibility.

With the grant in hand, but with the pandemic in full sway, Gkountouna and Blaisten-Barojas devised how the work on this important research could be conducted within the restrictions of the shutdown.  They needed a bright, independent thinker who could be taught to take up this big question.  The solution was found when they tapped (at the time) doctoral student James Andrews (pictured above with Blaisten-Barojas on an earlier assignment) to do the difficult research.  Andrews had previously worked with Blaisten-Barojas on several projects leading to his doctoral dissertation, and both professors felt as though he would be up to the complex task.

Andrews dove into the project, exploring the ability of how three well established recurrent neural networks — ERNN, LSTM and GRU — could provide viable data models.  “Basically, James worked on forecasting how and if a group of macromolecules in a solution are going to keep together as a cluster or not,” explains Blaisten-Barojas.  “If we can analyze how the macromolecules are behaving, we can estimate a prediction of what will come in the future. It is an estimate of the future, similar to what is done with the weather.”

After much analysis, Andrews and the two PI’s concluded that the recurrent neural network architectures investigated generate data models which reproduce excellently the macromolecules fate in the solution in the short-term. In the long-term, the forecasts statistical distributions yielded time events with limited variability.  However, the team was able to discern the parameters of when supervised machine learning serves as a viable alternative for long all-atom computer simulations.

Blaisten-Barojas adds that another important outcome of the research was the energy savings – both human and computational.  “Predicting modeling saves hundreds of hours of computing time, which require a lot of energy. Indeed, the Office of Research Computing big computers would be crunching numbers and storing the many terabytes of space, for output that could be avoided. Having a reliable forecasting model predicting if it is worth continuing a simulation or if it is going to give results that are not expected is a highly desirable tool.  With some information on the simulation future, one can plan ahead, stop, make changes, go in a different direction, or eventually continue the simulation. In a nutshell, our new decision-making tool aids the simulation practitioner to assess when long simulations are worth continuing.”

While the analysis was tedious and difficult, Blaisten-Barojas reports that Andrews found an outlet to keep up with the hard work – by leaning on peers in his research group.  Andrews and three other doctoral students in the Computational Sciences and Informatics PhD program met virtually on Fridays during the pandemic to exchange their graduate research results, share comments, input, suggestions, and provide encouragement.  “These meetings maintained a supporting and cheerful platform during the uncertain pandemic times,” notes Blaisten-Barojas.

The PhD study group: (From top) Scott Hopkins, Greg Helmick, Yoseph Abere.

Andrews’ hard work paid off, with a paper published in Chemical Science, the prestigious journal published by the Royal Society of London: “J. Andrews, O. Gkountouna and E. Blaisten-Barojas, “Forecasting Molecular Dynamics Energetics of Polymers in Solution from Supervised Machine Learning.””   The work has also been disseminated in arXiv, a preprint repository maintained by Cornell University and Zenodo, a database repository of codes and data maintained by CERN.



Another jewel in the crown for Mason’s Center for Simulation and Modeling, with some help from 4-VA@Mason.


Grant Stories

Developing a Blood Test to Support Treatment of Surgically Induced Type I Diabetes

Starting Small.  Finishing Big.

Happenstance brought Dr. Robin Couch’s Lab and research into the 4-VA network.  Although he was aware of 4-VA@Mason’s Collaborative Research Grants, Couch hadn’t thought much about the program until he received a request from Dr. Mazhar Kanak of VCU.  Kanak approached the Couch Lab and the Mason Metabolomics Facility, asking if it was possible to identify biomarkers in blood serum which will determine a patient’s suitability for an islet cell auto transplantation, a procedure applicable to patients that suffer from chronic pancreatitis, requiring the removal of the pancreas. Couch concluded that the 4-VA program could offer an opportunity to answer VCU’s call.  Thus, he applied for, and subsequently received, a 4-VA@Mason grant.

Today, with his 4-VA project complete and yielding very promising results, Couch has emerged as an unabashedly enthusiastic cheerleader for the possibilities of collaborative research across the Commonwealth.  “Here in Virginia, we’re doing some very cutting-edge research, between UVA, Virginia Tech, JMU, VCU and all the other schools,” says Couch, “the state has really invested a lot of money at these institutions; but we’re all doing something a little bit different.  Therefore, it’s imperative that we support collaborations between the institutions to maximize our dollars so we’re not duplicating efforts.”

Couch, an Associate Professor in Mason’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department reflects on why he believed it was possible to develop a test to meet VCU’s needs.  Couch details the comprehensive testing done in the Mason Metabolomics Facility, noting, “Unlike most bloodwork — where you just are looking at a targeted analysis of say a single glucose test – in our lab, we can look at thousands of different features and do a comparison.”

Specifically, Kanak — whose position titles include Assistant Professor; VCU School of Medicine, Department of Surgery, Division of Transplant Surgery; and Director of the Pancreatic Islet Cell Transplant Lab – wanted some insight into predicting which patients would be good candidates for an islet cell auto transplantation. 

When the pancreas is removed, so is the body’s ability to produce insulin.  Through islet cell transplantation however, the body can generate insulin and avoid surgically induced Type I diabetes. Yet this procedure is only effective in 25-50 percent of patients who have a pancreatotomy. Kanak postured, could a blood test serve as a predictor of successful surgery? Couch thought it was possible. 

Challenges Ahead.

Islet cell auto transplantation is conducted during the surgery to remove the pancreas.  The patient’s specific pancreatic cells that normally produce insulin (Islet cells) are extracted, cleansed, and returned into the patient.  The islets then embed themselves onto the liver and resume their function releasing insulin.  Because the islets are the patient’s own, there is no auto rejection. 

Kanak carefully collected bloodwork from nine different pancreatotomy patients at various time points — before the patient underwent surgery, at several stages during the surgery, and then after the surgery – and sent them to Couch for analysis.

Then the pandemic hit.  The analysis Couch envisioned possible looked possibly impossible.  Labs were shut down.  Students were sent home. Faculty couldn’t conduct research.  The blood samples sat frozen in the lab.  For months and months. 

Then, when labs began to open back up, there were explicit restrictions on who could be in the lab and how many people could be in the lab.  Several students originally designated to work on the project moved on to other life choices with the long break.  Fortunately, Couch had a more than suitable fallback plan.  He was able to rely on Mason Metabolomics Facility Lab Co-Director Dr. Allyson Dailey, who stepped in to handle the research.  “I was able to run all the samples and then assisted with data analysis,” says Dailey.

Dr. Allyson Dailey in the lab

Sample processing is quicker than data analysis, notes Couch. So, when the lab got back to work following the shutdown, considerable time was spent doing an exhaustive analysis of what features in the bloodwork most correlated with surgical outcomes.  Dailey concluded that of the 2,500 features found, there were only six metabolites identified as predictors of outcome.  A big breakthrough for the team.

“Now we don’t need to look at 2,500 metabolites, we only need to look at six — and we can ignore all of the other ones,” Couch points out.  “Going forward, we can focus our study and our attention only on those six and it makes it much easier to process the data. Now, it won’t be so time consuming.”

With the important groundwork done, Couch believes they can take this research to the next level.  “This is a great pilot scale investigation,” says Couch.  Next stop?  Getting a grant application into the National Institutes of Health, to seek funding for a clinical study with hundreds of participants — ensuring the biomarkers are validated.

Importantly, Couch thinks there actually could be much more to the research.  He wonders, if it is possible to identify the successful candidates for islet cell auto transplantation; is there a future where this procedure could be valuable for all Type I diabetes patients?  “Is it feasible to engineer out the problems and then make it successful for everybody?” Couch asks. “Hopefully,” he answers.

Drs. Allyson Dailey and Robin Couch

Couch and Dailey reflect on the research and its outcome.  Concludes Couch, “None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for the 4-VA funds.  We would have never had access to those samples, and we would never have done the research if it wasn’t for this program that fosters that collaborative environment.  We’ll get further faster with this type of collaboration. It’s one thing to fund individual islands (schools) with equipment and personnel, but to make a bridge between the islands, it really makes a big difference.”

Grant Stories

Bringing Technology to Public Good

Mason and JMU “Engineers” Project for Hard-of-Hearing Community

When a proposal to fund a project entitled “Toward T-Shaped Graduates: A Joint Capstone Program at the Nexus of Mechanical Engineering and Science and Technology Policy” arrived at the 4-VA@Mason office, it was quickly apparent that it would check more than a few 4-VA boxes – creating an interdisciplinary, wholistic approach for education which utilizes technology for societal good.  As it turns out, the 4-VA Advisory Board agreed, and a grant for the research was extended.

This project asked students from James Madison University and Mason to consider how technology can be applied to solve challenges that include both technological and policy components.  Through trans-institutional partnerships, students were challenged to innovate outside of their disciplinary backgrounds by collaborating across programs.  They were guided by four faculty advisors from a range of fields — engineering, biotechnology, political science, and communications. As the lead PI Dr. Jeffrey Moran explains it, “T-shaped graduates are those that represent both a depth (the stem of the capital letter ‘T’) and breadth (top of ‘T’) of expertise.”

Moran sought to task students with the goal of addressing public needs; this often means tackling problems that straddle boundaries between disciplines. Moran noted that today’s environment calls for a new type of student and professional – an individual who is skilled in transcending disciplinary silos to address undertakings that do not fit into a single, specific category. 

Mason student and team lead Kyle Hall called the project assignment complex and challenging. “It was so broad and open, it was hard to know where to begin,” Hall says.  That, along with the shutdown brought on by the pandemic, the team (naming themselves ‘Level 6’ — see below) was prevented from meeting in person with the JMU students or with policymakers (as originally intended) to discuss the project.  Nevertheless, they forged ahead armed with research confirming that the deaf and hard-of-hearing community were often hampered by their disability when driving. 

Looking toward the future of autonomous vehicles (AV), the team settled on creating an alert system for an AV to support hard-of-hearing adults as they rode in an AV.

Their first assignment would be to learn more about the specific needs of the population. Fortunately, Hall notes, the JMU group had experience in theory and research reports and were able to provide the necessary foundation to begin project development. Additionally, because the JMU team also had experience in research involving human subjects, they were able to obtain permission from an institutional review board to start the study almost immediately.

Following the JMU start, the Mason team procured a golf cart to function as the prototype vehicle for the project, and they launched on a series of technological modifications to alert the ‘driver’ to activities around the vehicle.

First, the students created an alert system using a 360-degree microphone mounted in the cart.  The microphone, linked to a Raspberry Pi (a small onboard computer), reads sounds in the immediate area. Using machine learning approaches, the system detects 10 different sounds that signal the need for increased caution, including an ambulance, fire engine and police siren, honking horn, construction work, people yelling, children playing, and dogs barking. The process was sometimes time-consuming – as is typical for machine learning, the system had to be “trained” to recognize these sounds, sometimes taking up to 100 hours for the network to learn one sound. When one of the 10 noises is detected, a seat cushion outfitted with a haptic sensor vibrates to let the driver know that a hazard is nearby.  The driver is then prompted to read a tablet screen on the dashboard which identifies the noise.

One additional piece of instrumentation outfitted in the vehicle is a camera installed on the ceiling, which is pointed at the driver’s forehead and can read body temperature.  Although not solely relevant to deaf users, the team anticipated that body temperature checks will be widely considered the norm for ridesharing in the post-COVID-19 era.

This labor-intensive systems creation and testing was undertaken in a workshop located on the Science and Technology campus in Manassas, where the group met most Friday afternoons during the spring semester. There, Hall says, they each focused on specific elements of the technology, but worked together to ensure a seamless final product.  (In one positive outcome of the general switch to virtual learning due to the pandemic; a JMU student on the team, who was living at home in Northern Virginia taking online classes, was able to join the Mason team in person in Manassas.)    

“This project allowed the advisors and students to tackle complex, multifaceted problems for the public good while building a great relationship with our colleagues at James Madison, which will continue in the future,” says Moran.  “And the students far exceeded our expectations for finding creative solutions to difficult problems, especially during this complicated year and with such an open-ended project.”

Nathan M. Kathir, Associate Professor & Director of Senior Projects in the Department of Mechanical Engineering Projects agrees, “A primary objective of the mechanical engineering program’s senior design course, also known as the capstone program, is to enrich the educational experience of senior-level students with a real-world engineering experience.  Mason’s six students on the Team level-6 experienced much more than that.”  Kathir continues, “In the program’s five-year history, they were the first team to collaborate with those outside of Mason and they did that despite restrictions due to Covid-19 throughout the year.  In a T-shaped graduate manner, not only they used their technical expertise, but they also excelled on other areas such as collaboration, communication, partnering with external stakeholders, managing risks, and planning for unknowns.”

Hall and Moran foresee that this project could be the beginning of a true legacy project, augmented by students in the future, adding modifications for communities with vision or mobility issues.  “I can see that this project could continue to build great things,” notes Moran.

Meet the Level 6* Team

Although each member of the team focused on specific and separate modifications for the vehicle, it was a group effort to bring the total technology to fruition.

Josh Ogden — devised the technology for the camera.

Paul Cipparone — formulated the haptic cushion.

Jeorge del Carpio Arispe — focused on the touch screen.

Oliver Lopez — worked on CAD modeling.

Raizel Clemente — handled all communications, purchases for items and materials.

Kyle Hall — organized the project and insured deadlines were met and wrote all the reports.

*The Level 6 name is a nod to the ratings of AVs – as a Tesla is considered Level 3, highly autonomous cars are Level 5 — this team’s development of technical modifications is Level 6.

Grant Stories

Putting the History of Higher Education Under a Microscope

While the Council for the Advancement of Higher Education Programs (CAHEP) considers the history of higher education a required knowledge area, and it is often a core course in higher education programs nationally, Mason’s Kelly Schrum, PhD, recognized that the class is rarely taught by historians and often lacks a focus on the critical thinking, research, and digital literacy skills essential for success in the rapidly changing higher education workplace.

When Schrum, a historian and associate professor of higher education, discussed this disconnect with colleague Chase Catalano, PhD, at Virginia Tech (VT), they saw that within this challenge there was an interesting opportunity:  Create a history of higher education course at Mason and VT that is founded on historical thinking and research skills. Students could work collaboratively on digital research projects that draw on university archives locally and nationally.  Moreover, they could build on this work to create an open educational resource (OER) on the history of higher education.

Schrum developed a plan, and then turned to 4-VA@Mason to seek a Collaborate Research Grant for her project entitled, “Reimagining the History of Higher Education in the Digital Age.”  Subsequently, Schrum and Catalano received 4-VA funding to help get the project off the ground and, joined by Sophia Abbot, a doctoral student at Mason, they got to work. 

Abbot, who has previously been involved with faculty development and has studied student-faculty partnerships in teaching, plays several integral roles in the project. The first is determining the current teaching landscape in higher education.  To that end, Abbot and Mason sophomore, Kelly Tcheou, sent out surveys to instructors involved in teaching the history of higher education around the country to determine the specific subject areas included in their courses.

Along with Schrum and Catalano, Abbot implemented a new primary source learning activity for their courses this past fall. While Schrum and Catalano supported students in the selection of their research topics and their analysis of primary historical sources, Abbot helped students translate their research to the digital space as they developed online learning activities for their peers. Abbot shares the example of one student’s research which looked at the history and the language of the Pell Grant.  The student gained a deeper understanding of how the language used in the original legislation resulted in who was able to gain access to the grants over the years; and who was not.  “Their research is doing exactly what we’d hoped… students are empowered to take historical thinking into their work,” says Abbot. “When students create historical narratives — learning the context and history of the sources — they can look back at sources and understand the impact of the history of higher education on colleges and universities today.”

Additionally, Abbot introduces students to the opportunity to share their work on the primary source website the team is building. Here, Abbot acts as a liaison between the Mason and VT students and faculty.  “Because I am not in an evaluation role, I am able to make sure that students understand that sharing – or not sharing — their work is completely optional and will not affect their grade.  I’m there to communicate the importance of consent,” she notes. 

Assisting Abbot with the website is Carolyn Mason who graduated from Mason in December with BA in anthropology and plans to begin a PhD program in anthropology in the fall. Mason identifies primary sources related to higher education including a university’s founding, student life, academics, and campus culture and uploads them to the website. She is also collecting a list of university archives that house historical documents related to their institution.

At the conclusion of the history courses, Abbot returns to interview students on both campuses to determine their thoughts about the class and their decision regarding sharing their work on the website.  She has interviewed 12 students and collected 19 student projects from both campuses.

While the project is still in its infancy, it has already generated a lot of attention. The prototype website presents more than 100 primary sources. Over 60 history of higher education instructors have responded to the invitation to share their teaching practices. And the team has piloted their primary source learning activity in two different higher education graduate courses (Fall 2020) and recruited a third course to pilot the activity (Spring 2021).

“We were delighted to have the ability to enrich the study of higher education, offer our students the opportunity to develop asynchronous online learning activities, and promote collaboration across institutions,” explains Schrum.  “Already, we have had great results.”

Abbot, Schrum, and Catalano presented initial findings at the Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy in February.

“This project has been a wonderful exercise in collaboration and research,” concludes Schrum.  “In fact, it has caught the eye of our colleagues at several additional 4-VA schools who are interested in partnering with us on this in the future.  We are also looking at the development of a workshop on this for instructors in the history of higher education. There may be more to come!”