In This Issue
Frontiers of Engineering
December 1, 2008 Volume 38 Issue 4
Winter 2008 issue of The Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering

Highlights of the 2008 U.S. Frontiers of Engineering Symposium

Monday, December 1, 2008

Author: Julia Phillips

Editor's Note

Every year NAE sponsors a U.S. symposium on the Frontiers of Engineering (US FOE). For three days, about 100 outstanding young engineers (ages 30 to 45) from academia, industry, and government laboratories come together to share ideas and learn about cutting-edge research on a variety of engineering topics. These competitively selected emerging engineering leaders come from a wide range of backgrounds to share their interests and talents. The symposium offers them a unique opportunity to learn about the latest research in engineering areas other than their own and to share their work and ideas with researchers in other fields.

Six papers based on this year’s presentations are included in this issue of The Bridge (summaries of all of the papers delivered at the symposium will be published in February 2009 in the annual FOE volume). The four topics for the fourteenth US FOE Symposium, held on September 18–20, 2008, at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico, were: drug-delivery systems; emerging nanoelectronic devices; cognitive engineering; and understanding and countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The session on the revolution in drug delivery was chaired by William Grieco and Efrosini Kokkoli. The first speaker, Samir Mitragotri, outlined the challenges of delivering medicines to patients in a way that is both safe and likely to encourage their compliance. He highlighted recent advances in the development of painless, patient-friendly approaches to delivering macromolecular drugs that have historically been administered by injection. The second speaker, Jeffrey Hrkach focused on the development of particle-based drug delivery via encapsulation in a polymer matrix.

Daniel Pack turned his attention to the challenges of gene therapy. He described recent progress in the design of materials that could deliver genes more safely and effectively. Xiaohu Gao, the last speaker in the session, described the use of quantum dots to trace the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of drug candidates and to elucidate design principles for drug-carrier engineering.

The session on emerging nanoelectronic devices, chaired by Jia Chen and Victor Zhirnov, included presentations on how novel nanoscale materials and devices, circuit concepts, and sensor functionalities can be brought together to develop new technologies for information processing. Jeff Welser focused on the need for new technologies in response to the exponential increases in power density in semiconductor technology, which is negating the benefits of scaling to smaller devices. Nikolai Zhitenev’s talk was on using short molecules and macromolecules as active materials for a new generation of switching devices.

Ali Javey and collegues described an approach to printing inorganic materials, specifically crystalline semiconductor nanowires, for mass produced, inexpensive device and sensor integration. Mihrimah Ozkan concluded the session by outlining a tiered approach to nanomanufacturing molecular electronics that overcomes the challenges of charge-carrier transport across bio-inorganic interfaces, error-free repeatability of the synthesis of hybrid building blocks, and direct integration on Si platforms.

The third session, on cognitive engineering, was chaired by Barrett Caldwell and Kim Vicente. Cognitive engineering is a branch of study that analyzes and improves systems design and training to support cognitive and decision-making skills, particularly in applied, naturalistic settings. In the first presentation, Stephanie Guerlain provided something of a tutorial on cognitive engineering, which she described as a combination of the features of many different fields of study, some engineering and some not, for the purpose of understanding and designing effective, safe systems that include human operators “in the loop.” John Lee relayed some astonishing data about the percentage of automobile accidents caused by distraction and inattention. He then described how sensor, data fusion, and control technology could potentially improve driving safety by mitigating the effects of the devices most likely to distract drivers.

Ronald Boring outlined the three process phases (identification, modeling, and quantification) historically associated with human-reliability analysis, a tool used to design and train human operators in nuclear power plants and other high-consequence occupations. He argued that a fourth phase, error prevention, should be added to the methodology. Human-reliability analysis should be part of the design phase of a system, he said, rather than a retrospective analysis of a system that has already been designed. This would improve the efficiency of designing safe, effective systems. The final speaker in the session, Ann Bisantz described how cognitive engineering methods that can represent highly complex systems, such as health care, can facilitate an understanding and model strategies based on the experiences of practitioners to improve communication and collaboration in health care settings.

The session on understanding and countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction was chaired by Greg Hebner and Scott Goldstein. The first speaker, Steven Nixon, described the urgent need for significant adaptation in the U.S. national security posture to meet the challenges of globalization. Charles Beames then presented case studies of three industry leaders in innovation, Google, Apple, and IBM, which he used to determine common cultural characteristics that might be applicable to improving the nation’s ability to develop innovative countermeasures to the asymmetric technologies that are increasingly being used by our adversaries. Joseph Martz concluded the session by noting the critical importance of science and engineering to nuclear deterrence in the 21st century.

The technical talks were followed by extended, enthusiastic Q&A sessions. The program this year also featured 90-minute breakout sessions of groups of 10 to 15 individuals, each of whom described the most important advance he or she hoped to achieve in the next 10 years, as well as the most important advance someone else might make that would contribute to meeting that goal. Each group then explored the connections between ideas and identified linkages between their very different disciplines, technologies, and employment sectors. These highly interactive educational exchanges of information stimulate ideas for new avenues of exploration.

The dinner speaker this year was, for the first time, an alumnus of the FOE program. Dr. Alton D. Romig, executive vice president and deputy laboratories director for integrated technologies and systems, Sandia National Laboratories, spoke on energy policy, the role of technology in national security, and the intimate connection between policy and engineering.

This year’s symposium was supported by Sandia National Laboratories, University of New Mexico School of Engineering, The Grainger Foundation, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Department of Defense–DDR&E-Research, National Science Foundation, Microsoft Research, Sun Microsystems, IBM, Intel, Alcatel-Lucent/Bell Laboratories, Corning Inc., Cummins Inc., and NAE member John A. Armstrong.

FOE symposia are interdisciplinary, diverse, and stimulating gatherings for everyone who attends. I hope the six papers in this issue convey a sense of the excitement we experienced in Albuquerque in September.