From protecting us from dangerous infections to redefining the future of artificial intelligence to advancing the use of natural gas to bring economic benefit to the state, the depth and breadth of West Virginia University’s research and its potential to improve the lives of the citizens of the state is being recognized.
WVU research is being bolstered by $3.9 million in Research Challenge Grants from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission to build additional research strength and work toward commercial products over a five-year period. The grants were administered by the Commission’s Division of Science and Research.
John Hu, Statler Chair in Engineering for Natural Gas Utilization; Heath Damron, an assistant professor with the WVU School of Medicine; and Nasser Nasrabadi, professor in the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, were awarded the grants by the West Virginia Science and Research Council this fall to help them successfully compete for external funding on a national basis by providing incentives to increase capacity.
Supporting West Virginia’s energy future
The WVU Center for Innovation in Gas Research and Utilization, or CIGRU, which is led by Hu, will pursue the advancement of science and engineering for localized gas utilization.
For this project, CIGRU will partner with Marshall University; the Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research, and Innovation Center; the West Virginia Chemical Alliance Zone; the WVU Energy Institute; the WVU Bureau for Business and Economic Research and the National Energy Technology Laboratory to promote local, downstream utilization of natural gas in West Virginia’s residential, commercial and industrial sectors.
The Research Challenge Grant will be used to make advancements around localized gas utilization in West Virginia, building on current WVU research.
West Virginia has abundant natural gas resources, but those resources can often be stranded both physically and economically. The geographic terrain of the state makes it difficult to build pipelines to extract the resource and process it at a centralized location. This lack of infrastructure affects access and price.
In order to convert the natural gas resources into sustainable economic and industrial development in the state, WVU researchers are remaking manufacturing methods and developing advanced technologies such as modular production that are flexible, inexpensive and increase efficiency.
Advancing science and engineering shale gas utilization will help reestablish West Virginia’s chemical manufacturing industry, incentivize equipment manufacturing and distribution in the state and create a more attractive business environment in the state.
“This new funding will help us develop a cost-effective, modular catalytic natural gas-to-chemical process utilizing microwave excitation at low temperatures and pressures,” said Hu, the project’s principal investigator. “This will include both developing technologies for the conversion of wellhead natural gas to chemicals and an advanced combustion engine technology that targets transportation and distributed power generation.”
In addition, Joshua Fershee, associate dean for research at WVU’s College of Law and co-investigator on the project, says that we can learn from the state’s coal history by working establishing the appropriate economic, legal and regulatory framework that will help sustain the benefits of natural gas utilization to the state.
Supporting the state’s health future
To combat the spread of infectious diseases, Heath Damron, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Cell Biology, along with a team of researchers have established the WVU Vaccine Development Center to leverage resources, support research projects, facilitate training for the next generation of scientists and physicians and foster industry partnerships.
With the Research Challenge Grant, the center aims to accumulate external funding to support more projects over time. That funding could take the form of larger federal grants, investments by vaccine manufacturers and the licensing of intellectual property.
Recently, the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR, awarded $1.3 million over five years to WVU’s effort.
West Virginia Science and Research, a division of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, directs the EPSCoR program in West Virginia, while also managing state-funded academic research programs, including the Research Challenge Fund.
The grant will initially fund research into fine-tuning how the immune system responds to the TB vaccine, updating the whooping-cough vaccine to better target new strains of the bacteria and developing an effective vaccine against a hard-to-treat form of pneumonia that cystic-fibrosis patients fend off.
Later, the grant will support “one-year projects at a smaller scale for any investigator at West Virginia University who wants to study vaccines,” said Damron. “We want to engage people within the Health Sciences Center and beyond. Additionally, we’ll have graduate-student-level funding, so graduate students will be allowed to write original projects related to vaccines.” The grant will also support development of a new course of vaccinology in the Immunology and Medical Microbiology undergraduate bachelors of science degree program.
In addition, the center will serve as a conduit for University and industry researchers to share information.
Damron and his School of Medicine colleagues—including assistant professor Mariette Barbier and associate professor Cory Robinson—will be working closely with the WVU Health Sciences Innovation Center to reap the greatest benefits from the licensures and industry partnerships that work at the center generates.
Supporting the state’s technology future
The explosion of data and the rise of artificial intelligence, the world is on the cusp of another huge leap forward in technological advancement. Such a massive change in the capabilities of the machines we use in addition to the information that we are able to gather means a seismic shift in how those systems are designed and used.
To address the needs of this fast-growing and in-demand field, WVU is creating the Center for Cognitive Computing, which will be a multidisciplinary research center for excellence.
The center will use advanced learning techniques to conduct fundamental and applied research in data science as well as exploit big data to address issues related to national security, border control, biometrics, cognitive automation, cybersecurity, banking, finance, education, healthcare, retail and commercial applications.
“Our basic research will develop new computer architectures and new methods of training, and our applied research will develop current and novel applications — future innovations that haven’t even been thought of yet,” says Nasrabadi.
WVU researchers are working to achieve human-like performance in machines, which requires layers and layers of complex sensory inputs very similar to the human brain, which is able to adapt and learn.
In addition to creating these new deep neural nets or deep learning techniques, researchers will develop new algorithms to train computers to become more intelligent and autonomously learn to perceive the world based on abstract information.
Machine learning, which is a discipline of cognitive computing, computers learn concepts and patterns from data, and then are able to perform certain tasks.
For example, scientists and engineers may provide data such as pictures of faces that are labeled for automatic face detection. After receiving that data through training, the computer will be asked to classify a new face that it has never seen very quickly and with high accuracy.
“These neural nets will be able to mimic things that humans are good at, such as recognizing people and things,” says Nasrabadi. “But in addition to that, computers will be able to use that information to do things that humans are not good at, such as computing large amounts of data.”
Next-generation cognitive systems based on these deep learning tools will work side-by-side with humans, accelerating our ability to create, learn, make decisions and think.
The Research Challenge Grant will be used to develop deep learning systems, uncover hidden patterns and relationships in identification data, use machine learning to improve cybersecurity, study social networks to empower rural communities, and develop autonomous vehicles.
In addition to Nasrabadi, Xin Li, Saiph Savage and YanFang (Fanny) Ye, from the computer science and electrical engineering department; Yu Gu, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; and Erin Winstanley, associate professor of pharmacy, will be collaborating on this research.