Five Biomedical Engineering Faculty Members Have Won Prestigious CAREER/MIRA Awards for Excellence in Research
Additional awards this year mark a new level for achievement and innovation in the Department of Biomedical Engineering
Each year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) honor a select group of young investigators with the CAREER award or Maximizing Investigators Research Award (MIRA), respectively, given for groundbreaking research among the nation’s top science innovators and future leaders. In the past three years, five Stevens’ biomedical engineering professors have won, underscoring the excellency of the department, the quality of faculty the department attracts and their top-tier research.
“In our field, receiving either NSF and NIH [awards] as an early investigator is a big deal,” said Jennifer Kang-Mieler, department chair and professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering and Science. "The awards recognize these young investigators’ research effort and the potential impact of their work. These awards serve as not only an infusion of support to their current research, but also as a launchpad for additional funding and exposure."
Per the NSF official website, CAREER winners must meet three main criteria: performance of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology; community service demonstrated by outreach; and a commitment to STEM equity, diversity, accessibility and inclusion. Along with this, the NIH offers the MIRA, a five-year grant with a “goal to target medical health issues and how we can develop technologies or research disease focused to move the field and translate the research to a clinical setting.” Since 2021, five faculty in Stevens’ Department of Biomedical Engineering in the School of Engineering and Science have been named NIH and NSF awardees: Assistant Professors Raviraj Nataraj, Jinho Kim, Yu Gan and Antonia Zaferiou received NSF CAREER awards; while Assistant Professor Shang Wang was honored with the NIH MIRA.
“It’s very exciting and impressive,” said Kang-Mieler. “Usually you get only one every few years. We have five professors receiving these early career awards; the percentage is mind-boggling. I am very proud of my faculty — they are talented, dedicated, innovative, and their research areas are so cutting-edge that I think we will move forward in our understanding of disease processes as well as health.”
Gan received his award for his work using artificial intelligence (AI) to detect and treat heart disease. “My research employs AI technology to map images in order to predict disease regions in the body, specifically the heart. We use a special camera, namely optical coherence tomography, to take images of a human blood vessel, and AI can then scan those images to detect regions of blocked arteries and other abnormalities.
“I have been studying the heart and its pathologies for over ten years. It is the number one cause of death for humans, and now we are working closely with cardiologists and pathologists, improving our software to progress the efficacy of diagnosis and treatment of all cardiac disease.”
Wang and his team are developing optical imaging techniques to study biological development. He is applying his background in biomedical engineering and developmental biology to try to reveal the dynamic processes of heart and brain development. “Developmental biology is related to each one of us as we all come from a single cell able to divide into a multi-billion cell system that has diverse structures, morphologies and functions. We are building new imaging methods to reveal critical processes during the development and to enable the study of fundamental questions in developmental biology.”
Stevens spotlighted Kim earlier this year about his work in repairing damaged lung tissue, including that of donor lungs. “In his CAREER grant application, Kim, who has been studying lung tissue mechanics since he began his postdoctoral training at Columbia University in 2013, proposed a comprehensive research plan to study how mechanical ventilation can affect the lung deformation mechanics, and how the lung tissue damage can be diagnosed, repaired, and prevented using bioengineering techniques.”
Zaferiou's CAREER award was highlighted by Stevens in 2020. Her research group studies human agility and stability, especially during real-world turning maneuvers. To improve movement mechanics, her group develops biofeedback that uses musical sounds to guide movement training — “which may leverage the direct connections in the brain between hearing sounds and controlling movement and other psychosocial factors like increased engagement and enjoyment during training,” explained Zaferiou. In her CAREER grant, her team is uncovering how young and older adults control their balance during turns relative to person-specific factors and evaluating how musical biofeedback can train older adults to use balance strategies during turns. This important research is driven towards improving and preserving mobility across the lifespan. Her lab website includes more details about this project, other projects in her lab, as well as science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) community engagement educational activities.
As for Nataraj, his lab is dedicated to helping patients recover their motor (movement) function through rehabilitative training after injury to the brain or spinal cord. The distinguishing element of his research is the novel application of customizable virtual reality (VR) programs whose inputs and environments he and his team constantly tweak based on biofeedback and recorded data to ensure that people are not only improving, but improving much faster.
“We proposed to develop this virtual reality environment where we are monitoring in real-time all these physiological states that are predictive of better performance, and then adapting the VR environments in terms of difficulty and which sensory cues the patient receives in order to make sure they are in a physiological state that is primed for better performance. So, practice session after practice session, you can personalize the conditions to accelerate improvement in your performance compared to when you are not adapting accordingly,” said Nataraj.
For Nataraj, this isn’t just about demonstrating performance; it’s also about restoring a sense of capability and autonomy in people undergoing rehabilitation. Nataraj chose to focus on neurological injuries because it is one of the most devastating and challenging conditions to treat with a bleak outcome of reversing the damage to the nervous system or recovering full function. Many of the people recruited for his studies have lost a large measure of their independent capabilities by the time they get to the lab, and so a large part of his research focuses on empowering participants to take healing into their own hands, both literally and emotionally. He has become more interdisciplinary as his tests revealed clear psychological and physiological components at work.
The CAREER award is a milestone achievement for any researcher and reflects confidence in their ability to achieve great impact in years to come. For Gan, this award advances him and his team one step closer to the real world: “We are not just doing engineering in the lab — we are working with hospitals and clinicians, cardiologists who treat heart disease every day. Our ultimate goal is to bring forward a software package with truly significant applications in daily life.”
As for what it was like to receive the CAREER award? “I’m super excited!” Gan said with a laugh. “It is a great source of support, and means a lot for our research lab. The CAREER award means a lot for junior faculty members — it recognizes that what I’ve been doing so far is on the right track as well as recognizes our work as part of the larger community. It makes me feel like what I plan for the long-term goal, using AI technology to benefit human health, is meaningful. This award says that you have the potential to lead your lab to a greater success.”