Thursday, July 7, 2016

Revealing the hidden world

For electrical and computer engineering professor Lisa Zurk, electromagnetic radiation and sound waves are underdeveloped tools for revealing new, safe and practical solutions. From measuring noise effects of a new interstate bridge on Columbia River salmon, to detecting improvised explosives hidden inside packages, Zurk's research teams and facilities give shape to the undersea and the unseen.
When Lisa Zurk, Maseeh Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, came to PSU in 2005, her expertise instantly positioned the University as an epicenter for underwater acoustic measurement. She founded the Northwest Electromagnetics and Acoustics Research Laboratory (NEAR-Lab), lined up $2.5 million in funding for experimental equipment, and attracted other faculty to cement the program's leadership status.
Led with co-director Martin Siderius, the NEAR-Lab has attracted research funding from sources such as the U.S. Office of Naval Research and partners with universities and organizations internationally. Half a dozen times a year, students and faculty go to sea to conduct experiments using a "Seaglider," an autonomous underwater vehicle that makes oceanographic measurements.
Zurk is breaking new ground with the NEAR-Lab's other driving mission, to develop theories and techniques to measure the terahertz frequency in the electromagnetic spectrum. Terahertz is a relatively narrow and unexplored part of the spectrum. Radiation at that frequency can reveal weapons hidden inside clothing or packaging, or to scan for dangerous chemicals or explosives. Being able to look at the unique terahertz frequency could have far-reaching ramifications for industries from solar panel companies to health care, pharmaceuticals and even national security.
Her work, which has generated $5 million in research funding over the few years, also earned her the Presidential CAREER Award, the highest honor given to early-career scientists in the United States.
The lab also reflects Zurk's dedication to education and research. Made up of 20 faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, the lab also runs a popular summer program for area high school students. Zurk, who grew up in Boston and spent 10 years at MIT, hopes the future of innovative work at PSU continues on this trajectory. “The path we’re on is exactly where I hope we continue to be,” she says.

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